By Tyler Carter
Close your eyes and listen to Billie Holiday sing ‘Strange Fruit.’ Really listen.
Holiday’s accentuation of “fruit” and “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” paints vivid imagery in the mind and places you at the center of an event our ancestors are far too familiar with.
Ever since America was “discovered” by pillager and slave trafficker Christopher Columbus — nevermind the indigenous people who inhabited this land for centuries — lynchings have been as American as Apple Pie. Buildings and monuments around the country still celebrate the false myth of Columbus’ discovery while the lives stolen by the brutal racism and classism of slavery and Jim Crow are rarely recognized.
Being a Black man from Mississippi, I am keenly aware of the history of the state in which I was born. I am smart enough to know and remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only signed 57 years ago. James Craig Anderson was lynched in Jackson, Miss., my hometown, in 2011. This isn’t just a historical problem. It continues to this day.
When Black folks are lynched, justice can seem as fleeting as the swinging bodies Holiday referenced in Strange Fruit. Still, it is important to know the history and names of those whose bodies were deemed disposable because of the hue of their skin and to make sure their side of the story is told.
Dallas has decided to take a step forward in acknowledging the ills of the past. On Nov. 20, a ceremony was held to commemorate the placing of a historical marker at the corner of Akard and Main streets. The marker tells the story of the the lynching of 59-year-old Allen Brooks.
On Mar. 3, 1910, Brooks was thrown headfirst from a second-story courthouse window, beaten and dragged half a mile before his lifeless body was strung from a telephone pole after he was accused of attempted sexual assault of a white child. He never got his day in court to defend himself, a tragedy that is still quite common today. And even when Black and Brown people might make it to court, we are often perceived to be guilty in the court of public opinion.
So what does this marker mean more than 100 years later?
Ed Gray, President of the Dallas County Justice Initiative and a longtime civil rights leader and radio personality who has been a vital part of the movement in Dallas since the 1970s, says that it is a historical step in activism, but knows there is more work to be done. The marker itself is a result of the efforts led by Gray, who years ago undertook a project with a group of colleagues that aimed to identify “landmarks with human rights significance” to expose “sites where human rights have been upheld or violated.”
“Every night, the sun goes down and every morning, the sun goes up. A baby might believe it is a brand new world — but we know this is just the continuation and the repetition of the world that occurred before,” Gray said in an interview with DW. To Gray, the historical marker serves as a reminder of that continuation and as a warning to not repeat what has occurred in the past.
Gray wants to see markers placed at other locations in Texas, not just Dallas. While it might seem redundant to some for markers to be placed at every location where a Black person was violently lynched, Gray believes it is necessary, and that we must also consider other forms of lynching that still goes on to this day.
“There are two types of lynching — violent and nonviolent,” Gray said. “Nonviolent is when you don’t have clean water to drink or clean air to breathe — these are the types of modern day lynching we must address,” Gray said, noting that the markers tell the painful truth of the past but do not amend for it.“The historical part is that marker, the activism is where do we go from here.”
Indeed, Dallas has a remarkably painful past when it comes to racism and oppression. In my conversation with Gray, I learned Dallas had the largest Klu Klux Klan membership in the country, followed by Fort Worth.
To better understand this past, I spoke with Dr. Michael Phillips, author of the book White Metropolis. White Metropolis confronts Dallas’s racial and religious past and uncovers a complicated history of resistance, collaboration, and assimilation. It describes the racial dynamics between the city’s African American, Mexican American, and Jewish communities, and how they related to each other and the wealthy White elites that have long called the shots.
Phillips informed me that Texas was one of the top three states known to consistently lynch Black and Brown people from 1880 to 1930. He also told the story of the first woman to be “legally” lynched in Texas, a Black woman named Jane Elkins who killed her enslaver with an axe. Elkins was hired to assist Andrew C. Williams and perform labor around the house and look after his two small children. While it is unknown as to why Elkins killed Williams, Phillips attributes Williams’ death to sexual assault of Elkins.
On Tuesday, May 10, 1853 the Dallas County Grand Jury indicted Jane for murder. The case was assigned to Judge John H. Reagan, 9th District Court, in Dallas County. The thirty-six jurors for the case were all White, Southern men. The verdict of guilty was issued on Monday, May 16, 1853.
Elkins was hanged outside the Dallas courthouse on May 27,1853.
Although he is White, Phillips said that a combination of history and his own experiences inspired him to write White Metropolis. “I grew up frequently hearing the N-word attending North Garland High School,” Phillips said. “And when we would play South Garland, they flew the Confederate battle flag and I knew the heavy racism I was surrounded by couldn’t be authentic.”
Both Gray and Phillips are adamant that we should seek to replace lies with the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to confront the past. They argue that revisionist history will not make the country move forward. They want Confederate monuments that glorify the traitorous slave state removed and replaced with lynching markers.
“I think with the Dallas County Justice Initiative, we should continue to get these markers put up because this whole project taking down the Confederate monuments and putting up these lynching markers really has caused Dallas to have one of its first honest discussions of its past,” Phillips said.
Jerry Hawkins, the Executive Director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation — an organization that aims to create a radically-inclusive city by addressing race and racism through narrative change, relationship building and equitable policies and practices — called the marker transformative.
“It means a lot — it’s a huge thing,” Hawkins said. “First of all, it is the first marker in the history of Dallas County that recognizes racist terrorist violence against Black people. It’s the first marker in Dallas County to ever do that. It’s really important.”
Clearly, work is being done in Dallas and by activists who are committed to ensuring the future is bright for the Black and Brown people who inhabit this place. But there is still more to be done. For Gray, the recognition of the past is only one half of the equation, which includes actually making material amends for decades of violence and oppression.
“The historical part is that marker,” Gray said. “The real activism is where we go from here.”