The Site of Dallas’ Original Black High School, Erased from History, will now Become a Taxpayer-Subsidized Kroger

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14 mins read

By Amber Sims

When I visited Marilyn Clark, the now retired but former education and outreach coordinator at the South Dallas Cultural Center, she handed me a tiny children’s book.

Titled “The Freedman’s Memorial: A Memorial, a Legacy,” the book originally was intended to be circulated to Dallas ISD students to teach them the history of Dallas’ largest Freedman’s Town. It was rediscovered when the expansion project for Central Expressway led to a startling discovery — the freeway was built atop the final resting place for hundreds of Black community members.

Their community, destroyed nearly 40 years before, was hidden no more. With the work of tireless community members such as Mamie McKnight, Julia Jordan and many others, the site was adorned with a historic marker as well as a memorial to those whose remains had been disturbed.

It’s not certain, however, that the children’s book ever made it to Dallas ISD classrooms.

In the attempts to never again forget, exactly that might have happened.

The book opens with a dazzling, colorful picture map on the inside cover meant to recreate Freedman’s Town, a vibrant community that ran along the Central Railroad, before it was replaced by Central Expressway. The map depicts a community so large it nearly runs off the page. It is estimated the community covered nearly 276 acres of land located in what is now some of Dallas’s priciest neighborhoods. Most people know it today as Uptown.

Also known as Short North Dallas or the State and Allen community, the Freedman’s Town was a “self sufficient” Black community that housed the families of Dallas’ recently freed enslaved people. They worked diligently to build their lives and create a community they could be proud of, despite the cruel racism and discrimination that lurked around them.

A writer in the WPA Dallas Guide and History proclaims, “Here as in other large American cities the Negro sections grew up through the natural tendency of these people to live among their kind.”[1]

That rhetoric proves false. Records indicate that as early as November 1865, the City of Dallas had enacted vagrancy laws that severely limited the movement of Black people throughout the city. So the creation of a Black community was as much a method of survival as it was convenient because of legal segregation, both written and unwritten in state and city charters.  At the time the guide was written in 1940, the city of Dallas had already, in 1916, “passed a law providing for segregation in residential areas, thereby setting off a chain of events which culminated in a state law giving cities the power to establish residential segregation ordinances.”[2]

Seeing the community represented so fully on the pages makes it hard to believe that only a few coveted historical structures remain, such as the storied Booker T. Washington High School, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Pythian Temple and Moorland YMCA building, which became the Dallas Black Dance Theater after the Moorland branch relocated to Oak Cliff.

Little of what was drawn on the east side of the railroad, now Central Expressway, remains. The small shotgun houses, businesses and sanatoriums (what we today call sanitariums) are gone, and so is the school listed on the map as BF Darrell School, near the tracks at the intersection of Hall and Flora Street.

Today there is no indication that the school ever existed there, or any trace of the homes of the children that would have faithfully attended the school. What happened to BF Darrell and when did it disappear?

Well, it didn’t completely disappear, because before becoming Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, the Oak Cliff magnet school had been named for Benjamin Franklin Darrell. Darrell came to Dallas in 1899 as one of the first Black educators in Dallas ISD to teach at Colored School No. 1, which later became the Wright Cuney School before becoming Frederick Douglas School.[3] It’s worth noting Colored School No. 1[4] was not located in this area and instead near what is now known as the Cedars. Darrell himself lived not far from the school, at______.

Today, a drive-through Starbucks with a small sitting area sits on North Hall Street just off Central Expressway, with the line of cars normally crowding into the road. Just south of that Starbucks, along Hall and across the street from one of the many ubiquitous apartment complexes that crowd the area now known as Uptown, there’s an empty unmarked lot. As recent as 2020 the lot that BF Darrell once occupied, has been slated to become a Kroger grocery store. The grocery chain purchased the lot in 2015 from an apartment company that had originally purchased the land from the Dallas Housing Authority.

Being able to stand on the empty lot of BF Darrell, one is able to sink in truly the size and scope of the neighborhood and what was lost. Students would have attended school at the site of Hall and Cochran from ___ until ____, long before Booker T. Washington was built. Even after the new high school’s opening, BF Darrell still served to educate younger Dallas Black students until its closure in 1969.

Though the nearby Roseland community and its historically Black church now appear to be out of place in a part of town dotted with dense apartments and new chic townhomes, longtime residents here know better. There was a time when small shack homes dotted the plots of land, children walked to and from schools, to Griggs Park, to local movie houses and to the Paul Lawrence Dunbar. All of it was leveled to make room for “progress” and development that would reshape the community forever.

I remember corner stores, now demolished, that served customers who lived in the small shacks. I remember the pride that swelled every anniversary year celebrated at our church — heralded as one of the oldest churches in the city — and a story my mom would tell of where the church used to be before we moved to the shiny new red brick building that was the only one I knew. The church was a pillar of the community, but growing up, it was hard for me to imagine the empty lots being anything else but empty.

Yet Ms. Clark’s small book, a tangible token of Black resistance and commitment to storytelling — a piece of evidence that we existed — made real the richness of what was once known as Freedman’s Town. A precious memento to ensure members of the community didn’t forget and, when ready, those like myself would be able to again unearth stories about the thriving Black community that preceded Uptown. The thriving Black community bulldozed in the name of progress, highways, and high-priced townhomes — and in the center of that once Black community, a school.

In some regards, I find comfort that the grocery store was not built, although I know Dallas well enough to surmise that something else eventually will fill that lot. In my search to learn more about B.F. Darrell, I spoke with gracious community elders who shared wisdom and resources and told me to “keep going.” I spent time at the African American Museum with Dr. Marvin Dulaney before the pandemic erupted our normalcy and my archival digging (though now I’m ready to return to it). I connected to members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority beaming with pride to share the story of Fredrica Chase Dodd, and one of the women sent me a copy of the book the Dallas chapter published to tell Ms. Dodd’s story and, by extension, the stories of many other Dallas greats such as Fredrica’s mother, Fannie C. Harris, and the first Black female principal in Dallas ISD, Julia Caldwell Frazier.

All three of these extraordinary women taught at BF Darrell. In fact many other Dallas ISD legends whose names now grace our school buildings, such as J.W. Ray, Leslie Patton Jr., N.W. Harlee and countless others, also taught and led at B.F. Darrell.

This land is hallowed ground in Black Dallas education and in Dallas ISD’s educational history. That’s why seeing it empty, with no historical marker, no way to proclaim its importance, feels unresolved. It’s the reason why I didn’t know that just feet away from my church and less than a mile from my current home once sat Colored School No. ??. Before being renamed BF Darrell for the late educator in 1922, it was labeled simply “the Colored High school,” meaning it preceded Booker T. Washington High School, which opened in 1923.

When trying to find archives on the school and its history, I came across a story from the Dallas Morning News’ first Black female columnist, Julia Scott Reed, who realized the significance of the school’s closing in 1969. Then-superintendent Nolan Estes closed the school citing “failing ceilings, out-of-doors rest-room facilities, crowded classrooms and the lack of parking space.” The edifice of the former storied school transitioned into a space for nonprofits before being completely demolished in 1971 (1973).

“B.F. Darrell is a landmark in Dallas,” Reed Scott’s column proclaimed, shortly before the building was demolished.

Now, driving by the lot, and seeing the multitude of people waiting daily for their coffee, I marvel at what a shame it is that they don’t know how close they sit to our city’s history — and what that says about our city’s history.

How do you visualize a history that has been so intently erased.

This piece is part of a project to explore, chronicle and reclaim the history of Dallas’ Black schools. It’s reported through a partnership of Dallas Free Press and the Imagining Freedom Institute, with support from Press On’s Southern Movement Media Fund. For more information, email info@dallasfreepress.com or info@theifinstitute.com.

Recently city council approved the building of new residences (with some affordable housing) and

[1] (WPA, 291)

[2] jim crow’s emergence in texas bruce a. glasrud

[3] Daniel J. Nabors, “Darrell, Benjamin Franklin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/darrell-benjamin-franklin.

[4]  Records indicate the first private Black schools to have been started at New Bethel Church and land created its first Negro schools. and what the creation of the city’s first schools intended to educate the formerly enslaved and their progeny, would tell us about our city.

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