From the nineteenth century until today, the power brokers of Dallas have always portrayed their city as a progressive, pro-business, racially harmonious community that has avoided the racial, ethnic, and class strife that roiled other Southern cities. But does this image of Dallas match the historical reality? In this book, Michael Phillips delves deeply into Dallas's racial and religious past and uncovers a complicated history of resistance, collaboration, and assimilation between the city's African American, Mexican American, and Jewish communities and its white power elite.
Exploring more than 150 years of Dallas history, Phillips reveals how white business leaders created both a white racial identity and a Southwestern regional identity that excluded African Americans from power and required Mexican Americans and Jews to adopt Anglo-Saxon norms to achieve what limited positions of power they held. He also demonstrates how the concept of whiteness kept these groups from allying with each other, and with working- and middle-class whites, to build a greater power base and end elite control of the city. Comparing the Dallas racial experience with that of Houston and Atlanta, Phillips identifies how Dallas fits into regional patterns of race relations and illuminates the unique forces that have kept its racial history hidden until the publication of this book.
Prologue: Through a Glass Darkly: Memory, Race, and Region in Dallas, Texas
1. The Music of Cracking Necks: Dallas Civilization and Its Discontents
2. True to Dixie and to Moses: Yankees, White Trash, Jews, and the Lost Cause
3. The Great White Plague: Whiteness, Culture, and the Unmaking of the Dallas Working Class
4. Consequences of Powerlessness: Whiteness as Class Politics
5. Water Force: Resisting White Supremacy under Jim Crow
6. White Like Me: Mexican Americans, Jews, and the Elusive Politics of Identity
7. A Blight and a Sin: Segregation, the Kennedy Assassination, and the Wreckage of Whiteness
Toward the end of her life, Lizzie Atkins looked back on the days since Texas Emancipation and, despite the abolition of slavery, believed that the African American community had degenerated. The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s sent a host of interviewers across the South to collect anecdotes from former slaves. Interviewed at her home in Madisonville, Texas, 144 miles southeast of Dallas, Atkins insisted that something bad had happened to black Texans since the end of the Civil War. Blacks grew lazy, becoming liars and thieves, Atkins said, because "they are mixing with the white people too much, so many half-breeds, and this shows they are going backwards instead of forwards."
Atkins, who grew up as a slave in Washington County, about 204 miles southeast of Dallas, believed that before the Civil War a solid color line existed between black and white. On one side, blackness equaled dignity, honesty, and thrift. On the other, whiteness meant degeneracy. Atkins could not hide her contempt for white people or their culture. In spite of the inequality it generated, Texas' color line allowed a separate black society to develop in which African Americans judged the world and their peers on their own terms. Seven decades after slavery, Atkins saw this separation as natural and miscegenation violated this fundamental order.
Atkins' comments reflect one basic truth. Much of East and North Central Texas before the Civil War had a simpler black-white racial structure. As this chapter will argue, soon after Anglo Texas' separation from Mexico in the 1835-1836 revolution, white elites created a society rooted in the absolute legal separation of the white and black worlds. In order to prevent the development of a mulatto population that might inherit the political and economic wealth of the racial ruling class, white leaders promulgated harsh legal penalties in the 1840s and 1850s attached to blackness. Blacks faced slavery, the death penalty for many crimes punished less severely for whites, and laws defining the offspring of mixed-race parents as enslaved bastards ineligible for inheritance. Whiteness was defined simply as the absence of blackness, Indian blood, or other racial "pollution," although many who were socially accepted as white had been polluted in this manner. Elites hoped that the social superiority all whites ostensibly enjoyed over blacks ameliorated disparities of power and wealth within the white community.
To the dismay of elites, however, frequently severe weather and a cash-strapped economy made life insecure for the non-slaveholding majority. In Dallas, divisions developed along economic and regional lines, leading to outbursts of violence that disturbed elite confidence and security. When a fire destroyed downtown Dallas in 1860, elite suspicions settled on white abolitionists born outside the South. The violence of 1860 created the terrain on which postwar racial ideology developed. Elites labeled those opposed to their notions of race and class hierarchy as uncivilized and therefore not fully white. After Reconstruction, the city leadership embraced a more fluid concept of race in which white status could be gained or lost based on acceptance of elite social norms. This more flexible definition of whiteness, which held dissent in check, shaped Dallas politics for more than 130 years afterward.
The legal division of Texas into completely separate white and black boxes purportedly meant that all white people were created equal. The poorest white Texans were at least not black slaves and could claim higher social status than their servile neighbors. It was just that some white Texans were more equal than others. Dallas' wealthiest pioneer Anglo families saw no contradiction in creating a community in which a few families rapidly accumulated great wealth while simultaneously praising the principles of democracy. Men such as Frank M. Cockrell, son of the city's first business magnates, Alexander and Sarah Cockrell, divorced the concept of aristocracy from anything so crass as monetary wealth. Dallas, Frank Cockrell insisted, developed as a racial aristocracy, with a white ruling class atop a permanent black underclass.
From the perspective of the 1930s, Cockrell admired the culture of 1850s Dallas, where "[t]here were among the women the refined, cultured and accomplished. Socially all on an equality. Merit the only distinction." Cockrell, however, emphasized another distinction: "the adaptability and self-government of the Anglo-Saxon race, characteristic of the Southern people," which made the average pioneer in early Dallas "a very superior immigrant." Cockrell's words carried a particular sting in the 1930s after many non-Anglo-Saxons from Europe made America their home and faced mixed assessments of their whiteness by their contemporaries. Early on, elites like Cockrell portrayed Anglo-Saxons as the sole creators of civilization, a vital first element of the city's Origin Myth. The Anglo-Saxon majority participated, at least theoretically, in what sociologist Howard Winant calls a herrenvolk democracy, a nominally free society in which political participation depends on skin color or ethnicity.
William H. Wharton, pleading with Americans to support the 1835-1836 Texas Revolution, declared that God would prevent Texas from becoming "a howling wilderness, trod only by savages, or that it should be permanently benighted by the ignorance and superstition, the anarchy and rapine of Mexican misrule . . . the wilderness of Texas has been redeemed by Anglo-American blood and enterprise." The founders of Anglo Texas envisioned a race-based society in which Indians would be driven out, blacks exploited as slaves, and Mexicans reduced to the role of surplus labor. The state's white leadership shuddered at the thought of miscegenation. "[A]malgamation of the white with the black race, inevitably leads to disease, decline and death," Galveston State Representative and later Dallas mayor John Henry Brown warned in 1857. The Constitution of the Texas Republic adopted in 1836 specifically denied citizenship to "Africans, the descendents of Africans, and Indians." Interracial sex, particularly if it involved slaves, threatened this racial order. In 1837 the Texas Congress criminalized marriage between persons of European ancestry and African ancestry, even free blacks. The law denied black consorts' claims to white lovers' estates and reduced mulatto children to illegitimacy.
Hoping to discourage miscegenation, the Texas Legislature in August 1856 defined the children of mixed-race unions as persons "of color." By law, anyone with at least "one eighth African blood" would be excluded from whiteness and defined as a slave. Such mixed-race persons immediately suffered the same social and political disabilities as African Americans. Both slave and free African Americans could suffer the death penalty, according to a December 1837 state law, not just for murder but also for insurrection or inciting insurrection, assaulting a free white person, attempting to rape a white woman, burglary, and arson.
By drawing a sharp legal line between the races, elites hoped that they secured a greater degree of white unity. This simple white-black hierarchy, however, failed to maintain social order. Conflict boiled to the surface, stoked by a short money supply and inadequate law enforcement. Frontier violence between debtors and debt holders soon threatened the power structure in fledgling towns like Dallas. In 1841 Dallas was born when a Kentucky investment group headed by W. S. Peters won an empresario grant from the Republic of Texas. His Texas Land and Emigration Company received more than ten million acres from the Republic, a tract including all of future Dallas County except for a ten-mile strip on the eastern border. In return for the vast acreage, the company would encourage Anglo settlement by surveying the land, assisting in housing construction, and promoting immigration. Peters could scarcely have picked a worse time economically to start the colony. "Times were bad [in 1841]," wrote Seymour V. Connor, an historian of the Peters Colony. "The public treasury [of the Republic of Texas] was empty and private pocketbooks were nearly so."
Though the settlement grew from the 1840s through 1860, unpredictable weather aggravated chronic economic insecurity, keeping Dallas-area farmers on the edge of disaster. Dallas averages about thirty inches of precipitation a year, much of which falls in late April through May and in early autumn. But residents frequently experience long dry seasons, such as a drought from 1857 to 1859. Historian and Baptist minister B. F. Riley describes the thirsty year 1857 in Texas as hope-sapping, with "water ceasing from the streams, then from the springs, and finally from the wells. Animals . . . died in great numbers . . . The earth was so dry and scorched that crops were a total failure." In addition to harsh weather, the lack of a rail connection particularly hurt the wheat-growing farmers who emigrated from free states and formed the backbone of Dallas' early economy. "[W]heat growers of Dallas county have but a poor market for their staple, on account of their inland location," a traveler noted in a letter printed in the Dallas Herald. Affordable real estate also became scarce, with "no vacant lands, and no places to rent or sell at prices which emigrants are disposed to give."
Even as some Dallas farmers feared they would be unable to provide for the basic necessities of life, wealth and power in the state concentrated in the hands of a small slaveholding elite during the 1850s. Those holding real estate worth less than $250 represented about 45 percent of the 1850 population, yet they held only 1.1 percent of the available real estate. Ten years later, the same class declined to only 37 percent of the population, but their share of the state's total real estate holdings fell more dramatically to 0.2 percent. The rich grew richer. In 1850 the wealthiest Texans, the 3.2 percent holding $10,000 or more in real property, owned 43 percent of the real property. A decade later, that class had grown to 6.3 percent of the population. Their share of the state's real property swelled to 60 percent. Accounting for all forms of wealth—real estate, personal property, and slaves—by 1860 the richest 2 percent of the state population held almost one-third of the state's riches. Non-slaveholding white farmers, the largest population group in the North Central Texas region that included Dallas, possessed total wealth of one-third less than the professional class and less than half what their neighbors engaged in commerce owned.
In 1860, Dallas County had 8,775 residents, including 2,888 white adults and 1,074 slaves. Among the white adults, 23.5 percent were born in free states (Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont). Another 28.5 percent were born in slave states that stayed in the Union during the Civil War (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri). About 33.5 percent of Dallas County adults were born in the Upper South (North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). Finally, 8.4 percent were born in the Deep South and the Southwest (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi). Another 6 percent of adults were born in other countries, and one resident was listed as having been born in the Cherokee Nation.
Approximately 60 percent of white Dallas County residents in 1860 were farmers, mostly with humble holdings and no slaves. Another 23 percent were small producers, merchants, and craftsmen, such as saddle makers, grocers, blacksmiths, and millers, and professionals, such as lawyers, physicians, and teachers. The remaining 17 percent of the working population consisted of wage laborers, such as farmworkers, handymen, well diggers, stage drivers, teamsters, and hostlers. Breaking down the county's 1860 population into nine "wealth categories," one finds that almost 47 percent of the county's working population belonged to the poorest brackets. Only about 8 percent belonged to the top three wealth categories.
Differences in wealth often broke along regional lines. Birth in foreign nations or in free states corresponded more strongly with lower economic status than birth in states of the Upper South. Nearly half of white residents born overseas or in free states occupied the lowest three income categories. Only 4.5 percent of foreign-born Dallas County white residents and 3.5 percent born in non-slave states belonged in the upper three wealth brackets, while almost 11.5 percent of Dallas residents born in the Upper South belonged to the highest economic classes.
Tennessee native G. M. Record was typical of Dallas County's economic elite, holding $16,850 in real estate and $23,650 in personal assets. George Wheeler of New York represented the typical free-state white immigrant. The thirty-year-old miller possessed only $885 in personal assets. About 21.5 percent of residents from free states worked in such low-prestige wage-earning occupations as farm laborer. Those of Upper South origin were the least likely to be salary-dependent workers (with about 13.6 percent of the subgroup belonging to that class). Leading citizens of the county like Sarah H. Cockrell and William B. Miller came almost exclusively from Upper South border states such as Kentucky and Virginia. With the exception of John W. Swindells, a New York native who published the Dallas Herald, most free-state immigrants were shut out of powerful positions in Dallas society. White immigrants to Dallas from the Lower South states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi were the poorest, with slightly more than half of that subgroup belonging to the three lowest income categories.
In antebellum Dallas County, economic conflict would often be expressed as interregional warfare. Nearly all Dallas residents were directly involved in the means of production or belonged to the managerial or professional classes. Fewer than one-fifth were wage-dependent workers. Nevertheless, the 1860 Census reveals that the county aristocracy largely derived from the Upper South, while the foreign-born, free-state, and Lower South immigrants served as the mudsill of the county's white society. After the Civil War, immigrants to Dallas from the Lower South, generally poorer than their Upper South peers, would be identified by elites as violence-prone "white trash" whose racial status declined as the twentieth century approached. From the ashes of the 1850s and 1860s, a postwar racial order arose in which some whites—poorer and seen as more dissent-prone—became "off-white" and would occupy an uneasy racial middle ground.
Economic insecurity led the earliest Dallasites to embrace violence as a means of survival, belying the city's modern image as an orderly business empire conquering the savage frontier. The so-called Hedgcoxe War broke out in 1852 over conflicting land claims made by white residents and the Texas Emigration and Land Company (TELC), W. S. Peters' investment group. Inhabitants with uncertain title to land feared they would be uprooted, and they organized resistance against Peters Colony agent Henry Oliver Hedgcoxe. In July 1852 a mob of Dallas County citizens ransacked Hedgcoxe's office and home in McKinney, thirty-two miles north of Dallas, as Hedgcoxe hid in a cornfield with all the company records he could grab. Back in Dallas a spontaneous carnival broke out to celebrate the returning ragtag army. The crowd carried William Myres, an alleged Peters Colony spy, on a sharpened rail.
Many Dallas residents found themselves sinking into debt in the 1850s. With the example of mob violence in the Hedgcoxe War before them, the debt-ridden found firearms to be handy tools in renegotiating loans given by wealthier neighbors. The culture of violence that Dallas leaders created claimed the life of Alexander Cockrell, considered Dallas' "first capitalist," who built his riches on the failures of the town's founder, John Neely Bryan. In 1841 Bryan staked a claim on a bluff above the Trinity River, a strategic crossing that today would be the foot of Main Street at the Triple Underpass, thus beginning permanent Anglo settlement in the area that became Dallas. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, Bryan launched numerous unsuccessful moneymaking schemes—acting as the town's first lawyer; selling powder, lead, whiskey, and tobacco out of his cabin; and serving as unofficial postmaster. By the late 1840s, Bryan sank into depression and alcohol abuse and unloaded his remaining Dallas property as well as his right to operate a ferry across the Trinity.
These properties ended up in the hands of Alexander Cockrell. An illiterate Kentuckian, Cockrell first came to Texas in 1845 as a slave catcher before he made a small fortune hauling freight between Texas and Louisiana. For $7,000, Cockrell bought most of what remained of Bryan's holdings in Dallas, including his ferry concession. Selling Bryan's old lots, Cockrell and his wife, Sarah, who served as her uneducated husband's bookkeeper, opened a brick business, a sawmill, and a lumberyard and planned to build a bridge spanning the Trinity that would replace the slow ferry service. Most Dallas residents did not experience such breathtaking financial success. Some, like carpenter Andrew Moore, owed Cockrell money. In 1855 Moore apparently purchased between $100 and $200 of lumber from Cockrell's mill but never paid back the debt. Cockrell successfully sued Moore for the amount in late 1857. Moore won election as Dallas marshal on April 1, 1858. Two days later, Moore arrested Cockrell, possibly for disturbing the peace. Cockrell was released, and the two men encountered each other again that evening, both armed with revolvers and double-barrel shotguns. Moore, while arresting Cockrell, fatally shot the town's most successful businessman eight times in the lower abdomen. Cockrell died after lingering for an hour and a half, and Moore was quickly arrested for murder. The bloody death of Dallas' chief wheeler-dealer provoked little sorrow. Moore faced trial for murder. Rather than outrage, the subsequent "not guilty" verdict provoked "an irrepressible outburst of applause in the court-room, which was caught up in the streets and made the welkin [sky] ring with demonstrations of satisfaction," according to a contemporary Dallas Herald account.
The celebration after the verdict suggests a deep social rift in early Dallas, with Moore's supporters representing an army of the discontent. Indebted whites perhaps saw the inequalities in their society and refused to accept them as natural, celebrating when men of wealth and power such as Cockrell fell. No starker symbol of antebellum inequality existed than slavery. Texas slavery dramatically expanded from the time of Dallas' founding to the start of the Civil War, the slave population growing proportionately faster than the white population. One estimate suggests that slaves made up 13 percent of the Texas population at the Republic's birth in 1836. By 1861, the year the Civil War began, white Texans owned 169,166 slaves, 30.2 percent of the state's 1860 population. In 1848 only 106 slaves lived in Peters Colony, which included parts of present-day Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Ellis Counties. By 1860 Dallas County alone held 1,074 slaves as opposed to 7,591 whites.
As fast as slavery expanded in Texas, some wanted it to grow more quickly. John Henry Brown served as chairman of the state House Committee on Slaves and Slavery. In December 1857 Brown proposed a joint resolution calling for resumption of the African slave trade that had been prohibited by the U.S. Constitution since 1808. Brown argued that the Negro was "indisputably adapted by nature, to the condition of servitude" and, rescued from the savagery and disease of Africa by the white man, enjoyed "a degree of health unequalled" by slaves anywhere else in the world. As long as Texas had black slaves, Brown argued, even the "laboring masses" would not occupy the bottom rung of Texas society. Brown's proposal proved too extreme for his legislative colleagues. The Committee on Slaves and Slavery rejected his resolution.
However desperately elite Texans may have thought they needed slaves, they also feared them. In 1856 perhaps as many as four hundred slaves in Colorado County in South Central Texas plotted to kill whites and battle their way to Mexico. According to some sources, authorities hanged or whipped to death five slaves. White Dallas recoiled in horror in 1852 when a slave woman, Jane Elkins, murdered her master. A widower "by the name of Wisdom" in nearby Farmers Branch hired a "negro woman by the name of Jane . . . to keep house for him and take care of his children." Whether suffering a sudden burst of psychosis, finding herself unable to bear the indignities of slavery any longer, or becoming enraged at an act of physical or sexual abuse, Jane killed the sleeping Wisdom "by splitting his head open with an ax." Jane left the children unharmed. Convicted of murder, she became the first person hanged for homicide in Dallas County. Four years later, a slave named Isaac killed his master, Hastings Dial, ten miles northeast of Dallas, when Dial tried to punish him for being "annoying." Unwilling to endure a beating, Isaac gave Dial "two angry violent blows on the head" with a stick and then stabbed his master in the heart. A posse pursued the ax-carrying Isaac, who was determined not to surrender. Dr. William H. Dial, the deceased's brother, ended the standoff by fatally shooting the slave.
Such acts of resistance resulted in an increasingly repressive slave code. Fearing that free blacks incited slaves to violence and rebellion, lawmakers passed legislation in February 1840 making it illegal for free blacks to immigrate to Texas. Seventeen years later, some wanted to deport resident free blacks. "[A] free negro population is a curse to any people," John Henry Brown warned in a state House committee hearing in 1857. Free blacks and mixed-blood persons had been allowed to remain in Texas, Brown said, due to white "humanity and generosity," but suspected rebellions had proven the policy a mistake. The 1860 Census reveals that Dallas County successfully excluded free blacks from living there. "Free negroes were frowned upon; they created trouble among the slaves," Frank M. Cockrell later recalled.
Elites held onto slavery as the only path to wealth, yet in embracing human bondage they also exposed themselves to revolt at the hands of wrathful slaves and their free black allies. Meanwhile, in the critical decade of the 1850s, pro-slavery elites could not even guarantee the loyalty of the entire white population should Civil War erupt between North and South. By 1860, 23.5 percent of the adult white population in Dallas had migrated from free states. Many Southerners, particularly in the Upper South, and in mountainous regions with few slaveholders such as eastern Tennessee or western Virginia, rejected the extremism of radical elites, so-called fire eaters who demanded immediate secession from the Union if the supposedly abolitionist Republican Party captured the White House or Congress. In the 1860 Census, 34.5 percent of Dallas residents came from Southern states of shaky pro-Confederacy sentiment like Tennessee or slave states like Kentucky and Missouri that stayed in the Union during the Civil War or from foreign nations that had already abolished slavery. Only 42 percent of Dallas' population came from the Deep South states such as Mississippi and Alabama most passionately committed to slavery.
At a time of time of volatility over land titles and debt, the expansion of slavery in the 1850s underscored the iron link between wealth, slaveholding, and political power. Slaveholders constituted the most grossly overrepresented constituency in Texas politics from the city to the statewide level. In 1850 only about 30 percent of Texans owned slaves, yet these slaveowners represented 58 percent of office holders. The year before the Civil War, the proportion of slaveowners dropped to 27 percent of the population, but they held 68 percent of the state's political posts. Yet, instances of white rebellion such the Alexander Cockrell murder and examples of black defiance such as the Elkins case added to anxieties already stoked by national debates over slavery and secession. The slaveholding class in Dallas grew insecure as the 1850s closed despite their increasing political dominance.
Leaders became more frantic to convince lower-income Texans that in spite of all outward appearances, the only divisions that mattered were the struggles between blacks and whites on one side and the conflict between the North and the South on the other. The attempt to force consensus on slavery, and then on secession, only opened deeper economic and cultural fissures in the white community and hastened the collapse of the old social order.
As the fateful year of 1860 opened, Charles R. Pryor, a part-time doctor who became editor of the Dallas Herald (the city's only weekly newspaper) in 1859, worried that the town of 581 whites and 97 blacks could not long remain at peace. Throughout January 1860 the part-time physician and his associate, publisher John W. Swindells, printed lurid dispatches on the evil work of abolitionist fanatics who might incite Texas slaves to butcher whites. Pryor accused Republicans opposed to slavery as having racial miscegenation and slave rebellion as their hidden agenda, a belief increasingly held by the newspaper's readership. One letter, signed "Caucasian" and printed in the Herald on January 18, 1860, warned that the triumph of the Republicans would cause the world to take "a step backwards for 500 years . . . Mongrelism, as seen in Mexico and Central America, will become . . . characteristic . . . This destructive, abhorrent, damnable, intermixture of the races, is ever slowly going on at the North—white women marrying black negro men and vice versa."
Fires and rumors of fires raged across the state in July and August. Pryor blamed the fires on local abolitionists, thereby aggravating an already volatile atmosphere encouraging harassment, intimidation, and violations of civil liberties against political dissidents. Pryor's readers might think that if there was not an abolitionist hiding under every bed, there was at least one dangerous anti-slavery agent in each county. With Pryor's help, the 1860 fires stoked the Texas slaveholding class' already deep fears and rushed the state into the Confederate camp at the beginning of the Civil War.
Pryor's anxiety boiled in 1859 when, during public meetings held August 12 and 13, Solomon McKinney and Parson Blount, two Dallas County residents described as Iowa natives, faced accusations that they advocated "free soil sentiments and abolition doctrines." A mob gave McKinney, a minister, his "walking papers" and told him to leave Texas for daring to "tell Southern men how to manage their servants." Authorities confined McKinney in the county jail to await expulsion. Parson Blount made the mistake of defending McKinney during the public meetings. Blount requested a place in the jail for himself, fearing he would be in danger. The Herald darkly threatened Blount. "[U]ntil he came, all was peace and quiet, harmony and good will," the newspaper said. ". . . He has offended a generous community, who will not soon forgive him; hence, he had better consult his own safety and leave." When Blount and McKinney mysteriously disappeared from jail, the Herald suggested that this happened through the aid of "the Prince of Darkness" or perhaps "the assistance of outside pressure."
In a county with a more than 94 percent literacy rate among whites ages fifteen and older, Pryor's inflammatory warnings about abolitionist conspiracies reached a widespread audience. All year long, Pryor had anticipated a racial conflagration prompted by Northern outsiders. Pryor's predicted holocaust finally arrived on July 8, 1860, when a fire consumed almost all of downtown Dallas. The fire began that hot Sunday between 1:00 and 2:00 P.M. in a rubbish heap outside the W. W. Peak and Brothers drugstore. Temperatures reached 105 degrees that afternoon, and a high southwest wind fed the blaze, which in just five minutes engulfed the store. The flames, fueled partly by chemicals stored at the drugstore, spread fast as "the fire caught most of us in our siesta," Charles Pryor wrote in a letter to the Houston Telegraph. "We barely escaped with our lives—some like myself, without clothes, boots, shoes, or anything else." The fire reduced dry goods stores, groceries, law offices, inns, the three-story St. Nicholas Hotel, and the offices of the Dallas Herald to ashes. Officials calculated the loss at $400,000, with a mere $10,000 of that insured. Some of the richest and most powerful people in Dallas, among them General John Good, attorney Warren Stone, publisher John Swindells, and Alexander Cockrell's widow, Sarah, lost their fortunes in the fire. Volunteer firefighters diverted the inferno from the courthouse, although "the heat was so great that the curtains on the inside of the windows caught fire through the glass." When the fire burned itself out, Dallas smoldered, a smoking ruin.
On the day after the downtown fire, a home burned down a mile and a half from town, inspiring gossip about a conspiracy. Men "with inflamed minds, swearing vengeance," gathered at the courthouse, insisting that Dallas had been targeted by arsonists. District Judge Nat M. Burford left court proceedings in Waxahachie to preside over an inquisition held on the fire. A fifty-two-man Committee of Vigilance formed, and their suspicion quickly settled on slaves and their reputed abolitionist accomplices. If the committee kept any records, including the suspects' alleged confessions, these documents have apparently disappeared. The chief source of information on the investigation is a series of letters Charles Pryor wrote to newspapers across Texas, including the politically allied State Gazette in Austin.
Pryor's letters instigated a statewide panic about a slave revolt inspired by abolitionist outsiders. These letters told the same story: black rebels plotted to set fires across the state, murder white leaders, and poison wells. At a time when prolonged drought made water a much-protected commodity, the rumor that slaves planned to poison water supplies must have inspired particular terror. The slave rebels, Pryor told readers, intended to commit horrors on "certain ladies . . . selected as the victims of these misguided monsters." On July 28 the Austin State Gazette carried Pryor's letter proclaiming the Dallas fire as the opening gambit in a statewide revolution. Abolition preachers "expelled from the country last year" had hatched a scheme to "devastate with fire and assassination" the "whole of Northern Texas." Slave rebels hoped to destroy military targets such as stores of gunpowder, lead, and grain to "[reduce] this . . . country to a state of utter helplessness." The revolution in each county was "under the supervision of a white man, who controls the action of the negroes in that district . . . Many of our most prominent citizens were to be assassinated . . . Arms have been discovered in the possession of the negroes, and the whole plot revealed, for a general insurrection and civil war at the August election."
Blount and McKinney, expelled from Dallas the previous summer, now emerged as masterminds of the revolt. "Bl[o]unt and McKinney, the abolition preachers, were expected here at the head of the large force at that time," Pryor wrote to the State Gazette. "We are expecting the worst, and do not know what an hour may bring forth."
The Committee of Vigilance secretly interrogated nearly one hundred slaves, using torture to extract confessions. The inquisition dragged on for fifteen days as eight suspects languished in jail. The brutalized witnesses implicated all but three of the county's 1,074 slaves. By Texas law, all 1,071 suspects faced the death penalty for insurrection and arson, representing not only a massacre unprecedented in Texas but also a potential financial loss of about $820,000 to slaveowners.
Whipped slaves told the committee what its members already believed, that a slave revolution had begun. "One of the negroes whipped became very sick afterward and thinking that he was going to die, he made a confession to his old mistress, telling her all about the plot," a community leader told the Dallas Morning News in 1892. The committee already had settled upon three suspects—Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith, and another slave called Cato—as the plot's ringleaders. Jennings, brought to Texas by his owner Dr. Roy B. Scott from their native Virginia, belonged at the time of the fire to George W. Guess, a prominent thirty-one-year-old Dallas attorney. "Old Pat continued to be an agitator in Texas as he had been in Virginia," Dr. Scott's son, Samuel, recalled in 1922. Rachel Overton, the widow of Aaron Overton, a successful farmer in the county, owned "Old Cato," a slave highly regarded by the family. The Overtons owned the first mill in the county, which they entrusted Cato to run. Cato "made all decisions regarding priority" at the mill "and many a fee of 25 or 50 cents bestowed on Cato would greatly facilitate your turn," recalled J. O. Cructhfield. Pryor describes the third suspect, Sam Smith, as a slave preacher "who had imbibed most of his villainous principles from two abolitionist preachers," Blount and McKinney. Smith possibly belonged to rich and powerful W. B. Miller. A fourth slave, also owned by Miller, would be identified as a suspected ringleader as well.
The three slaves found themselves targeted because they in some way offended racial etiquette: Jennings perhaps because of an abrasive personality; Cato because he commanded a position of authority at the Overton mill; and Smith because of his highly visible and threatening role as a slave preacher. Slave preachers figured prominently in previous suspected and realized revolts, led by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831). Texas slaveholders often prohibited their servants from holding services, fearing that religious gatherings merely masked meetings where charismatic preachers hatched rebellion. The committee, in any case, carefully selected its victims to teach slaves the value of subservience.
The panic, however, opened a rift between large and small slaveholders. As soon as Burford entered the courthouse, a man cornered him and declared, "Now, we must vote to hang them three negroes, but it won't do to hang too many. We can't afford it. After we get the three let's call up some rich man's negro and make a fight to save him. If we save the rich man's negro the meeting will not then turn around and vote to hang the poor man's negro." Judge Burford apparently became so disturbed by the proceedings that he abruptly left the meeting after only forty-five minutes. Shortly after his departure, the committee voted to execute Jennings, Smith, and Cato. As already agreed upon, a fourth slave belonging to W. B. Miller stood accused of being a ringleader as well. "Sure enough a fight was made to save him and succeeded, but Miller said the negro shouldn't stay in the county, and he afterward sent him away," Burford said. The committee further decided to whip every slave in the county. With all sides satisfied, the committee announced its decision on July 23 to the agitated mob outside. Jennings, Smith, and Cato faced hanging the next day. Shortly thereafter, "we whipped every negro in the county one by one," a source later told the Dallas Morning News. One witness, David Carey Nance, recalled slaves being rounded by "like cattle" and whipped "without mercy." Some slaves were almost beaten to death. The sight of the mass floggings, Nance later said, "made his blood run cold."
All whites of free-state origin now became targets of suspicion. "At that time there was considerable wagon immigration to this country from the north, and the idea somehow gained currency that those Northern people were coming down here and supplying the negroes with firearms and ammunitions," a member of the vigilance committee later said. "People actually held up the wagons and searched them as they entered the town, but nothing was ever found to confirm these suspicions."
On July 24, officials led the three purported ringleaders from the jail to the bank of the Trinity River near the site where the Commerce Street Bridge later spanned the waterway. A gallows, in close view of an "immense concourse of citizens and negroes," awaited the accused rebels. Jennings remained calm and "betrayed no remorse or feeling whatever in view of his approaching doom." Displaying "unparalleled nonchalance," he made no final words and died with a "chew of tobacco in his mouth." If the committee meant to terrify the assembled slaves in the audience, they accomplished their mission. The executioner apparently made a mistake tying the noose around Jennings' neck. The slave's neck did not break as intended. Jennings slowly strangled, "dying very hard," as he swung from the scaffolding.
The hangings heralded a season of violence in Texas. Fires causing an estimated one million dollars in damages were reported in fourteen North and Central Texas counties. The accompanying hysteria lasted eight weeks. Paranoia gained momentum as the August statewide elections approached when "the Bailey Letter" was supposedly found near Fort Worth. Reportedly written by William H. Bailey to the Reverend Anthony Bewley, the only Texas elder of the anti-slavery Methodist Episcopal Church, the letter purportedly outlined in great detail an unfolding abolitionist scheme to set fires across the state and murder slaveowners.
The "hellish document," reportedly uncovered by a "most reliable and undoubted source," was sent to the Belton Democrat, edited by John Henry Brown (at that time retired as a fire-eater state legislator and yet to become mayor of Dallas). Brown advised slaveowners to "whip no abolitionist, drive off no abolitionist—hang them, or let them alone." In response to the circulation of the Bailey Letter, local assemblies called for opening mail to check for subversive literature, compiling "black lists" of Republicans and abolitionists to be hanged, and monitoring suspected traitors for anti-slavery activities. Texas became a killing field where historian Alwyn Barr has estimated that mobs executed eighty slaves and thirty-seven suspected white abolitionists as a result of what the New Orleans Daily Picayune labeled "the Texas Troubles." As historian Wendell G. Addington suggested, pro-slavery Texans believed it was better to "hang ninety-nine innocent men than to let one guilty one pass." One Mississippi newspaper editor sardonically described Texas slaves as "dancing to the music of the cracking of the necks of the Abolitionists." This music, the Austin State Gazette predicted, would last until the final abolitionist was "elevated on his platform."
By late September much of the fear and passion that stirred over the summer had burned out, and even some ardent fire eaters began to doubt whether a plot ever existed. The New Orleans Daily Picayune held as dim a view of "Black Republicans" as the Dallas Herald, yet on September 8 the Picayune editor concluded that "not half of what has been confessed seems to have been born out by later facts . . . wells thought to have been poisoned . . . [were] untainted by any deleterious substance." The fact that many of the slave suspects possessed guns, a violation of Texas law, was neither unusual nor sinister but reflected common frontier practice. There is reason to suspect that "the Texas troubles" were a series of accidents exploited by pro-secessionists to intimidate their opposition. Many fires reported in the press never took place. For instance, the burning of trash behind the Brenham courthouse sparked a panic there, while a newspaper editor in Weatherford expressed his surprise at reading in another city's newspaper a false report that Weatherford had been set ablaze. Many of the fires that did occur happened in a time of drought that would facilitate accidental fires.
One might question the authenticity of the Bailey Letter, suddenly produced by a newspaper editor who was one of the fiercest fire-eater voices. Why one plotter wrote a letter to a co-conspirator not to convey new information but to review details of capital crimes already under way is hard to fathom. If the 1860 rebellion was authentic, it must rank as the strangest in history. One would have to believe that slaves and abolitionists feverishly worked to set fires simultaneously across the state and then passively waited to be arrested. During the chaos of the 1860 fires, no slaves attempted to seize forts or ammunition stores. No slaves killed or injured whites. No slaves took hostages. No slaves poisoned wells or fired shots in anger. If there was a second phase to this rebellion beyond setting fires, no participant seems to have reached that page in the playbook.
Rather than uncover a conspiracy, the Committee of Vigilance in Dallas most likely ruthlessly exploited a tragedy to pursue a political agenda. The statements of an unnamed member of the committee in a July 1892 Dallas Morning News retrospective on the blaze cast doubt on the proceedings. Requesting anonymity and telling the reporter that he voted against the convictions of the three slaves, he claimed that the Dallas fire was a simple accident. "When the town was burned it was a hot day—so hot that matches ignited from the heat of the sun," the committee member said. "Wallace Peak had just finished a new two-story frame building and in the upper story that day a number of men were lounging and smoking." Near the Peak drugstore, he said, were "a lot of boxes filled with shavings, and I think a cigar stump or a match was thrown into one of the boxes, and from that the fire started . . . somebody had to hang; and the three negroes went."
White leaders probably reasoned that mass whippings and hangings would discourage treasonous thoughts should Texas secede from the Union and a Northern army of emancipation march toward the Red River. The suppression of abolitionists also imposed a degree of political conformity during the secession crisis. A virtual civil war ravaged Texas months before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, a war won this time by the South. Dallas leaders clearly hoped the sense of danger created by the summer fires would bridge the village's deep social chasms. Elites scheduled a unity barbecue October 3 that would "successfully rally every patriot, regardless of being . . . an Oppositionist, or a Democrat." Hope that oppression could force harmony on the community, however, proved to be in vain. In spite of a summer of intimidation and violence, Dallas fire eaters such as Pryor never completely silenced dissent.
Following Abraham Lincoln's victory in the November presidential race, Texas scheduled a secession referendum on February 23, 1861. Historians usually interpret Dallas County's 75 percent "yes" vote for secession as a solid endorsement of the Confederate cause. However, Texas laws allowed anti-secession voters to be easily intimidated, which makes the number of "no" votes remarkable. Under the 1860 state code, election clerks recorded the name and an assigned number for each voter when he showed up at the ballot box. When the voter turned in his completed ballot, an election manager wrote the voter's assigned number on the back of the ticket. It would be easy to check the number on the voter list against the number on the back of the ballot to determine how a person voted. The law prohibited the election manager or clerk from opening the ballot, but in a county obsessed with treason, it is hard to believe that some secession opponents would not have been frightened into staying at home election day or into voting "yes." Considering the lack of ballot security and the fact that the election came just seven months after the fire and the ensuing violence against suspected abolitionists, the 25 percent anti-secession vote in Dallas County suggests a deep reserve of white resentment against elite policies on the eve of the Civil War. Neighboring Collin County voted against secession, as did most counties north of Dallas. At least 40 percent of the voters in nearby Wise, Denton, Hunt, and Van Zandt counties also voted "no." Far North Central Texas represented the most anti-secessionist region of the state outside the "German Belt" in Central Texas.
Even though most Texans supported the Confederate cause, East and North Central Texas became centers of the anti-secession opposition, with nearly three thousand deserters making the woods and brush of northern Texas home. One historian lists Dallas County, along with neighboring Wood, Van Zandt, Henderson, Denton, Cooke, Grayson, and Jefferson counties, as the South's "Deserter Country." Union sympathizers, called "Jayhawkers," roamed the nearby Big Thicket country of East Texas during the Civil War and fought pitched battles against various home guards. Determined to crush wartime opposition, a Confederate militia swept through Cooke County and neighboring communities and arrested more than two hundred people on the morning of October 1, 1862. After trials by a kangaroo court, at least forty suspects were executed in Gainesville. Confederate sympathizers there shot two others as they tried to escape. Dallas Confederates joined the bloodletting. A pro-Confederate gang hanged a "Mr. Record" in 1862 "for being a Union man a deliberate cold blooded murder without a mitigating excuse," according to a later U.S. Army report. "Not satisfied with hanging till dead they shot him all to pieces."
The fire and subsequent violence against suspected abolitionists and anti-secessionists suggests how insecure Dallas elites had become about their grip on power as the Civil War began. Traditional elites would again be in charge of the city by the end of the 1860s. Worried that the 1860 fire represented a dangerous revolutionary precedent, Dallas leaders tried to dampen its memory. Decades after the Civil War, Dallas leaders filled the city with memorials commemorating the Confederacy's "Lost Cause." Yet, no memorials mark the prolonged civil war that raged between secessionists and suspected Unionists from before the fires of 1860 until Confederate General Robert E. Lee's 1865 surrender. Remembering that past could only raise disturbing questions about Dallas' founders.
Late-twentieth-century Dallas proved the power of forgetfulness. Commerce Street forms a bridge between a downtown dominated by white-owned businesses and, as it crossed Stemmons Freeway, a poorer and mostly African American South Dallas. The city formerly designated a triangle of grassy land between Stemmons and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks as Dealey Annex, named after the family of the powerful publisher of the Dallas Morning News, George B. Dealey. In 1991, under pressure from a citizens' group, the city park board renamed the grassy patch of freeway easement "Martyrs Park" in reluctant tribute not only to the assassinated President John Kennedy but also to Samuel Smith, Patrick Jennings, and Cato.
Yet, even eight years after the park board approved a new name for Dealey Annex, no marker proclaimed the rare undeveloped Dallas turf as Martyrs Park and no sign explained the significance of the location or the site's ambiguous name. To reach Martyrs Park, one had to pass under a bridge following a pathway smelling of urine. Rather than explanatory plaques, a visitor encountered the empty liquor bottles, abandoned shopping carts, and unoccupied bedding that marked the spot as a homeless village. Longtime theology professor Dr. William Farmer once taught a continuing education course on the 1860 fire at Southern Methodist University before moving on to the University of Dallas. He found it predictable that the leadership of the city could not squarely face the city's past. "Dallas is unlike Chicago—it doesn't know about its fire," Farmer said. ". . . It's like a family going through a trauma but suppressing the memory. The past is forgotten, but essential to coming to health is recalling."
The city landscape, littered with statues honoring the Confederate dead, suggested that Dallas had been the southwestern heart of Dixie. A fog surrounds a past marked by clashes between rich and poor and between secessionists and unionists so that in the twentieth century it seemed as if Dallas had been a nest of Johnny Rebs who unquestioningly followed their leaders to the battlefield. After the Civil War, few recalled the dissenters, black or white, who challenged the Dallas establishment, making sustained resistance in the future more difficult to imagine. Dallas elites failed to suffocate opposition through violence before the Civil War, but by the postbellum period, they had learned an important lesson. The long, difficult project of manufacturing consent had begun.
To maintain its legitimacy, Dallas' ruling bloc could not acknowledge past political division. A combination of economic, political, ethnic, and regional tensions, heightened by sensationalist journalism and fear over outside events like the John Brown raid, formed the combustible elements when a match or cigar butt was thrown atop dry kindling one hot summer day in Dallas. The violence unleashed by the Texas troubles eventually proved so embarrassing to one radical pro-secessionist that he devoted only one sentence to the incident when he published his History of Dallas County, Texas from 1837 to 1887 almost three decades after the 1860 fire. As editor of the Belton Democrat, John Henry Brown had published the infamous Bailey Letter. He moved to Dallas in the early 1870s and became mayor in 1885. An amateur historian, Brown published his chronicle of Dallas County in 1887. He barely mentioned the Texas troubles, preferring more comfortable topics. "To recount the more recent events preceding the war, the destructive fire of July, 1860 . . . would be to open a question, the discussion of which should be left to a later day—farther removed from the acrimonies of the war and of the actors in those scenes," he wrote. In the next paragraph, after barely alluding to the divisions in 1860s Dallas, Brown painted a picture of sweet consensus in the following years. "When the sectional controversy assumed the character of war, there were probably not twenty bona fide citizens of Dallas County who were not truly and sincerely Southern in feeling and sentiment," he wrote. This myth of unity rested on a foundation of terror instigated by men such as Brown. The "Southernness" of Dallas could be measured by the length of a hangman's rope.
By Michael Phillips
Michael Phillips is a researcher at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2002.
"This is an important contribution to the study of race relations, Texas history, southern history, and Jewish history.... As Phillips persuasively argues, Dallas is almost absurdly understudied."
—Benjamin Heber Johnson, Southern Methodist University, author of Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans
T. R. Fehrenbach Award, Texas Historical Commission