White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001

University of Texas Press
299 pages
6 x 9 in., 20 halftones
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-292-71274-4

Michael Phillips, Historian

The first history of race relations in Dallas from its founding until today.

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.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • 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
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

1. The Music of Cracking Necks: Dallas Civilization and Its Discontents

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…

Read the entire Introduction here.

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