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  • ‘Does This City Seem Really Weird About Race?’

    Jim Schutze and William Jackson Harper discuss race, journalism, and politics in Dallas.

    William Jackson Harper & Jim Schutze at The Wild Detectives
    William Jackson Harper & Jim Schutze at The Wild Detectives, 03/05/2019. Photo by The Wild Detectives

    Jim Schutze and William Jackson Harper discuss race, journalism, and politics in Dallas.

    William Jackson Harper, who plays the tormented ethics professor Chidi Anagonye on NBC’s The Good Place, and Jim Schutze, local legend and longtime columnist for the Dallas Observer, sat down at The Wild Detectives for Journalism Month to discuss Dallas history, race, and politics.

    Harper’s recent play, Travisville, which debuted in New York City last October to critical acclaim, was inspired by Schutze’s rare, out-of-print book, The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City.

    Harper first discovered Schutze’s book, described as “the most dangerous book in Dallas” by D Magazine, while working at Half Price Books inthe early 2000s. He nabbed it before it could hit the shelves, one of the perks of working at a bookstore.

    For a young black man living in Dallas and trying to make sense of his time and place, the book served as an awakening: “It blew my mind. It made a lot of things make sense all of a sudden.”

    The Accommodation, perhaps the most sweeping and articulate account of racial issues in Dallas, inspired Harper to write Travisville, a fictionalized retelling of the displacement of black residents around Fair Park in the 1960s.

    “The clock doesn’t go backwards. We ain’t going backwards.”

    Harper wanted to know what moved Schutze to write the book in the first place. “Was there a moment of clarity?” he asked.

    Schutze harked back to the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, specifically recalling a long prayer given by Dr. W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and one of the richest and most powerful men in the city.

    According to Schutze, Criswell’s message was that Dallas “was booming because it had never weakened, meaning weakened toward civil rights, integration, these things — sort of kept the boot on the neck.”

    “This is so crazy,” thought Schutze, who was covering the event for the Dallas Times Herald at the time. “I remember thinking, well I don’t know what else, but the clock doesn’t go backwards. We ain’t going backwards.”

    Shortly after experiencing this outpouring of Reagan religiosity, Schutze met Robert “Bobby” Frese, a young white editor from Birmingham who was working for Taylor Publishing Company of Dallas at the time.

    They had lunch and were discussing book ideas, mostly true-crime stuff, before Frese changed the subject.

    “Does this city seem really weird about race?”

    He said, “You’re from Detroit — let me ask you something. Does this city seem really weird about race?”

    Schutze replied, “Yeah, it seems weird to me about race, but I’m from Detroit.”

    “Well, the hell with you, I’m from Birmingham. We’re better than you are about this,” Frese jokingly jabbed back.

    Out of that conversation came an idea for a book to help explain the pre-democratic political eccentricities of Dallas and how the old white oligarchy was able to subdue the anger of the black community by keeping black leaders under their thumb. It focused on the period from 1950 to 1970, when the Ku Klux Klan was making a comeback, black homes were being firebombed, and de facto segregation prevailed.

    Schutze had been working on The Accommodation for about a year when Frese got word that the Dallas Citizens Council was going to use their power to prevent the book from being published, purportedly for its negative portrayal of the city’s elite.

    In light of this news, Schutze frantically finished the book and off it went to the press. According to Schutze, “The page plates were on the presses, the presses were to run that day, and the Citizens Council won and Taylor Publishing pulled them all off the presses.”

    That may have been the end of the story, but a short piece in The New York Times spotlighting Dallas’ dismissal of the book came to the attention of a small publisher in New Jersey.

    While Randolph Marston, the president of Taylor Publishing, cited poor advance sales as the reason, The New York Times reported that “its critical view of the desegregation era in Dallas and fears of adverse local reaction were as much to blame for killing the project.”

    When the publisher contacted Taylor Publishing, Marston was more than willing to sign over the rights. The book was eventually published by Citadel Press in Secaucus, New Jersey, in 1987, and about 5,000 copies were sent to Dallas.

    “The only white person who read it was my mother.”

    “The only white person who read it was my mother,” Schutze joked.

    Today, it may be the most in-demand book in Dallas.Used copies sell for hundreds of dollars and there are currently 28 active requests for the single circulating copy at the Dallas Public Library.

    Reverend Peter Johnson, the inspiration for The Accommodation and represented by the fictional firebrand character of Zeke Phillips in Harper’s play, had already warned Schutze and Frese of the difficulty of getting a book like this published in Dallas.

    ”I told Jim he would never get that book published in Dallas,” said Peter Johnson, as reported in The New York Times article.

    Johnson’s prediction came from personal experience. He first arrived in Dallas in 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to organize and promote the premier of the documentary tribute film, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis, put together by Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Samuel Livingston (find it online or at your local public library).

    The film was going to premier in 800 cities around the world to raise money for Coretta Scott King and her children since King didn’t have any life insurance (nobody would sell it to him) and had given away his money to the Civil Rights Movement (SNCC, CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and others). According to Johnson, there was only one city that rejected the movie: Dallas.

    A couple of days before the movie was planned to premier, however, Johnson attended a meeting with white leaders such as H.L. Hunt at the Park Cities Baptist Church to prescreen a 45-minute promotional version of the film. When the lights came on, the audience sat in silence wiping tears from their eyes. Dallas’ white power structure decided to permit the movie to be shown, but Johnson only had a few days to put everything together.

    In spite of warnings not to get involved in Dallas politics, Johnson remained in the city, angry with the racist white leadership, disheartened by the accommodationist approach of the black community, and drawn to the land grab taking place around the state fairgrounds.

    The City of Dallas was going to use eminent domain to remove black residents around Fair Park, just as it had done around Love Field, Little Egypt, Eagle Ford, and other areas of town.

    “They had guilt? Wow, I didn’t know they had guilt.”

    The reason: White fairgoers didn’t feel safe or comfortable in the predominantly black neighborhood.

    According to a 1966 report commissioned by the State Fair corporation, “All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feelings revealed above will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”

    When Schutze read the report, he thought, “They had guilt? Wow, I didn’t know they had guilt.”

    Harper was struck by Schutze’s description of the Fair Park homeowner movement and began working on a play that reflected this messy emotional struggle.

    “The voices of the business leaders, the civic leaders, the ministers are very interesting and nuanced. It was clear that there was a lot of go-along-to-get-along politics,” Harper told Texas Monthly in January.

    From the accommodationist black pastors to the confrontationist Zeke Phillips (surrogate for Peter Johnson) and everyone in between, Harper brilliantly captured the interiors of these characters.

    Shutze told Harper, “I was stunned that you were so able to think your way into all these folks and so plausibly explore and paint what they were going through and how complicated that time was.”

    “Just like The Good Place, Travisville explores the uneasy ethics of doing the right thing.”

    Unlike many feel-good, fictional portrayals of the Civil Rights Movement, there are no “good” or “evil” characters in Travisville. The play’s white mayor and local land developer aren’t vicious racists; in fact, they think of themselves as progressive. Just like The Good Place, Travisville explores the uneasy ethics of doing the right thing.

    “How do we get what we want without anything getting out of hand?” Harper asked the Wild Detectives audience, echoing a comment made by one of the characters in Travisville. In the play, Minister Fletcher tries to explain things to the newcomer: “I’m sorry Zeke, but we just fundamentally disagree about people being sacrificed for a cause. No matter how worthy. Here? We sit down, and we talk, before things get out of hand.”

    Zeke responds, “Things ARE out of hand!”

    Indeed, they were. White Klan-style violence was always lurking in the background. Terror, politics, and eminent domain were being used to herd black people into segregated slums. Meanwhile, there was real fear of a black uprising.

    “The most arrogant, vicious, racist white power structure I faced was in this city. The threats on my life never ended,” Johnson told an audience at Mac’s Southside last year.

    “The threats on my life never ended.”

    “At what point do you risk safety?” Harper reflected. “I don’t know that I would be that guy given real stakes and the potential for real bodily harm.”

    Immediately, Schutze thought of Johnson, who still has deep scars from when police sicced snarling dogs on protesters in Birmingham.

    “They [fellow civil rights activists] told him when he left Atlanta: Peter, go to Dallas, show the movie, get the money and come home. Do not get into any trouble.”

    But black homeowners around Fair Park kept asking him for help.

    “Peter just couldn’t turn his back on it — (a) because he was moved by the plight of the people, (b) because Dallas pissed him off, and (c) because, if you know Peter, he just likes trouble.”

    Johnson wasn’t able to prevent the buying and leveling of the neighborhood around Fair Park along South Fitzhugh and Second avenues — hundreds of black property-owners lost their homes. But due to Johnson’s threat to disrupt the nationally televised Cotton Bowl parade with 600 marchers if Mayor Erik Jonsson did not meet with the Fair Park homeowners, he was able to get the city to pay black homeowners the same amount they were paying white homeowners, a significant victory.

    Johnson wasn’t done yet. Desiring more institutional and systemic change, Johnson and other Fair Park activists filed federal lawsuits to get rid of the at-large election system and replace it with single-member district elections.

    After several years in the courts, the at-large system that was so crucial for maintaining the Citizens Council machine was deemed racially discriminatory by the Supreme Court in Lipscomb et al v. Wise (Dallas Mayor Wes Wise).

    Single-member district elections were finally implemented for the Dallas City Council and the Dallas School Board in 1978. The District Court approved the city’s plan for eight council members to be elected from single-member districts and the remaining three members, including the mayor, to be elected at large. In 1991, Dallas replaced the 8-3 council with a 14-1 configuration.

    While things have certainly improved for black people in Dallas, there is still widespread segregation — the poor are preyed upon, public education and other services lack resources, and minority communities continue to be displaced. According to a recent report by the United Way of Texas, 83.3 percent of families living in the Fair Park zip code are in poverty, the highest of any area in Texas’ five largest cities.

    Six more Dallas County zip codes have poverty rates above 70 percent. They are all predominantly minority. With all the growth and development going on in Dallas, it’s important to remember that half of our city (mostly black and Latino) are struggling to afford basic needs.

    “What’s over?” Schutze asked.

    “Nothing, nothing’s over.” Harper replied.

    For those hoping to see Travisville, keep your ears and eyes open. There are several local theater companies interested in staging it.

    If you’re wondering why there wasn’t another print run of The Accommodation, Schutze signed over the rights to John Wiley Price, the longtime black Dallas County commissioner of District 3. The two have had a falling out and aren’t on speaking terms, so don’t count on another printing anytime soon.

    You can watch the whole conversation here.

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    Daniel Estevao

    Daniel Estevao Estevao is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in Dallas, TX. You can find his work at estevaowriting.com (@estevaowriting)

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