“If you want to know the history of Dallas, look at the history of its parks,” says Ed Gray, a radio host and human rights advocate who was recruited in 2020 by the late Dr. George Keaton to co-lead the Dallas County Justice Initiative (DCJI). Parks have been the sites of “triumph and terror” for people of color, he says, but many defining events remain unknown to the people who visit these spaces. The DCJI intends to change that through the installation of public markers and programming that acknowledges often troubled histories — starting with the lynching of Allen Brooks.
The current design of Pegasus Plaza is a postmodern fantasy. A literal retelling of the Greek myth of the Pegasus, it depicts a hoofprint that marks where the Pegasus alighted, causing a rupture from which a spring emerged. It’s a quirky park that replaced one of downtown’s many surface parking lots, which had previously replaced the Southwestern Life Insurance Building, built in 1912 and demolished in 1972. Until recently, a visitor could have walked by the plaza without knowing anything about its history as a site of racial terror. In 1910, Allen Brooks, a Black man who was accused of rape but never tried, was dragged by a white mob from the Dallas County Courthouse and lynched at the corner of Akard and Main streets, the current site of Pegasus Plaza. Photographs of the lynching were turned into postcards, a widespread practice at the time. For over 100 years, these events went physically unacknowledged at the site. Then in November 2021, the DCJI, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), erected a plaque that gave belated witness to the event of 111 years earlier.
Many architects may be familiar with the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice designed by MASS Design Group. There, on one of the weathered steel columns, you can find Brooks’ name. People may be less familiar with other efforts of the EJI, including the Community Historical Marker Project, which sponsors the installation of historical markers at the sites of racial terror lynchings. While markers are not all that the EJI does, they are central to its overall goal of addressing racial injustice. The organization’s website states: “EJI believes that truth and reconciliation are sequential. We must address oppressive histories by honestly and soberly recognizing the pain of the past.” It was through the Community Historical Marker Project that the DCJI and EJI installed the marker at the corner of Pegasus Plaza.
This is not the first time an attempt has been made to physically mark sites of segregation and racial violence in Dallas’ public parks. In 2014, artists Cynthia Mulcahy and lauren woods (lowercase intentional) received funding to create markers in Dallas’ formerly segregated parks — public spaces like Moore Park or Oak Cliff Negro (now Eloise Lundy) Park, which were once designated for Black Dallasites and typically located in segregated and redlined neighborhoods. The artists’ project was halted, not by choice of the artists. They and others related to the project believe that neither funders nor the city were ready for an honest depiction of Dallas’ history. While the city has partnered with DCJI on its work, it remains to be seen how far its decisionmakers are willing to go and how honest a narrative they can tolerate.
Other projects on the horizon for the DCJI include a memorial at Martyrs Park. Though not obvious to its visitors, the park received its name because it was the site of the lynching of three enslaved Black men: Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith, and Cato Miller. The three men were scapegoated after a fire burned Dallas in its early days. In its current form, Martyrs Park is a park in name only. It is accessible exclusively via a steep sidewalk from Dealey Plaza that dead ends at the park — there is no parking, there are no paths through the park, and there are no amenities. Plans have been in the works since before the pandemic to create at Martyrs Park a general memorial to victims of racial violence in Dallas. In 2020, Dallas Morning News architectural critic Mark Lamster wrote an article imploring the city to do more than the planned $100,000 artist-commissioned memorial, which doesn’t fully address the issues of access and overall design of the park. In addition, community members have called for markers for each specific event and moment of violence rather than a general memorial. Creating a general memorial would not acknowledge individual people or mark the many, many sites across Dallas where Black people like Jane Elkins, William Taylor, and Reuben Johnson were murdered.
In our conversation, Gray made it a point to say that the DCJI wants to mark sites of both Black terror and triumph — that there are sites of celebration to be commemorated as well. Other organizations, including Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, and Remembering Black Dallas, have also been working to publicly recognize sites of Black triumph and terror in Dallas. The work of these organizations is a reminder that no architectural site is a blank slate. Site analysis is one of the foundational skills architects are taught in school — you’d be hard pressed to find an architect who didn’t believe that a strong understanding of site leads to better design. But it’s the rare public project that acknowledges and grapples with the violent histories of our public spaces, or, to Gray’s point, with the histories of Black triumph. The DCJI’s markers are an important step in making these histories visible and known, but architects don’t have to wait for a marker to be erected to integrate a deeper understanding of a site’s history into their process. Architects have a pivotal role in instigating discourse and in the confrontation of history through public-facing projects, and that work starts with truly knowing the site. The information is out there — architects just need the will.
Dr. George Keaton, co-founder of the Dallas County Justice Initiative and founder of Remembering Black Dallas, passed away suddenly during the writing of this piece. I want to recognize and thank Dr. Keaton for his tireless work to make public the history of Black Dallas. Dallas is better because of him, and he will be sorely missed.
Lizzie MacWillie, AIA, is an architect and urban designer. She is the former director of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a Texas-based nonprofit architecture and planning firm.