Wednesday, February 21, 2007

South Dallas: Bexar Street Theatre, 1949

The photographs of Dallas photographer, Marion Butts are priceless.

This one is important to me. Shot in December 1949, it signals the tough legacy of a community destined for decline.

The historic Lincoln Theatre is located at 5414 Bexar Street, at the edge of the Ideal Neighborhood, just north of Highway 175 and not far from the Rochester Park neighborhood where Central Dallas Ministries offers our After School Academy inside the Turner Courts Housing Development.

Pictured here is S. R. Tankersley, with the Negro Moving Picture Machine Operators Union, protesting in front of the theater.

The theater was patronized solely by African Americans, but employed a white projectionist. Owners of the theater sued and won an injunction against the union to prevent them from using the word "Negro" on the pickets.

Today the old movie house sits in almost complete ruin. Restoration seems most unlikely in view of its condition.

The theater symbolizes what occurred in the surrounding community.

The racism that controlled the operation of the theater also limited the folks who lived around it.
Even in the late 1940s much of the housing stock in the area was rental in nature, with few home owners living in the community.

As the Civil Rights Movement spread across the United States and as jobs and opportunities opened up for black citizens, those who could, moved out, leaving behind those who had fewer options.

The percentage of rental housing stock continued to increase. Jobs and retail departed the area. Even the theater closed.

With the exit of the more successful former residents and with average incomes going down relative to the rest of the city, the tax base, code enforcement, city services and police protection declined as well.

The accommodation of an influential group of black pastors to the demands of the white power brokers didn't help either. White leaders were worried that the racial tension and unrest that was sweeping the nation would also come to Dallas. Deals were made, the pressure to protest was squelched and the quality of life for blacks in Dallas didn't improve as it should have, especially in neighborhoods like this one.

Today the area is in need of complete reclamation.

The City of Dallas has appropriated funds for infrastructure improvements along the section of Bexar Street pictured by Mr. Butts. Plans are in the works for single-family homes for sale.

Will it be possible to turn this neighborhood? Time will tell.

One thing seems certain to me. Without the infusion of fairly massive amounts of public investment in this community, the decay and the decline will continue.

Let's hope the public commitment comes through. This neighborhood should be reclaimed for its people and all of us who love Dallas.

[See the photographs of Marion Butts at:]


Anonymous said...


The legacy of discrimination and mistreatment, which came/comes in many forms, hangs over so many of the people in such neighborhoods. Yes, there are people who rise above the "baggage" of the past, but many were so beaten down, and are still beaten down, that "down" is the place they live.

Therapists spend their lives trying to help people rise above the early difficulties of familes that did not quite work. We all know that a "bad" beginning in a human life has life-long, and multi-generational, implications. We like to point to those who rise above such beginnings, and there is always the not so subtle implication that anyone who can't rise above such circumstances is somehow deficient. "If 'he' can rise above such circumstances, why can't everyone?" But, sadly, many simply can't.

"Reclamation" is a powerful word, and a challenging mission. The reclamation needed requires money, civic mission, and a pretty massive infusion of something more -- hope. And, genuine patience and similar hope from those offering help as well as those needing help.

Thank you for constantly reminding us of the work that stands before us all.

Randy Mayeux

Larry James said...

Thanks, Randy, for your post. I value you as a fast friend and a partner for the whole journey.