Upon learning of their emancipation in 1865, many African Americans in Texas left their former masters’ homes to embark on a new life as freedmen. Settling throughout the state, some sought agricultural work in rural areas, while others were drawn to towns where greater employment opportunities and benefits might be found. In and near the Dallas city limits, a number of freedmen communities arose, including Upper White Rock, Lower White Rock, Fields, The Prairie, Egypt (or Little Egypt), Elm Thicket, Tenth Street, and Joppa. One settlement in particular became known simply as Freedmantown (also called Freedman’s Town). Located almost two miles northeast of downtown Dallas, Freedmantown was noted in an 1873 Dallas Herald article, which announced, “There are over five hundred negroes living in what is called Freedmantown, adjoining East Dallas.”
This location was attractive for several reasons. In 1869 the white landowner, William Boales, began selling acreage to African Americans. One of the first transactions involved selling an acre to Sam Eakins (African American) for the purpose of establishing a freedman’s cemetery. This act alone suggests that freed African Americans were intent upon making this area their permanent home. During that same year, Boales also sold one-acre plots to a number of freedmen. The area likely was also attractive because it was outside the city limits. Blacks could go about their daily lives with less chance of encountering racism and violence, yet within walking distance of downtown where food, supplies, and employment might be obtained.
The caution that African Americans took in relation to their white neighbors was based on their past experience under enslavement as well as violent acts that took place during Reconstruction. William H. Horton, the Freedmen’s Bureau agent who arrived in Dallas County in 1867, researched and compiled records of offenses by whites that often resulted in death or severe injury to Blacks. Horton found evidence of lynchings, beatings, shootings, and whippings, as well as a dragging of one victim through the Trinity River bottoms, between 1865 and 1867. For the spring grand jury session in 1867, he found mention of thirteen murders of freedmen and Unionists.
In 1872–73 Freedmantown, like all of Dallas, benefitted from the arrival of two railroads—the north-south Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) and the east-west Texas and Pacific (T&P). They crossed each other where today’s Central Expressway (Highway 75) and Pacific Avenue meet. Each railroad company constructed a depot at the crossroads, creating a lively juncture where both people and goods came together. With Freedmantown just one mile north, the community enjoyed easy access to a major form of transportation and all the advantages that it brought.
With de facto segregation well in place, Blacks living in freedman communities were forced to create their own social and cultural institutions. Those settling in Freedmantown/North Dallas were quick to establish churches, schools, shops, and social fraternities, all of which not only gave residents a sense of community, but also provided necessary skills for survival and eventual success. Within a few years, Freedmantown/North Dallas was virtually a city within a city and well on its way to becoming the most prominent African American community in Dallas County.
Some of the first institutions established were churches. Religious activities started with small prayer groups that met in someone’s house or under a brush arbor. By 1878, however, the city directory listed seven African American churches in or near Freedmantown/North Dallas. These included Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.), Evening Chapel, Free Mission Baptist, Free Will Baptist, New Hope Baptist, St. Paul Methodist Episcopal (M.E.), and St. John Baptist. Most of these churches still existed in the early twenty-first century in other parts of the city, although the names have changed.
While emancipated men and women recognized the importance of education (see EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS), the Texas legislature had mandated in 1876 that the educational system be racially segregated. In addition, there were few funds available for Black schools. Thus, churches in Freedmantown/North Dallas often filled the void with classes for both adults and children. St. Paul M.E. ran an educational day school with Reverend Henry Swann, the church pastor, teaching classes. Reverend Allen R. Griggs of New Hope Baptist established a grammar school sometime around 1875. The curriculum included classes on reading, arithmetic, geography, writing, singing, and Bible studies. By 1877 Griggs found it judicious to add higher grade levels. With the help of Baptist congregations across the city, he soon established a high school which grew to an enrollment of 165 students.
City directories in the 1870s and 1880s noted the address, race, and occupation of listed individuals. Although African American residents of Freedmantown/North Dallas were limited in opportunities, they held a variety of jobs with diverse skill sets. They worked as teamsters, laborers, draymen, carpenters, barbers, expressmen, preachers, servants, blacksmiths, farmers, woodsawyers, porters, brickmakers, plasterers, engineers, and laundresses. Some owned their own businesses, and a few residents steadily grew in prominence. Dock Rowen successfully ran a grocery store and a loan, real estate, and title business; he also sold wood and coal and was reportedly a stockholder when the State Fair of Texas was founded in 1886. Abe Fuqua, who worked in a cotton gin for William Caruth, Sr., owned property in Freedmantown/North Dallas and had a street named for him.
The substantial growth of the Dallas population—the city more than tripled in size both in the 1870s and 1880s—prompted the creation of additional wards. In 1889 Freedmantown/North Dallas became a part of the newly-created Ward 9, and it is likely that the name Freedmantown had given way to North Dallas by this time. City directories no longer referred to Freedmantown, but they showed the North Dallas area to be occupied by African Americans living east of the H&TC railroad along Hall Street between Thomas Avenue and Flora Street and on the west side of the tracks between Cochran and Flora streets westward to Pearl Street. Although the area was primarily African American, some white households and businesses were scattered throughout the area. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from the 1890s and early twentieth century portray a landscape populated with a variety of housing types of varying sizes. Residents lived in houses ranging from narrow shotguns to more complex floorplans, including a mixture of square, L-shaped, T-shaped, and compound footprints. The diversity suggests economic differences among the residents. Some could afford larger homes or were able to add on over time; others could not.
Freedmantown/North Dallas was well established by the turn of the twentieth century and for the next forty years grew into a thriving, vital community. With segregation and Jim Crow laws in place, there were few neighborhoods where Blacks could live. Thus, Freedmantown/North Dallas was one of the more desirable enclaves for Blacks due to its location and continued development.
During the early 1900s many Black residents established themselves as professionals in a variety of fields. When William Elisha King founded a weekly Black-owned newspaper in 1892, he brought attention to African American life in Dallas and especially to Freedmantown/North Dallas. The Dallas Express, as it was later known, covered African American news at the local, state, and national levels.
A number of Freedmantown/North Dallas residents entered medical professions. Physician Benjamin Bluitt, received a license to operate a sanitarium in 1906 on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum. Ollie Louise Bryant Bryan, the first woman to graduate in dentistry from the prestigious Meharry Medical College (Tennessee), moved to Freedmantown/North Dallas by 1906 and maintained a practice for the next decade. Marcellus C. Cooper, who at one time worked for the Sanger Brothers store in downtown, also graduated from Meharry Medical College in dentistry and returned to Freedmantown/North Dallas. Not only was he a successful dentist, but he also invested in the city’s first Black-owned lending institution, the Penny Savings Bank, established in 1907. Over several decades, the Black medical community continued to expand, and doctors established additional clinics and sanitariums. In 1923 William R. McMillan opened the McMillan Sanitarium at the corner of Hall and State streets in Freedmantown/North Dallas. The facility quickly gained a reputation for quality care, and one of its doctors, Lee G. Pinkston, eventually established his own successful clinic.
During the 1920s the African American population in Dallas was more than 24,000, though it is not known how many Blacks resided in the Freedmantown/North Dallas area. Businesses there, however, had significantly increased from approximately fifty after World War I to more than 130 in 1924. Other professionals who grew to prominence while contributing to their community included educators, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists, and an architect. Norman W. Harllee, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, served as principal of what was then officially known as Colored High School. Harllee worked diligently on the behalf of students and teachers and lobbied for a new building when the high school became overcrowded. The school moved into a new brick building on Flora and Fairmount in 1922 and was renamed Booker T. Washington High School.
One of Freedmantown/North Dallas’s nationally renowned residents was the architect, William Sydney Pittman. Pittman and his wife, Portia (daughter of Booker T. Washington), moved to Dallas by 1913. Pittman designed the St. James A.M.E. Church on Good Street and the Knights of Pythias building at Elm and Good streets. The five-story Knights of Pythias building, completed in 1916, held office space for many African-American professionals and included a ballroom. Both the church and the Knights of Pythias building have been designated City of Dallas landmarks.
By the 1930s Freedmantown/North Dallas had reached its peak as the heart and soul of Dallas’s Black population. For many African Americans, the community was home— where their children were educated, where residents shopped, where they joined the African-American YMCA or YWCA (which had permanent buildings constructed in 1931 and 1928, respectively), and went to the movies at the State Theater. The Negro Chamber of Commerce and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held meetings in the community. Families attended church, went to the park, and checked out books at the Dunbar Library. But the development of Freedmantown/North Dallas was not without challenges. Throughout the years, residents faced adversity, prejudice, racism, and violence. The area’s restrictive boundaries discouraged geographical expansion and resulted in overcrowding, deterioration of structures, and the greater need for more paved streets, sewer lines, and other infrastructure that was necessary to reduce increased health risks associated with growing poverty. That citizens were successful is testimony to their commitment and dedication in building a community and contributing to the overall development of the city.
Freedmantown/North Dallas experienced a long decline starting in the 1940s. Ironically, the very route that enabled its early growth and success also initiated its demise. In the 1940s the H&TC railroad tracks were removed for the construction of Highway 75, or Central Expressway as it is commonly known. Suddenly, the east and west sides of Freedmantown/North Dallas were cut off from each other by a dangerous, virtually impassable barrier. Furthermore, a number of houses and shops within the right-of-way were demolished for the sake of the highway, which was completed in 1949. The 1940s also brought construction of public housing with the Roseland Homes project which opened in the eastern section of North Dallas in 1942. Its completion came after a court battle in which a significant number of Black (and some White) property owners protested the construction and filed an injunction against the Dallas Housing Authority in 1939. The property owners lost, and ultimately 142 tracts of real estate were purchased for the housing development. Roseland Homes was noted for its positive influence regarding the provision of housing (though strictly rental) to many families, but the project also displaced many other former homeowners who did not have alternative choices in white neighborhoods.
The final blow came two decades later in 1962 when the Woodall Rodgers Freeway demolished most of Cochran Street and forced several churches, businesses, and families to relocate. In this case, residents were cut off from downtown Dallas, a common destination that had always been accessible by foot, if necessary. With the relocation of several churches, and being hemmed in by massive roadways, many Freedmantown/North Dallas residents found living accommodations elsewhere and moved to enclaves in South Dallas, the west side of the Trinity River, and in the African-American neighborhood of Hamilton Park near Forest Avenue and Central Expressway. Mixed in with these physical alterations were social changes aimed at dismantling segregation, and thus, creating less need for Blacks to rely on North Dallas for goods, services, or entertainment. Freedman’s Memorial Park and Cemetery was established in 1965 in the effort commemorate the site of the Freedman’s Cemetery, but only two original grave markers remained. The cemetery received a Texas Historical Marker in 1993.
By the early twenty-first century, Freedmantown/North Dallas was barely recognizable to those who once called it home. Although vestiges remained in the form of Booker T. Washington High School, St. Paul United Methodist Church, Moorland YMCA (home of Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 2020), and the historic homes that made up the State-Thomas Historic District, the majority of the buildings and the people that made it a thriving, Black community were gone. In the 2020s under its new names, State-Thomas and Uptown, the area displays modern multi-story apartments, high-end restaurants, chain stores, clubs, and theaters that reflect a whole new culture.