Thomas Lafayette Marsalis, Sr., a founder of Oak Cliff and a promoter of Dallas, was born on October 4, 1852, in Amite County, Mississippi, to Patterson Marsalis and Martha (Terrell) Marsalis. The first verified ancestors of Marsalis in America were Pieter Marselis and family who came to America in 1661 from the Netherlands. The family settled in Bergen County, New Jersey, and became members of the Dutch Reform Church. Five generations later Marsalis’s grandfather Peter Hutchins Marsalis left New Jersey, migrated south to Georgia, then west to Amite County, Mississippi, where he and wife Mary Magdalene Gordon Marsalis raised six sons, including Patterson, the father of Thomas.
By the 1870 census the family had moved to Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where Patterson Marsalis owned and operated a large farm and a general store. The census listed Thomas, age seventeen, as a clerk in his father’s dry goods store. Within the year young Thomas L. Marsalis set out to find his fortune. He traveled to the railroad terminus of Corsicana, Texas, where he quickly became co-owner in 1871 of “a wholesale grocery business under the firm name of Garlington and Marsalis.” However Marsalis and his business partner Moses Garlington quickly saw the opportunities that awaited them in the developing railway center of Dallas and subsequently moved their wholesale grocery business to that location.
In 1873 Marsalis married Elizabeth Josephine (Lizzie) Crowdus, the daughter of Dr. J.W. Crowdus who was one of Dallas’s wealthiest citizens and a future mayor. Thomas and Elizabeth had three children—Allene, Laila, and Thomas, Jr.—all born in Dallas.
Thomas L. Marsalis, Sr., has been credited with helping to establish the Dallas Fire Department, for initiating the paving of Dallas streets with bois d’arc around 1881, and helping to fund a new newspaper, the Dallas Morning News. Marsalis played an important role in the creation of the State Fair of Texas and was a director for the Dallas State Fair and Exposition in its Semi-Centennial celebration of 1886. He and his new partner John S. Armstrong built four grocery warehouses in Dallas. The last one constructed was a one-acre building with a railroad track running through it. By 1887 Marsalis and Armstrong had begun diversifying their business operations. They organized the Dallas Land and Loan Company and entered the real estate market by purchasing 2,000 acres of land located across the Trinity River from Dallas (including the early settlement of Hord’s Ridge). The large lots were platted to be sold at auction in the newly-named Oak Cliff community. By November 1887 Oak Cliff was being billed in ads as “a beautiful suburb of Dallas.”
The partnership of Marsalis and Armstrong lasted only a short time. On November 1, 1887, they sold $23,000 worth of lots at auction, and on the following day they auctioned lots totaling $38,113. Marsalis reacted to the success by holding some of the remaining lots off the market in the hope of driving their price even higher. Armstrong, who disagreed with this practice, reportedly dissolved their partnership on the spot. He assumed control of the grocery operations of the business, while Marsalis took ownership of the real estate operations.
Marsalis’s property development of Oak Cliff became a huge investment with its steam railroad, water supply system, public streets, and parks. A college for women and a deluxe resort-style hotel were among his ambitious undertakings. After the partnership dissolved, Marsalis personally financed the $500,000 initial real estate purchase and the cost of the street improvements. He constructed a waterworks system and an electric light plant for his rapidly expanding development. He set aside 150 acres for a landscaped park (which later became known as Marsalis Park, the home of the Dallas Zoo) and a three-story dance pavilion and summer opera house. Artesian wells on the property were converted into what were advertised as “life saving mineral baths.” All of these features helped promote Oak Cliff as a vacation resort. By 1890 an election was held to incorporate Oak Cliff. The first election was invalidated by the Texas courts. In June 1891 a second election was held, and a smaller version of the Oak cliff incorporation was ratified. Oak Cliff thus became an incorporated city with a population approaching 3,000.
With vast sums invested in his ventures, Marsalis was never on strong financial footing but he continued to expand and dream. He founded and served as president of the Oak Cliff Hotel Company, the Oak Cliff Water Supply Company, the Oak Cliff Light and Power Company, the Dallas and Oak Cliff Railroad Company, and the Dallas Land and Loan Company. Looking for new capital and investors, Marsalis and his family left for Philadelphia and New York City for several months but returned to Dallas by October 1891. By the end of 1891 Marsalis had organized new stockholders into several corporations as he continued to expand his Oak Cliff residential land holdings. Marsalis and family left Dallas again, but he returned in April 1892 and remained for about six months. In March 1893 his North Oak Cliff Company defaulted and assets were auctioned. In April Marsalis’s railroads were sold off.
By July 1894 the New York Times reported that Marsalis had become president of the American Grocery Company in New York City. This had been the huge but insolvent Thurber-Wyland Company for whose recapitalization “Marsalis and certain friends had paid in $100,000.” By 1897 the American Grocery Company was failing and was ordered to be liquidated according to reports in the New York Times.
On November 16, 1898, Marsalis arrived back in Dallas where he was welcomed and feted by the mayor and business leaders. The 1900 census listed him as a “capitalist” boarding at the Windsor Hotel in Dallas. By October 1900, according to stories in the Dallas Morning News, Elizabeth and daughter Laila, a recent Vassar graduate, were also in Dallas attending social parties and a debutante ball for Laila while staying with one of Elizabeth’s sisters. Though the family maintained permanent residency in New York City, they remained a part of Dallas life for almost five more years. In June 1900 Thomas Marsalis, Jr., had enrolled in Harvard. He later became a wealthy stockbroker and a founding member of the American Stock Exchange. In 1917 he opened the Thomas Marsalis Company, his own stock brokerage firm, and handled distribution of Standard Oil issues on the “Curb Market.”
While Thomas, Jr, was attending Harvard, his father was involved in various business activities back in Dallas. According to the Dallas Morning News, he sued the Oak Cliff Sewage Company and had the ownership put in his name by order of the Texas Supreme Court. Another report stated that Marsalis sued the owners of the new interurban railroad between Dallas and Fort Worth for “$3.5 million in stocks and bonds” due to “violations of contract.”
Laila and her mother Elizabeth were again mentioned in Dallas society articles during the October 1903 social season but had apparently returned to Manhattan by the end of November. After twelve years of commuting between Dallas and New York, the entire Marsalis family seems to have returned permanently to New York. In November 1903, after having been foreclosed on ten years earlier, the huge brick Oak Cliff mansion Marsalis had built for his family but had never occupied was put up for auction. In 1905 the Dallas city council agreed to change the name of Grand Avenue in Oak Cliff to Marsalis Avenue in honor of Thomas Lafayette Marsalis, Sr.
Marsalis died from lobar pneumonia on April 20, 1919, in Paterson, New Jersey. Elizabeth Crowdus Marsalis died in 1926 in New York City. Thomas, Sr., Elizabeth, and daughter Laila are buried in Cedar Lawn Cemetery, in Paterson, New Jersey.