Dock Rowen, a successful Dallas African-American entrepreneur and businessman, son of Henry and Senia Rhone, was born in Alabama on March 21, 1854. Family folklore holds that he was born in Jerusalem in 1860. When asked about his origin, Rowen, an exuberant and creative person, sometimes claimed Jerusalem as his place of birth. His intricate response was a fabrication that included the claim that he had migrated from Jerusalem to South Carolina by working as a cook’s assistant on a ship. Some of Rowen’s descendants theorize that he playfully concocted this extremely improbable story to avoid having to admit that he had been born into slavery. Those descendants say that they think the reality was so profoundly repugnant to him that he invented this sort of reverse “Marching to Zion” falsehood simply to avoid having to face the distasteful truth.
The 1870 census recorded Rowen as living with his family in Newbern, Hale County, Alabama. He moved to Dallas around 1880 and married former slave Nannie Terry from the Grand Prairie area. As a young man, Rowen worked as a porter and an express driver. At that time, the young couple lived in the “Frogtown” neighborhood of Dallas, near a red-light district. Soon they moved to Juliette (sometimes spelled Juliet) Street in the Freedman’s Town area of “near North Dallas.” That house at 271 Juliette comprised only 800 square feet, yet in 1900 it was the second-largest house on the block. Dock Rowen opened a grocery store in a two-story brick building on Flora Street; when it burned in 1892, he opened a grocery store and meat market on Juliette, next door to his home. Later he opened a pharmacy next to the grocery store.
As Rowen’s business interests thrived and grew, so did his family. Dock and Nannie Rowen had eight children. Rowen added onto and remodeled his small house and eventually converted it into a spacious thirteen-room Victorian home that was a showplace.
In 1900 Rowen and a number of other prominent African Americans in Dallas organized the North Texas Colored Fair Association in which he served as second vice-president. During the 1901 fair, the association announced plans to open the New Century Cotton Mill in which Rowen and three other African Americans were investors.
Dock Rowen became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the city during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His business enterprises expanded to include (in addition to the grocery, meat market, and pharmacy) dry goods, insurance, loans, and bail bonds. He operated a store in the Deep Ellum area as well. He also became a partner in a mortuary and invested substantially in Dallas real estate. He was an investor in the State Fair of Texas. Sadye Gee, in Black Presence in Dallas, wrote, “Rowen was known as a capitalist and was a very prominent merchant, real estate owner and promoter of business enterprises in Dallas. His oldest daughter, Leoma, was also business oriented. She established a millinery shop featuring handmade designer hats.” Leoma’s shop was located on Juliette Street, near the family home. At some point, Juliette Street addresses changed when the original three-digit numbers were replaced with four-digit address numbers; in 1932, Juliette Street was renamed Munger Street.
In Progress of a Race, authors H. F. Kletzing and William Crogman reported:
Mr. D. Rowen, a merchant of Texas, after having passed through varied scenes and hardships, finds himself a prosperous merchant of Dallas. He paid taxes on real estate in 1896 valued at $41,000. Mr. Rowen has shown what can be done by a poor boy who is determined to let the world know that he is living in it.
Dock Rowen was a Republican and was active in politics. He served as president of the Kearby Club, which he helped organize in 1894, to recruit Black voters to vote for the election of a Populist, Maj. Jerome C. Kearby, to the United States Congress. A street and a housing addition were named in honor of Dock Rowen. In 1913 he pledged $500 toward the establishment of an industrial school in Dallas for Blacks and wrote a letter published in the Dallas Daily Times Herald urging others to also contribute.
Along with five other people, Rowen helped organize a church in his neighborhood that was originally known simply as Evening Chapel; services were limited to Sunday evenings because Black domestic servants were not able to attend church on Sunday mornings—they had to prepare lunch for the white families that employed them. Later Evening Chapel was moved to the corner of Boll and Juliette streets and renamed Boll Street Christian Church. The church then moved to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas; in 2012 it was known as Cedar Crest Christian Church. Rowen was a trustee of Freedman’s Cemetery, which was located in his neighborhood.
Dock Rowen was reputed to have been the first Black person in Dallas to own an automobile, a 1912 Cole. He was also the first Black person in Dallas to operate a loan business. Summarizing his personal ambitions and hopes in 1914, Rowen wrote, “I came to this city before the first train arrived here to help make her, and have spent my life at work and in business, trying to do all the good I could for Dallas, and my race.” He retired from actively personally running some of his businesses in 1928. He became a widower when Nannie died on March 14, 1931. On the evening of October 8, 1932, after having attended the State Fair of Texas earlier that day, Dock Rowen suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of seventy-eight. He was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Many of his descendants still live in the Dallas area.