Victims of racial violence in Dallas memorialized at Martyrs Park

Two black sheets hung in the hot sun Saturday at Martyrs Park in downtown dallas. City leaders, volunteers and other attendees sat for the reveal of two long-awaited markers memorializing victims of racial violence.

The two shiny gray and black Texas Historical Commission Markers, each towering over the heads of attendees who wanted to take a closer look at them, tell the stories of four Black people who were lynched in the mid-1800s. The park serves as a “memorial to the men and to the inhumane legacy of slavery in Dallas,” one sign says.

For years, historians and activists worked to document past racial violence in Dallas. The new historical markers in Martyrs Park are the latest step in Dallas addressing its history of racial violence and ongoing inequity.

“We do have some bad history in the city,” Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins told dozens gathered there Saturday. “But what are we going to do about it? How are we going to write the history of Dallas?”

The markers are only the latest step in an effort to raise awareness of racial violence and injustice that took place in the city.

One marker honors Jane Elkins, the first documented enslaved person purchased in Dallas County and the first woman legally hanged in the state. The other marker honors three men — Patrick Jennings, Cato Miller and the Rev. Samuel Smith — who were lynched at the site.

Their names are etched into a sundial-inspired steel sculpture — “Shadow Lines” — which the city in March dedicated to the four and all other local victims of lynching and racial violence between 1853 and 1920.

Local historian and activist Ed Gray told The Dallas Morning News that it is important to remember and share the stories of those who “meant nothing to American society” in the past. Gray is president of the Dallas County Justice Initiative and on the board of directors for Remembering Black Dallas, two nonprofits he said led the effort.

”We give them a life,” Gray said. “We give them a voice when someone else made sure their voices were not heard.”

A piece of Dallas history

Adjacent to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll, the park, established in 1991, is less than an acre in size. Cars from the Triple Underpass and the access ramp to Interstate 35E whizzed by as speakers, including Mayor Eric Johnson, gave their remarks on Saturday. Johnson said he felt the markers both honored the past and showed “how far our city has come.”

”We as a city must not sidestep the difficult parts of our history,” Johnson said. “We should recognize those difficult parts and we should confront those difficult parts head-on.”

Gray said the markers would have lost their impact if placed anywhere else. In addition to the three men who were killed at the site, he said enslaved people in Dallas County were often whipped there.

Ed Gray, leader of the Dallas County Justice Initiative, walks past the Jane Elkins historical marker following an event unveiling two historical markers memorializing Dallas victims of 19th-century racially motivated violence on Saturday, June 22, 2024, at Martyrs Park, in Dallas.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

The lynchings defined the area in the 1860s, he said, much like President John F. Kennedy’s assassination did a century later.

”We want people to realize that’s holy and sacred ground,” he said. “It’s just as holy and sacred as the ‘X’ that people marked on the street, that marks the spot where President Kennedy lost his life.”

Giving voice to those honored

Elkins was hanged in 1853 after being convicted of killing her white owner, Andrew Wisdom. The marker honoring Elkins says that she was tried before an all-white, male jury. She wasn’t allowed to testify and was without representation during her trial.

The marker states that years later, in 1880, a Galveston Daily News article found that she had been the first person to report Wisdom’s death. Though she had accused another person of committing the crime, Elkins became the sole and primary suspect.

“Her body was not her own,” Rev. Sheron Patterson said on Saturday. “Her actions were not her own.”

Jennings, Miller and Smith were hanged on newly-built gallows in 1860 after being falsely accused in connection with a fire downtown. The marker reads that a committee of 100 white men ordered that all slaves in Dallas be whipped.

Gray said Smith had political power and influence in his community as a minister. Miller was highly respected by other Black men and women at the Overton Plantation in Dallas County.

Related:A new memorial in downtown Dallas honors victims of racial violence

“He was enslaved but he ran things on the plantation,” Gray said of Miller. “When you have a Black man who is running things that sends the message to other African American men and women that they too can run things. They too can be important. They too can be respected.”

In recent years, other markers addressing racial violence have also been dedicated in the city. The Dallas County Justice Initiative worked for years to meet the requirements of the Equal Justice Initiative — which has the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. — and secure two markers in Dallas for Allen Brooks and William Allen Taylor.

The marker for Brooks, who was abducted, killed and hanged downtown in front of a large crowd in 1910, was dedicated at Pegasus Plaza in November 2021. The marker for Taylor, lynched in 1884 near the Trinity River, was dedicated last November at Trinity Overlook Park. Both of their names are on the sculpture in Martyrs Park.”This is one of those portions of history that can’t be, for lack of a better word, whitewashed and forgotten,” Gray said.

’Hope’ for the city

The smell of fresh mulch wafted at the unveiling Saturday as visitors appeared to take notice of landscaping improvements at the park. The land used to be filled with vines, shrubs and weeds, said Trent Williams, former senior program manager for Dallas Park and Recreation.

In the past year, the parks department has led efforts to clear the space to make room for the memorial and historical markers, he said. New trees and shrubs were planted.

Related:Elm Thicket-Northpark, once a Dallas-area freedmen’s town, cements its history with marker

City Council members showed interest in a memorial to victims of racial violence in 2018, amid ongoing debate over the removal of Confederate statues. There was controversy when work started on the project to place the markers, said Beverly Davis, vice president of Remembering Black Dallas at the event.

”Some people said ‘why would you want to bring to light something negative, that would make Dallas look bad,’” she said.

Davis said George Keaton Jr., the founder of Remembering Black Dallas, would always say: “This is not Black history. This is our shared history. This is American history.”

Keaton worked until his death in 2022 to put the idea of preserving history into action. At the unveiling, several speakers credited Keaton and his impact. Community organizations and city officials, along with Gray, have continued his work.

”This was a monumental task to get it done,” Gray said of Martyrs Park and the two new historical markers.

Gray commended the work of former City Manager T.C. Broadnax and interim City Manager Kimberly Tolbert, who he said helped to remove “roadblocks” to make the memorial and historical markers possible.

Tolbert, who spoke at the unveiling, told attendees to “hold onto our hope” and continue working to “dismantle the barriers that have divided us” and set people back in the city.

“My hope for this city and for those of you who are here this morning is that as we come back to this place to visit, that we are reminded that these markers are an opportunity for us to really cultivate the soul’s appreciation,” Tolbert said. “For truth. For honor. For respect and for dignity for these individuals.”


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