Remembering Black Dallas revives forgotten history with new bus tours

The Ukunika Bus and Walking Tours take passengers to sites around Dallas that were once hubs for the city’s Black community.

By Zara Amaechi, KERA NewsMay 8, 2024 9:41 am, , ,

From KERA News:

All around Dallas are markers telling the rich Black history that shaped the city: White Rock Chapel, the Pittman Hotel, Keller Springs Road.

But words don’t travel as fast as you think, and some stories are forgotten.

That’s why the historical organization Remembering Black Dallas created a new series of tours — funded partially through a grant from the city’s Office of Arts and Culture — highlighting these and other areas in modern-day Dallas County that were once hubs for the Black community.

“Our main focus is to draw light on the history and of the African American freedom towns, communities and those individuals that others may not know anything about,” said Deborah Hopes, the president of Remembering Black Dallas.

Hopes, a South Dallas native, named the venture the Ukunika Bus and Walking Tour after the Zulu word meaning “to give back.” The monthly tours were an idea first put forward by RBD founder George Keaton, and it was one Hopes wanted to keep alive. They both had the benefit of living through some of that history or were taught stories of a time before them.

“We have others that are from that community, or they had grandparents or relatives that lived in those communities that shared stories,” Hopes said.

She said RBD didn’t start the tours out of fear of forgetting the community’s history, but rather as a chance to relive old memories. She believes this is the first step to recognizing Black history while her peers are still around to educate others.

“History in itself doesn’t change. History in itself remains the same,” she said. “But if you don’t know it, then you are not privy to it.”

Zara Amaechi / KERA News

Attendees tour the South Dallas home of civil rights activist Juanita Craft.

Unforgettable history

The first of the Ukunika bus tours took attendees around South Dallas, focusing on women’s history and how the civil rights movement affected the area. It highlighted American activists like Julia C. Frazier, Pearl C. Anderson and Juanita J. Craft, whose house — which hosted Martin Luther King. Jr and Lyndon B. Johnson — was among the stops.

“I think Dallas can be a very ahistoric place,” said Phaedra Gwyn, who grew up in the city but said she had no idea the cultural significance the neighborhood carried. “I was really happy to learn more about the civil rights movement in Dallas and Black people’s contributions.”

Another attendee, Courtney Simmons, was raised in Dallas and attended Lincoln High School. She brought her daughters on the tour so they could see how her neighborhood has changed, and how it’s preserved its culture.

“The infiltration of the city and how it just kind of [reduced] the Black community down and how it got a little disenfranchised, but there’s still efforts going on today to keep those visions alive,” Simmons said.

Zara Amaechi / KERA News

Passengers climb aboard the Ukunika tour bus.

Others grew up in the city and had no idea of the cultural significance these neighborhoods carried.

Another tour covered the area known today as North Dallas, which was established as a Freedmen’s Town in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.

The area associated with North Park, the Galleria and the former Valley View Mall was once home to Dallas’s oldest and most prominent Black landowners, including Anderson Bonner, Henry Keller and George Coit.

“I traveled up and down Coit Road and didn’t realize it was named after a Black person,” said RBD member Karl Lewis. “And I doubt very few people realize that.”

Passengers got a chance to meet several notable Dallas natives who have seen the city change firsthand.

Patricia Price Hicks, who is on the Dallas County Historical Commission, shared her experience growing up in Hamilton Park, an area named after prominent landowner Richard Theodore Hamilton.

“This was unheard of because there was no Black community per se,” Hicks said.

The group explored the hidden White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, where they were met by Glen Bonner — one of Anderson’s descendants.

“This was the first known interracial cemetery in North Dallas, North Texas area, actually,” Bonner said.

Hearing about forgotten history brought up a lot of emotions for some attendees. Sicily Whetstone is a grad student who attended the tour for a school project. She said she sees the tour as a form of reparations for Black Dallas that also educates the public.

“Those people have [been] lost in history,” she said. “So, I’m really thinking the reparations really need to go deep, starting maybe in the graveyards and the histories of those.”

She’s grateful for organizations like RBD that are dedicated to praising this history, but she said she’d like to see more support from the city of Dallas.

“This is something that we should sell as our city that this is something that we need to repair,” Whetstone said. “And it should be in our local history books in our schools.”

RBD president Deborah Hopes said that’s one of the aims of the tours.

“What I found is that they’re getting these ‘wow’ moments like, ‘wow, I didn’t know that,’” she said. “I think that is strengthening the desire to do more and want to know more and to learn more about communities in themselves.”

Zara Amaechi / KERA News

Patricia Price Hicks shares the history of Hamilton Park on the Ukunika Bus Tour.

Embracing the past

Remembering Black Dallas required all hands on-deck to be able to execute a project as big as the Ukunika bus tours — starting with the amount of research and networking that went into organizing them.

The organization has volunteers from all over Dallas who were curious to learn more about the history of the land they live on today. They believe it brings a new perspective to what should be researched further and highlighted.

“Everybody can embrace this history because it helps you understand the place that you are calling home,” volunteer tour guide Sharron Conrad said. “By understanding the people and the stories that make up these communities.”

Some, like Larry Offut, are trying to make up for the history they were naïve to. Offut is one of several members of RBD who’s white and lived through the civil rights movement. He said the tours are bringing awareness to a past that many people ignored.

“It really was striking to me to read those things and understand that I had lived them as a child and as a young adult,” Offutt said. “…It never occurred to me there was any trauma.”

While RBD has worked to document some of the worst events in Dallas’ past by installing markers around the city memorializing lynching victims, the tours show that there’s much more to the area’s Black history than trauma.

“What I would like others to know is that we didn’t only just exist and survive,” the organization’s financial secretary Reginald Small said. “We actually thrived in our communities even with the oppression. We actually thrived, and it’s so documented.”

Remembering Black Dallas offers the Ukunika Bus and Walking Tours once a month through August. Some areas they’ll hit next are Dealey Plaza, Old City Park and Deep Ellum.

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