Dallas: A City of Mistaken Identity

The physical location of Dallas, Texas is at a crossroads of America. It is where the slave-ridden ideologies of the nineteenth century south meet the open-range of the newly settled west. Because of its locational ambiguity, Dallas attracted a myriad of settlers after its founding in 1856. This fusion of cultures led to the evolution of traditional ideas concerning the “whiteness” of people of African American and Jewish descent.

In Michael Phillip’s work White Metropolis, he develops the definition of the concept of “whiteness.” According to Phillips, whiteness is not only based on one’s skin color, but also on one’s ancestry and one’s acceptance of the Anglo-Saxon elite’s ideals. The elite class of Dallas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was primarily made up of white males of Anglo-Saxon descent that practiced Protestant religions. Whiteness in early Dallas history meant better jobs and a higher quality of life. Therefore, whiteness was and idea desired of other ethnic groups such as the Jews.

The Jewish people of twentieth century Dallas were not seen as equal to the Dallasites of Anglo-Saxon descent, despite the white color of their skin. Traditionally, the west was seen as a land of growth and opportunity, and a migration of Jews wanted to make their claim in this burgeoning urban town. However, once in Dallas they were greeted with prejudice and suspicion from the cities elite. For the Dallas Jews, the inequality meant that they were excluded from the highest positions in society and the most exclusive social groups. However, many Jews like Herbert Marcus, of Neiman Marcus, did well in the department store business. Compared to other ethnic groups that inhabited the city, the Jews that resided in Dallas in the early twentieth century had almost no reason to complain.

The original Neiman Marcus building in Dallas, Texas

The original Neiman Marcus building in Dallas, Texas

Much of the African American community during the progressive years of Dallas was haunted by the memory of their ancestor’s subjection to domination in the city. Dallas history is splattered throughout with the mistreatment and oppression of the city’s African American and slave population. The ruling class of the city was afraid of their rapidly growing numbers in the early twentieth century taking control and afraid that their mistreatment of the blacks in previous generations would cause them to rise up in resentment. However, through segregation, the white elite found ways to keep their black counterparts beneath them during the Civil Rights Era. Even though the Thirteenth Amendment gave African Americans their freedom, free did not mean equal.

Both of these groups had the intense desire to obtain the whiteness of the elite class, but in doing so, it required the loss of their own culture and mimicking the mindset of the Anglo-Saxon upper class.   For the Jews, this loss of culture could be seen in the changing of their religious services from being spoken in their native Hebrew language to the elite’s English. The African American community attempted to acquire whiteness in a more outspoken ways. Backed by the NAACP, the African Americans in Dallas vocally advocated for equal rights and in the 1950s, desegregation.

The physical location of Dallas played a large role in the mindset and ideologies of the ruling class. In the beginning of its history, Dallas was a slave town, just as many towns in the south at that time. The keyword here being “south.” The upholding of the slave tradition would originally classify Dallas as a southern town and the ideas from this time period would trickle down for generations to come. However, Texas, and Dallas along with it, was a region that was being developed along with the rest of the west in the mid-nineteenth century. This city with multiple identities had an effect on the people that settled there.

The people of different identities that migrated to Dallas because they saw the American west as a land of opportunity were often sadly mistaken, unless they were male and of Anglo-Saxon descent. These ethnic people that came with the ideas of the future of equality were met with a bygone mindset rooted in racism, hatred, and suspicion. This clash of opposite ideologies took time for both groups to adapt to the other. The African Americans, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and people of other ethnicities had to give up their identities to try to earn this concept of whiteness that would lead to a better life. And though it would take decades, the Anglo-Saxon elite would have to learn to accept people from all corners of the globe. The tricky location of Dallas warrants the melting pot of ethnicities and ideologies that converged there in the twentieth century, but the ethnic stew was cooked into the conformity of “whiteness” and many of those original cultures have been altered into a mix of others.

The Dallas County Administration Building, home of the Six Floor Museum where President Kennedy was shot from.

The Dallas County Administration Building, home of the Six Floor Museum where President Kennedy was shot from.

When visiting Phillips in Dallas on November 1st of this year, it is hard to imagine the racism that once consumed that community. While walking around Dealey Plaza, there were people of every race and ethnicity visiting the place where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Some even taking pictures on the “X” in the street. However, we were the only group to walk under the underpass to the grassy area where three black men were falsely accused and hanged during the panic of the Dallas Fires during a hot Dallas summer. There was not even a sign commemorating the site, showing that modern Dallas has chosen to cover up its less than admirable past.


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