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Why did this cultural mecca for Dallas' Black community vanish? A new documentary tells the story

Arts & Culture
City of Dallas

"Dallas Rising: The Hall of Negro Life" airs Friday on KERA-TV and examines the building's rise and fall at Fair Park.

“The spark that became the flame that lit the civil rights movement.”

That’s how Lindell Singleton describes the Hall of Negro Life and it’s story within the history of Fair Park. Many have forgotten, but the 1936 centennial celebration was one of the most influential events in Texas history.

In 1936, The Texas Centennial Exposition brought entertainment and spectacle to Fair park. But it also inadvertently revealed the imbalance of money, power and racial tensions in Dallas.

The Hall of Negro Life was the first of its kind in the United States.

Some exhibitions within the hall told stories of Black innovation within the arts and sciences, and highlighted how instrumental Black life was to the progression of this country.

Others laid out the challenges Black Americans faced with blunt honesty, such as an exhibit about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which revealed truths about nationwide racism and discrimination.

Directors Singleton and King Hollis bring forth a brief but important historical moment for the Dallas Black community. The Hall was demolished five months after it opened, along with several other buildings, a move that some interpret as an act of cultural erasure directed at the African American community.

“You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” said Michael Graurer, an art historian and expert on the American West.

“When the sun went down on the 1936 centennial, the bulldozers went down on the Hall of Negro Life,” said senior archivist Donald Payton, describing the near vanishing of the hall.

The hall was short-lived. But cultural heavy-hitters organized its exhibitions and programs. Dorothy Porter, was the hall’s literary coordinator. She was the first African American to graduate with a library science degree from Columbia University. She was also a prominent figure during the Harlem renaissance and she “innovated by creating space in the Dewey Decimal System for African American productivity,” said Ann Hawkins, an assistant provost with The State University of New York, who was interviewed for the documentary.

Alongside her was mural artist and policy activist Aaron Douglas. He painted four murals throughout the hall that depicted Black resilience from being an enslaved race to becoming members of society.

It was “a watershed moment for the Black arts in America,” said Dallas artist and independent art curator Vicki Meek.

Onlytwo of the four mural panels exist today and neither is in Dallas. Titled “Into Bondage” and “Aspiration," they are in San Francisco and Washington DC.

The late civil rights legend A. Maceo Smith helped organizers ensure federal support of a Black presence at the Centennial, paving the way for the Hall. In the documentary, Congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson remembers his role, and shares how his work inspired her own path to public office.

“He was like a dad to me,” she said.

The film invites the viewer to consider what impact the hall might have had on the Black communities of Texas if it was still standing today. Could it have been a kind of Library of Alexandria for the Black community? A space for intellectual congregation where the endless possibilities of evolution were debated and celebrated?

Tearing it down so quickly “didn’t make any sense,” said Peggy Riddle, Director of Denton County office of History and Culture who was helpful in researching records from the demolition.

The Dallas African American Museum, formerly the location of the Hall of Negro Life demolished in spring 1937.
Solomon Wilson
Solomon Wilson
The Dallas African American Museum, formerly the location of the Hall of Negro Life demolished in spring 1937.

Currently the African American Museum of Dallas sits on the land that the Hall of Negro Life once stood, honoring the mission of the structure formerly there.

The documentary brings the all-but-forgotten story to a new resting place in the 21st century and leaves viewers asking “Why?” and “How?”

Lindell Singleton, who spearheaded the project describes the struggle African Americans face when seeking more information about their history.

“We as African Americans have never fully grasped the level of pain as a result of our past,” he said.

“We weren’t exorcized from our past and our history with a thin sized surgeon scalpel, we were exorcized from our history with a serrated blade. What the Hall of Negro Life did was uncover this hidden history of the African American Journey post slavery and made that history available and accessible.”

Documentary co-producer King Hollis is a Dallas native.

“It was an incredible discovery, to know about the city I grew up in," said Hollis. "Not knowing our contribution to civil rights, our contributions to the image of African Americans during that century.”

Hollis and Singleton saw this project as a calling.

“We just felt like we had to make this film, as Black men and Black filmmakers, we had to make this film because this film just lifts a veil on one of the most important moments in the African American sojourn in this country post slavery, that for the most part people have just forgot about it really,” said Singleton.

He describes the story of the Hall as a moment when African Americans were able to “seize the narrative of our story and take it back.”

The two men worked with a team of scholars to collect as much information as possible from what was left of the hall. Lynn Rushton who is collection and conservation manager for the city of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture, led the research team.

The documentary "Rising: The Hall of Negro Life" airs at 7:30 p.m. March 25 on KERA-TV.

Solomon Wilson is KERA's Marjorie Welch Fitts Louis Fellow. He focuses on covering racial equity, women’s rights, socioeconomic disparities and other evolving issues of social justice in our community.