Representatives of historically Black communities across Tarrant and Dallas counties are learning more about how to preserve their histories – and their futures.
They gathered Oct. 21 at a UT-Arlington workshop led by Diane Jones Allen, the director of UTA’s landscape architecture program. She worked with fellow architecture professor Kathryn Holliday to coordinate the event as part of a three-day symposium honoring the 10th anniversary of the university’s Dillon Center for Texas Architecture.
The workshop featured a keynote address by Everett L. Fly, a San Antonio-based architect who has spent his career working on preservation of Black settlements.
Jones Allen viewed the workshop as an extension of a class she, Holliday and professor Austin Allen led last summer, where students researched freedmen’s towns established by formerly enslaved people along the Trinity River.
Tarrant County is home to a few, including Mosier Valley in far east Fort Worth and Garden of Eden, which was originally part of Birdville before it was absorbed into parts of Haltom City and Fort Worth. Students also worked with community leaders in Irving’s Bear Creek community and Dallas’ Joppa and The Bottom neighborhoods.
Those communities are facing a complex set of challenges because of their locations in flood-prone areas, historic lack of investment in infrastructure and the rise of property values stemming from gentrification, Jones Allen said in 2021.
In Mosier Valley, residents have voiced concern that the city is overlooking a long-awaited park project meant to commemorate the first freedmen’s town established in Texas, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
Last summer, the class invited members of all five freedmen’s town communities to campus to view their research, where Jones Allen spotted an opportunity to spark more dialogue among community leaders.
“We realized that it really allowed them to talk to each other and exchange resources and ideas,” Jones Allen said. “They really felt kind of empowered. We thought this would be an opportunity to bring them together again, and especially this time to have a real resource in Everett Fly.”
Holliday, who serves on the board of nonprofit Historic Fort Worth, said there’s a huge need for investment in historic preservation of Black communities across the Metroplex.
“There’s a long history of neglect by civic institutions, and so it’s important to provide a new kind of new venue for those conversations going forward,” she said.
During the workshop Friday, Fly told the audience that he understands the challenges they’re facing when it comes to documenting long-overlooked history.
He offered advice on how neighborhood leaders could earn historic designations, particularly through highlighting the rituals, customs and traditions that took place on the land.
Listing a property with the federal National Register of Historic Places, for example, encourages tourism and economic development, according to the Texas Historical Commission. Official designation also makes the property owner eligible for grants and tax incentive programs to maintain the property.
“I’ve heard people say the National Register of Historic Places is not for Black folks. I, quite frankly and respectfully, disagree,” Fly said. “I just think we need to learn how to use those National Register tools proactively, offensively, as opposed to defensively.”
He added: “It’s not just about stopping development, but it’s about maintaining and advancing our culture.”
Jones Allen and Holliday expect UT-Arlington to continue providing support and resources to historically Black communities.
Along with Austin Allen, Jones Allen’s husband, they are working on a “design playbook” for Black settlements funded with a $40,000 grant from the SOM Foundation. The book will feature maps of freedmen’s towns and design guidelines for improving land use, preservation and development.
“Part of the playbook is: How do you address these things? And do workshops like this work, bringing the community together and giving them resources?” Jones Allen said. “This workshop will be written about in the playbook and, hopefully, we will write about the pros and cons of it fairly.”
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