PERSPECTIVE: Dallas memorializes lynching site near spot of Kennedy assassination

DALLAS — Adjacent to the Sixth Floor Museum and the grassy knoll where a bullet took down President John F. Kennedy sits another patch of sacred ground with its own historically consequential story.

It took Dallas decades to fully face Kennedy’s assassination. It’s taken far longer to acknowledge the murders that occurred about 100 years earlier — just on the other side of where the Triple Underpass would eventually stand.

In 1860, three enslaved Black men — Patrick Jenkins, Cato Miller and the Rev. Samuel Smith — were lynched at this site, alongside the original path of the Trinity River. They were hanged after specious accusations concerning their part in setting a downtown fire, and their deaths became part of an infamous reign of terror led by white businessmen during which enslaved individuals were rounded up and tortured.

The public artwork “Shadow Lines,” by artists Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, will be dedicated March 26 at Martyrs Park, located just west of the Sixth Floor Museum in downtown Dallas. Photo credit: Juan Figueroa, Texas Metro News
The public artwork “Shadow Lines,” by artists Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee, will be dedicated March 26 at Martyr’s Park, located just west of the Sixth Floor Museum in downtown Dallas. Photo credit: Juan Figueroa, Texas Metro News

At long last, Dallas will formally dedicate a sculpture on the site on Tuesday that honors these three men and all other local victims of lynching and racial violence between 1853 and 1920.

“Shadow Lines,” the sundial-inspired weathering steel sculpture, is the work of artists Shane Allbritton and Norman Lee. At one end of its semicircular wall is a poem written by former Dallas resident and poet laureate of Virginia Tim Seibles about this spot and its brutal history.

Initial thoughts of a memorial to racial violence

In early 2018, in the midst of the debate over removal of Confederate statues, City Council members expressed interest in a memorial to victims of racial violence. George Keaton Jr., founder of Remembering Black Dallas, persevered until his death in December 2022 to turn the idea into action. The Dallas County Justice Initiative, with Ed Gray at the helm, and Remembering Black Dallas finished the job.

The sculpture sits in a pocket of city land known as Martyr’s Park. It’s not an ideal place for a contemplative green space, trapped between the Triple Underpass and the access ramp to Interstate 35E and deafened by highway traffic and the Trinity Railway Express rumbling overhead.

It’s no mystery why the dedication ceremony is taking place at the Sixth Floor Museum before the ribbon-cutting at the sculpture site. Hearing the speeches would be impossible at Martyr’s Park.

But Gray, like Keaton before him, is steadfast about this being the right location.

“To the people who ask, ‘Why did we build this here?’ This is where it occurred,” Gray told me. “We can’t change what’s there now, but it remains historic and sacred.”

I took my first close look at the sculpture Saturday and was pleasantly surprised to find a more welcoming feel at Martyr’s Park, a raw space full of trash and tents on my several previous visits.

Accessibility remains a challenge. Your best bet is to park in the Sixth Floor Museum area and walk along the Elm Street sidewalk and through the pedestrian tunnel. Once you emerge, you are only steps from the park.

 Martyrs Park in Dallas at sunset. Photo credit: Michael Harbour
Martyr’s Park in Dallas at sunset. Photo credit: Michael Harbour

The most important upgrades have taken place in the tunnel. Never before had I walked through this long dark corridor when it didn’t smell like a urinal — and looked even worse. It’s now been repaired, painted, scrubbed and lighted. On order is vandal-resistant permanent lighting.

The park department has cleaned out decades of trash, underbrush and scraggly bushes that once encircled much of Martyr’s Park. The lower limbs of the stately trees along the street and in the background have been trimmed to allow for better viewing. A new sidewalk is in place, and lights illuminate the sculpture at night.

Let me be clear — the place didn’t look great. Recent heavy rains had left deep puddles throughout the park and threatened to wash away newly planted grass. The railroad-owned embankment remained unsightly. A man lay tucked up against the sculpture’s front wall — his sleep only disturbed when I began reading the inscriptions aloud.

But if you squint a little, you actually see a park, not a dumping ground. It’s a minimalist landscape that keeps the focus on the piece of stark public art, just as Keaton wanted.

Still to be added are two Texas Historical Commission markers, one honoring Jenkins, Miller and Smith and the other commemorating Jane Elkins, an enslaved woman hanged in 1853 after her conviction for killing her white owner as he attempted to rape her. Elkins’ name is also inscribed on “Shadow Lines.”

With the dedication of the sculpture, Gray said, Martyr’s Park provides a homecoming for all local victims of racial violence. “It gives them a sense of all being put together in one spot and further sanctifying that ground.”

The “Shadow Lines” dedication will mark the last of three high-profile events in Dallas’ reckoning with the violence wrought by racism.

Behind-the-scenes work to make the memorial a reality

To secure the markers for two other victims, the Dallas County Justice Initiative worked for years to meet the requirements of the Equal Justice Initiative, whose National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., is a shrine to the victims of lynching.

The marker for Allen 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 William Allen Taylor, lynched by vigilantes in 1884 near the Trinity River, was dedicated last November at Trinity Overlook Park. The names of Brooks and Taylor are also among those on the Martyr’s Park sculpture.

Gray had many kind words about how hard City Hall, especially the Equity and Inclusion, Arts and Culture, and Park and Recreation departments, has worked to get the commemorations done right.

He said it was important, in contrast, to note Mayor Eric Johnson has not attended any of the events. “His reluctance to be a part of these is troublesome and disturbing,” Gray said.

Johnson’s chief of staff, Alheli Garza, told me the mayor “regrettably has a preexisting immovable conflict” with Tuesday’s event. She said his office is “coordinating a private visit for Mayor Johnson to view the installation and meet the artists on a future date.”

Most meaningful to me at the memorial site is Seibles’ poem, the words of which are punched into the sculpture’s steel wall. It’s exactly what needed to be written for Dallas, where we’ve made a lot of progress but still prefer the reconciliation part of racial healing to the hard truth-telling.

Seibles’ words are no Kumbaya moment, but rather searing honesty. Please take time to read the full text, which accompanies my column.

Finally, thinking about the 50 or so tourists I passed on the grassy knoll Saturday as I walked to Martyr’s Park — where I was the sole visitor, not counting the homeless guy — here’s a suggestion: The last JFK information placard is only steps from the pedestrian tunnel. Can a sign be added about the historically relevant events visitors can find on the other side of the bridge?

That’s history Dallas and its visitors also need to understand.

The public dedication of “Shadow Lines” will begin at 10 a.m. March 26 in the Courts Room of the Sixth Floor Museum, 411 Elm St,, followed by the ribbon-cutting at the sculpture at Martyr’s Park, 379 Commerce St.

Below is the full text of the poem cut into the sculpture:


These are the things

nightmares are made of:

ropes, knives, a torn

black face, burning flesh,

white mobs, their picnics

and blood-spattered hands.

We want to forget

what happened here,

But it is impossible

not to wonder what broken

song in the human heart

led to this. What rancid fear

tightened the knots, gathered

the grinning throngs?

All of us live with these echoes:

the last screams of a man

ripped apart, hung for display,

the mob’s ruthless laughter.

Though we remain

tied to these wounds

and wary of each other —

though we don’t want

to believe this happened here.

this grief, this jagged silence

still builds inside us, no matter

how far we run, no matter

how quickly we turn away.

You are here now.

Remember that this too

made America.

Sound your voice.

— Tim Seibles, 2023

The original version of this story appeared here on the website for BNV partner Texas Metro News.

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