A Marker, a Library, my Home and a Travel Back in Time to Dallas’ First African-American Branch Library

A Marker, a Library, my Home and a Travel Back in Time to Dallas’ First African-American Branch Library

It’s a simple rectangular plaque on a slanted block of cement at the corner of Worthington and Thomas streets in Dallas’ Uptown area yet it stands as a testament to a time, 87 years ago when the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library, named in honor of the pre-eminent black poet, novelist and playwright, opened in what was then the segregated State-Thomas and Freedman’s Town/North Dallas thriving African-American community. 

This concrete commemorative plaque at the corner of Thomas and Worthington in Dallas, on the original site of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library, is what led me on my journey to learn more about the library and it’s place as I traveled back through history. The library’s address at the time was 2721 Thomas Ave. The plaque commemorates the library’s “service to the African-American Community Dallas’ Freedman’s Town Neighborhood” from June 1931 to May 1959 by the Dallas Public Library. (Photo taken August 2018)

I see this commemorative marker everyday because I live in the same location where the library, the only one in Dallas that black children and families could use during segregation, once stood. In 1931, it opened to much fanfare because it took nearly 30 years of black leaders campaigning to get Dallas’ first library where blacks could be welcomed to learn, built.  

Except, the library, once located at 2721 Thomas Ave., like many of the people, homes and businesses that once took refuge here and made a home here in the State-Thomas area, no longer exist. 

The white affluent Thomas-Colby neighborhood of the late 1860s, now Uptown’s State-Thomas area, was considered the first socially elite neighborhood when early Dallas pioneer Col. James Thomas bought a 40-acre tract of land north of Dallas. The wealthy white families, who built the large Victorian homes, moved their domestic help into small shotgun homes in an area called North Dallas which was separated from the Thomas-Colby neighborhood by a small creek called the Dallas Branch. Freedman’s Town was established soon after emancipation was announced in Texas. Although initially Freedman’s Town and North Dallas were considered separate communities that changed as the areas merged when more African-Americans settled into these areas. 

The Freedman’s Town/North Dallas area would become the center of black life and culture for preachers, merchants, porters, laborers, and musicians. Freedman’s Town, a segregated community from the Civil War, expanded into the middle class State-Thomas area for black families and professionals from doctors to educators and to small business while white families moved into other areas of Dallas. 

The new Central Expressway, along the old Houston & Texas Central Railroad right-of-way, severely dissected Freedman’s Town/North Dallas in half in the late 1940s and precipitated the area’s decline.…including that of the Dunbar library which closed in 1959. The highway also tore into the Freedman’s Cemetery, at the intersection of Lemmon Avenue and Central Expressway, which was the first resting place of freed slaves in the Dallas area. By the 1970s, the Freedman Town/North Dallas and State-Thomas areas saw continued deterioration and widespread abandonment.

Add to that developers buying up the land, buying out black residents, tearing down buildings and city planners touting the area as a gateway to downtown and an era came to an end. 

The place where African-Americans of Dallas’ early history were forced, through segregational practices, to create a community, a city within a city, complete with its own homes, businesses, churches, schools and clinics. Now, it’s part of Uptown, Dallas’s trendy upscale urban core of high-rises, townhouses, condos, restaurants, Victorian-era homes, tree-lined streets and shops all within the State-Thomas Historic District.   

The State-Thomas area’s designation as a Dallas Landmark Historic District may not have anything to do with the commemorative library marker but it does have the distinction of being home to the highest concentration of 1880s Victorian homes still intact on Thomas, State, Hibernia and Boll streets. From 1868 to the 1920s the current State-Thomas area began as the affluent white “Thomas-Colby District” and yet blocks away was the former slave community of “Freedman’s Town/North Dallas.” But as blacks began to move further into State-Thomas, whites moved out and from the 1920s to the 1970s, the State-Thomas area became a thriving black neighborhood once known as “North Dallas.”

So, 46 years after its closing, in 2005, the city of Dallas and the Dallas Public Library commemorated the Dunbar library’s “service to the African-American community and Dallas’ Freedman’s Town Neighborhood,” with a commemorative marker that I get to see daily as I exit my building’s garage.

I feel very conflicted. I love my home, my condo. And, yet I hate that the gorgeous brick library that stood for so much for so many had to be bulldozed for me and others to live here. And, yet living in the almost 160 year old State-Thomas area, with its historical legacy has opened the door for me to learn about the struggles of people, who looked like me but lived here from emancipation through segregation and yet built a community of hope, dignity and economic prosperity even through the inhumanity of blatant racism to then meet the forces of gentrification. I don’t know what the future holds for the State-Thomas area but for now, I am at home. 

I want to thank Adrianne, Brandon and all the librarians at the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History & Archives Division for their assistance along with the library’s Marion Butts Photograph Collection. The collection is a group of more than 58,000 negatives purchased by the library’s Dallas History & Archives Division from the Butts family in 2005 through a grant funded by the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation. Butts was a commercial photographer and editor of the Dallas Express newspaper who, through the lens of a camera, recorded the lives of Dallas’ black communities from the 1940s.

Come take a photographic journey with me as we travel through time to pay homage to the library and the people who knew that education and the power books have to transform the lives of so many. 

The corner of Worthington and Thomas in Uptown Dallas, where the commemorative plaque was unveiled in 2005, was the original site of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library and is now the Belvedere Condominiums which were built in 1999. (Photo taken August 2018)
This enlarged news article from the Dallas Morning News dated Dec. 23, 1930 is part of the Dallas Public Library’s “Dallas Digital Interactive Gallery” on the 7th floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library on 1515 Young St. in downtown Dallas. The news article reads: “Excavation for construction of the Dunbar branch of the Dallas Public Library has been begun at Thomas avenue and Worthington street. The one-story reinforced concrete and brick building will be completed about March 15. It will cost about $24,000.” The digital interactive gallery features stories and photos of the library’s timeline and includes the Dunbar branch library. A little library history: The first building of the Dallas Public Library system was actually called the Carnegie Library in 1901 after the steel baron, An drew Carnegie provided Mrs. Henry (May Dickson) Exall with a $50,000 grant at her request. Exall, who created the Dallas Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1898, took on the campaign for a public library as its first project. Located on the corner of Commerce and Harwood Streets, the two-story building housed the entire collection of 9,852 volumes on the first floor, with the Carnegie Hall auditorium and the Art Room on the second floor. The art collection, which was the first public art gallery in Dallas, would later become the heart of the internationally known Dallas Museum of Art.
The Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library in Dallas once stood at the corner of Thomas and Worthington in what was known then and now as the State-Thomas area from June 1931 to May 1959 in Dallas, encompassed by what it is known today as part of Dallas’ Uptown area. “In February 1931, the library board formally approved naming the news branch library for Paul Laurence Dunbar, the distinguished African-American poet. The architects Ralph B. Bryan and Walter P. Sharp, who had also designed the nearby Moorland Branch Y.M.C.A., planned an L-shaped brick building, with high ceilings and tall casement windows. A massive fireplace in the children’s bay was the principal interior feature,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001,” by Michael V. Hazel. (This photo is being published courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library and part of the Marion Butts Collection.)
This circa 1932-1941 photo of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library, which once stood at the corner of Worthington and Thomas in Dallas. “In May 1959, the library trustees voted to close and sell Dunbar. Built in response to the institutionalized racism of the early 29th century, it had served its community as best it could with limited resources. But by the late 1950s, its time had clearly passed,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001,” by Michael V. Hazel. (The photo, compiled and contributed by the Priscilla Art Club’s “Graphic History of Negro Dallas” album, circa 1932 to 1941, is from the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University and the George W. Cook Dallas/Texas image collection. The Priscilla Art Club, organized in 1911, is considered to be the oldest African American women’s organization in Dallas.)
This article was part of the Dallas Public Library’s archives in a folder of various loose documents. It features a photo of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library on Worthington and Thomas, the library’s floor plan and a description of the library. The description states: “The exterior is faced with a warm buff brick, trimmed with cast stone of the same color. The base and the panels under the windows are faced with a dark gunmetal brick and the iron work and metal windows are painted a similar tone. The interior has floors of asphalt tile, plaster walls and wall bookcases. The ceilings of the reading rooms are paneled in celotex and all windows are fitted with Venetian blinds. Completed in 1931, the building cost $22,270, at 42center per cu. ft. The walls are load bearing masonry of brick and hollow tile. The floors are concrete and the roof is framed with wood. Bryan and Sharp were the architects. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
A close-up of the Paul Laurence Dunbar branch library formerly at the corner of Worthington and Thomas. “The library site was in the heart of the area known as ‘North Dallas’ within the African-American community. This neighborhood had grown up around the original Freedman’s town, established by former slaves following the Civil War. Here were located the homes and businesses of prominent African-Americans, as well as churches and the only medical facilities where black physicians could practice. The library was a few blocks north of Booker T. Washington High School, which served all black high school students in Dallas County,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001” by Michael V. Hazel. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
The packed house on the opening day of the Paul Laurence Dunbar library Patrons flood the Dunbar Branch for its dedication, June 29, 1931. “The opening of the Dunbar branch library on June 29, 1931, was a cause of great celebration. Representatives of all the schools serving African-American students in Dallas took part in a reception and ‘inspection,’ as did members of the Ladies Reading Circle and the YWCA,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001,” by Michael V. Hazel. “They found 2,000 books on the shelves, purchased for about $4,500, many of them by African-American authors. A photograph in the leading black newspaper was appropriately entitled: A Dream Come True.” (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library and is part of the Marion Butts Collection.)
This adorable photo, courtesy of the Dallas Public Library, was taken at the Dunbar branch library during Book Week in 1948. Pictured is Mrs. Willetta McGaskey and the 2nd grade from J. W. Ray School. The photographic portrait to the back of the wall over the word ’STORYLAND’ is the branch library’s namesake, poet and story teller Paul Laurence Dunbar. (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library and is part of the Marion Butts Collection.)
Children in costume during Library Week in 1949 at the Paul Laurence Dunbar branch library, with a on the corner of Thomas and Worthington in Dallas’ State-Thomas area. “The branch celebrated National Book Week each November with programs produced by elementary school children, and during the summer, it sponsored reading clubs,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001,” by Michael V. Hazel. (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library and is part of the Marion Butts Collection.)
Children in costume during Library Week in 1949 at the Paul Laurence Dunbar branch library on the corner of Thomas and Worthington in Dallas’ State-Thomas area. (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library and is part of the Marion Butts Collection.)
Mrs. Montgomery’s 5th grade class from B.F. Darrell Elementary School in Spanish costume inside the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library formerly located at the corner of Worthington and Thomas in Dallas. The elementary school was named after Benjamin Franklin Darrell an African-American schoolteacher and principal who died in his Dallas home at 3025 State Street on March 27, 1919 at the age of 56. (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas Public Library Archives Collection.)
The interior adult’s section of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library formerly located at Worthington and Thomas in Dallas. (The photo is published courtesy of the Dallas Public Library Archives Collection.)

Paul Laurence Dunbar, poet, novelist and playwright known for his conversational tone and colorful language, was born June 27, 1872 to parents who were formerly enslaved in Dayton, Ohio. Born to parents who were formerly enslaved, Dunbar, a gifted writer whose early poems were published in The Herald, Dayton’s newspaper, was the only African American to attend his Dayton high school. He also wrote and edited his own newspaper, The Tattler, which was printed by his friends and former high school classmates Orville and Wilbur Wright. His first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, a collection of standard English and dialect poems was published in 1893 as Dunbar was working as an elevator operator. Dunbar found an audience and admirers, and produced a second collection, Majors and Minors, in 1896. His work was heralded by critics and promoted in the U.S. and Europe and Dunbar would branch out into short stories, novels, more poetry and the lyrics for a Broadway musical. Dunbar died in Dayton of tuberculosis at the age of 33 on Feb. 9, 1906 and is buried at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton. The photo to the left was a studio portrait of Dunbar from 1896 when the poet was just 24-years-old and the drawing of the poet to the right is him featured on the U.S. 10 cent stamp as part of a three-star “American Arts Set” issued in 1975. The Dunbar issue is a portrait stamp created by illustrator and commercial artist Walter DuBois Richards (1907-2006) of New Canaan, Conn.

This article from the former Times Herald newspaper in Dallas, dated March 15, 1959, reports about the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library formerly located at the corner of Worthington and Thomas in Dallas. The Library closed in March of 1959. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
Although the Dunbar branch library closed in March 1959, it was replaced by the Dallas West Branch located in the new Dallas West Shopping Center at Singleton Boulevard and Hampron Road in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. “Many families with children began moving to South and West Dallas and, after 1954, into Hamilton Park, a new, middle-class African-American neighborhood in far North Dallas,” according to the book “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service, 1901-2001” by Michael V. Hazel. (This photo is part of theDallas Public Library’s “Dallas Digital Interactive Gallery” on the 7th floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library on 1515 Young St. in downtown Dallas. Photo taken September 2018)
Although the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library closed in March 1959, the building was still standing, at least according to this letter to Lillian Bradshaw, the Dallas Public Library director, in 1966. I’ve looked for the date in which the library building was demolished, but have not been able to find it. This document is the closest I’ve come to identifying when the Dunbar branch library building could have been demolished. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
This is the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library in Dallas. The original Dunbar branch library opened in the North Dallas/Freedom’s Town neighborhood in 1931 and closed in 1959. Originally named the South Oak Cliff Branch Library which opened Feb. 8, 1964, this library’s name was officially changed in April 1968 by the Dallas Public Library Board of Trustees  to the Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library. However, to honor the former North Dallas/Freedman’s Town library, the Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library was renamed to the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library. Today, the almost 18,000 square-feet facility features five mosaic quilt tiles, one featuring the library’s namesake, poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar designed by local Dallas area artist Earline M. Green. (Photo taken July 2018.)
Inside of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Branch Library in Dallas. (Photo taken July 2018)
Earline M. Green, a Dallas-area ceramic artist and professor, who as a child made hand-stitched quilts with her grandmother, designed and created these quilt tile mosaics displayed in the entrance of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Library in Dallas. For this project, Green who was awarded the commission by the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs in 2002 fired 240 white stoneware tiles to create these 1,300 pound tiled quilts…one of which is in honor of the library’s namesake, poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar. The title of the series, which includes five “spirit” quilts, is “Fulfilling the Dream Along District Line.” Green’s work can be seen on her website “Quilts of Clay & Vessels of Faith” at http://www.earlinegreen.com. (Photo taken July 2018)
The ceramic tile quilt featuring poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar, is part of a five quilt ceramic mosaic designed and created by Dallas area artist and professor Earline M. Green for the entryway of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lancaster-Kiest Library in Dallas. The interior blocks of the mosaic feature Dunbar’s poems with his love poem “The Quilting,” taking center stage:
DOLLY sits a-quilting by her mother, stitch by stitch,
Gracious, how my pulses throb, how my fingers itch,
While I note her dainty waist and her slender hand,
As she matches this and that, she stitches strand by strand.
And I long to tell her Life’s a quilt and I’m a patch;
Love will do the stitching if she’ll only be my match.
An invitation to attend the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the original site of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
The Dallas Public Library invitation to celebrate the unveiling of the commemorative plaque dedicated at the original site of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Branch Library. This was published in the Dallas Weekly from Feb 9-15, 2005. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)
The Feb. 20, 2005 Dallas Morning New story by Norma Adams-Wade is about the Dallas Public Library paying tribute to the first library, the Dallas Public Library’s Paul Laurence Dunbar branch, for African-Americans during segregation in Dallas with the designation of the commemorative plaque at the corner of Worthington and Thomas where the library once stood. (This document is part of the Dallas History & Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. The photo of the document was taken in September 2018.)

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