DALLAS — Tucked away under Dallas’ highways and communities is a history some in the city are unfamiliar with. But with the publication of Collin Yarbrough’s new book, he hopes to bring a dark past into the light.
“I think it’s easier to dismiss people’s lived experiences when it doesn’t affect you and when you see it as just a one off and what I didn’t want was for that to continue happening especially for people who look like me,” Yarbrough said. “I didn’t want white people in Dallas to continue writing this history off, because it mostly doesn’t affect them. It benefits them in every way, shape and form. This city was built for people like me and so we don’t have to think about it, so I wanted to bring all those narratives together and stitch them together.”
According to Yarbrough, the book started out as a paper in one of his Southern Methodist University graduate studies classes in the spring of 2020. The former pipeline engineer for Atmos Energy is currently working to obtain his Masters of Art in Sustainability and Development degree at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering.
“We were supposed to write a paper on some sort of design element in Dallas, so things like the Meyerson, the Nasher Sculpture Center and all those kinds of places,” he said. “But, also on the list of ideas was Central Expressway...”
It was at that moment, Yarbrough forged a path of revelation.
“In the process of digging through the history, I stumbled across a New York Times article talking about the 1990s expansion of the highway to what it looks like today,” he said. “That’s when I found the story about the reinterment of the 1,100 bodies in the Freedman’s Cemetery in what’s now Uptown.”
Once considered the Harlem of the South, Freedman’s Town was a thriving community of Black artists, educators, civil rights leaders, musicians and business owners. Families settled in the city following the Civil War. It was one of few areas where Blacks were welcome to reside.
Deep Ellum, known for its rich jazz and blues scene, saw legends such as Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter move the crowd with his shows. Historians credit urban revitalization and gentrification of those areas to the erasure of Dallas’ Black history.
“There is something so wrong about that, that we would move Black bodies to make space for a highway that primarily benefitted white suburbs in Dallas,” Yarbrough said. “The more I kept digging, I just kept finding every highway around downtown having a story with a community — primarily Black and brown neighborhoods — being either cut in half, (or) erased entirely like Little Mexico and the North Dallas Freedman’s Town, which no longer exists.”
Yarbrough also noted what happened isn’t exclusive to Dallas. In Houston, the Texas Department of Transportation hopes to expand 1-45 in a project estimated at $7 billion, which activists claim will displace hundreds of families.
“The book is focused on history, but these fights are still happening every day,” he said. “So, we can’t let up.”
Published in May, “Paved a Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City,” looks at five communities in Dallas, including Little Mexico, Fair Park and Tenth Street, all of whom have very little of their history still around today. The creation of the Dallas North Tollway uprooted Little Mexico and parts of Fair Park were paved over in the hopes of bringing more white attendees to the State Fair of Texas decades ago.
Among Yarbrough’s findings:
- In the 1940s, frontage roads to Central Expressway paved over more than 1,000 graves of Black residents buried in Freedman’s Cemetery. Construction of Central Expressway bisected a thriving Black community.
- The construction of I-35 in the mid-1950s led to the demolition of significant homes and businesses and split a thriving Black community originally founded by formerly enslaved people. The Tenth Street Freedman’s Town Historic District is included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places.
- In the 1960s, I-345, formerly part of Central Expressway, was redesigned to become elevated over part of the area known as Deep Ellum, limiting foot traffic and shuttering a once Black-owned commercial and residential district.
“What really stuck out to me is when you put everything together and you saw all of the stories kind of in parallel, that’s when you really see the devastating impacts that building highways can have in one city,” Yarbrough said. “When you think about North Dallas’ Freedman’s Town or Tenth Street, I think it’s easy for people to write that off as a one-off story.”
After gathering his findings, the path to publishing began. Yarbrough credits his professor with planting the seed of writing a book. Through SMU’s partnership program with Georgetown University, he was able to get into the Creator’s Institute, an 11-month accelerated book writing program for first-time authors.
“They have a framework for helping non-fiction authors...go through the process of writing the book, which was incredible,” he said. “In terms of research, I think the thing that really stood out to me is that these stories are really well-known in some circles of Dallas and obviously in the neighborhoods and the people who lived through it know about these things — it’s nothing new.”
Yarbrough also admits he had an eye-opening realization throughout his research and writing process that shook him to his core.
“It was really unsettling to look back and think about all the decisions I had made that influenced where things went and how little attention I had paid to how infrastructure was built and how things were shaping the built environment and who I was privileging in certain conversations and who I wasn’t,” he said.
Although Yarbrough didn’t have the answers to stopping racial bias from decimating communities of color, he did have a suggestion.
“People who are engineers or urban planners have to be willing to abdicate some of that power that comes with that title and be willing to admit that, just because you have that technical expertise, doesn’t mean you know everything, and you don’t know what’s best for every community,” he insisted. “Only a community can voice that and you can only do that if you’re embedded. You can only get to that level of true restorative justice if you’re actually embedded in communities with those residents.”
And with his book, Yarbrough hopes to use the past as a guide to prevent more communities from getting bulldozed to make way for highways.
“I’m trying to give people these patterns of injustice that they can then identify and hopefully create some sort of change and understanding of their city,” he said. “Infrastructure plays a huge part and it’s something people really don’t think about often…”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The hardcover edition will be published later this month.