Fifty-three years ago today, the late Julia Scott Reed, Dallas Morning News’ first Black female columnist, published an obituary of sorts for what she described as “the largest and oldest Negro elementary school in Dallas,” which had been declared “inadequate” by Supt. Nolan Estes.
“B.F. Darrell is a landmark in Dallas,” Scott Reed proclaimed on Jan. 16, 1969, eight days before the school was closed. Two years later, the schoolhouse would be demolished.
The vacant lot at Hall and Cochran where the school once stood recently appeared on the City Council docket. National grocery retailer Kroger purchased the property near Uptown in 2015, and requested a $2 million tax abatement for its retail-residential project. The Council awarded the subsidy, though not unanimously. The crux of councilmembers’ argument was whether the city should invest in the project because it adds affordable housing units to the Uptown area, or withhold funds from “hot” real estate where deed restrictions already require affordable housing.
On one thing, however, they all agreed: This is “extremely valuable, desirable land,” said Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn, reinforcing her vote against investing taxpayer dollars. Councilmember Paul Ridley, in whose district the property is located, voted in favor, arguing that “the land in my district is so expensive that it’s not possible to expect the private sector to build affordable housing.”
No one mentioned that a portion of this “expensive” and “desirable” land is hallowed ground — the longtime site of the B.F. Darrell School, which was built as Dallas’ original Colored High School. The property’s historical significance wasn’t acknowledged around the council horseshoe, nor was it mentioned in the recent Dallas Morning News coverage. Also omitted was that until the land was acquired for development, it was owned by the Dallas Housing Authority and, before that, the City of Dallas.
Nothing at the site indicates the school’s existence or significance. Now some of the hottest real estate in Dallas, according to the city’s elected leaders, the land was for decades considered expendable, and the city was happy to leave these undeveloped scraps to the industrious Black community who built Dallas’ largest Freedman’s Town.
Housed at 3212 Cochran Street, the original “Colored High School,” as it is shown on an 1889 Sanborn fire insurance map, opened in 1892 three blocks from “Colored School No. 2.” At the time, schools for Black students had no names, just a number denoting the order in which they opened. Colored School No. 2 later became the Booker T. Washington School, and in 1922 was rebuilt as the Black community’s high school. But for 30 years, the schoolhouse at Cochran and Hall served that purpose.
The Colored High School opened at a disadvantage in terms of funding In 1893, the year after it opened, the Colored High School was valued at $23,000 in comparison with the $76,000 valuation for the white high school campus. The streets surrounding the school were unpaved and the restrooms would remain outdoors well into the 1960s, when the school’s doors shuttered. Black teachers and principals earned insultingly low pay in comparison to their white peers for the same, if not more, work. But what the district failed to provide in physical resources, Black educators made up for in their dedication to their students. Flocking from across the country, Dallas’ highly educated Black instructors would become the stuff of Texas legend and also the namesakes of Dallas’ Black schools.
The Colored High School, for example, was later named for one of its teachers who ultimately became the school’s principal, Benjamin Franklin Darrell. Educated at Fisk, a historically Black university in Nashville where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Darrell came to Dallas in 1899 to teach at Colored School No. 1. The city’s 1902 directory lists Darrell as one of the Colored High School’s teachers with his residence at 366 Hall Street, less than a block from the campus. By 1918, when Darrell was principal, the city directory shows he had moved to 3025 State Street, still within three blocks walk of the Freedman’s Town high school. He also pioneered efforts to educate Dallas’ Black adult population, hosting evening classes for them at the night school.
Darrell died in 1919, and the school’s renaming in his honor likely coincided with high school students moving to Booker T. in 1922. The B.F. Darrell School continued serving the community’s young Black pupils until 1969, as federal pressure to mix white and Black students closed in on Dallas. Columnist Julia Scott Reed noted that Superintendent Dr. Nolan Estes chalked up the school’s closure to “falling ceilings, out of door restroom facilities, crowded classrooms and the lack of parking space” (Dallas Morning News, January 16, 1969).
The building was razed in 1971. That same year, as a federal judge ordered Dallas to desegregate its schools, the district closed Booker T. Washington. But unlike Booker T., which survived desegregation by transforming into an arts magnet and will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, the B.F. Darrell School has no marker commemorating the nearly 80 years it served a community first forsaken and later plundered by its city.
The historic Freedman’s Town is now a predominantly white and wealthy community save for the few homes that have held on, churches such as Pilgrim Rest and Munger Avenue, and the Roseland Townhomes operated by the Dallas Housing Authority. In 1999, the earliest year for which Dallas Central Appraisal District keeps online records, the vacant 5.4-acre lot where the school once stood was valued at $68,320. Last year, it was appraised at $10.6 million.
This land is hallowed ground in Black Dallas education and in Dallas ISD’s educational history. That’s why seeing it fallow, with no historical marker, nothing proclaiming its importance, feels unresolved. It’s the reason why I didn’t know until recently that just feet away from my childhood church and less than a mile from my current home once sat Dallas’ Colored High School.
I passed the lot countless times before I knew its significance. Now when I drive by the new Starbucks just north of it, with a line of cars crowding into the road, awaiting their daily coffee, I marvel at what a shame it is that they don’t know how close they sit to our city’s history — and what that says about our city’s history.
How do you visualize a history that has been so intently erased? But most importantly, how will Dallas remember and learn from this?
If you or a family member attended B.F. Darrell or any of Dallas’ early Black schools, we want to hear from you and make your voices part of this project. Contact us at email@example.com.
This piece is part of a project to explore, chronicle and reclaim the history of Dallas’ Black schools. It’s reported through a partnership of Dallas Free Press and the Imagining Freedom Institute, with support from Press On’s Southern Movement Media Fund. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.