Century-old values live on in Dallas’ Wheatley Place
Claudene Hawkins Jackson’s fondest memories of early adulthood are caring for the elderly in her neighborhood in South Dallas.
After college, Jackson spent her mornings bathing, dressing, and cooking for seniors at Wheatley Place.
“The seniors in my life have given me a lot of insight and helped make me who I am,” said Jackson.
All of those people are gone now, but Jackson, 68, is one of the few longtime residents left today. Her family has lived on Dunbar Street for over 88 years.
Wheatley Place, named after the 18th century poet Phillis Wheatley, was one of the first neighborhoods in Dallas to be built for black residents. Wheatley, originally from Senegal, was sold into slavery at the age of 7 and raised in Boston where the Wheatley family taught their English, Latin and Greek.
The neighborhood is full of bungalow-style houses framed by Avenues Warren and McDermott. The earliest house dates back to 1916, according to records of the town’s historical preservation.
When trams hit south Dallas in 1914, Alex Camp, whose mother owned land in the area, submitted land to the city for Wheatley Place. Camp and his mother, WA Warren, sold land to Black Dallasites who developed the neighborhood, distinguishing it from areas not built by blacks.
“Poems on Various Religious and Moral Subjects” by Phillis Wheatley, 1773, was kept in a suitcase during the installation of The Kinsey Collection exhibition at the African American Museum on September 19, 2019 in Dallas.(Smiley N. Pool / Employee Photographer)
Diane Ragsdale, a former city council member, lives in a 100 year old house on Dunbar Street. She and Jackson are two of the few who are descended from the original residents and remain in the historic district.
Jackson remembers riding, hopscoting, and swinging bikes with Ragsdale and her siblings and other neighbors in Wheatley Park – built in 1920.
“Everyone knew everyone,” said Jackson. “When we were growing up, you could sleep outside on your porch at night and not be disturbed.”
Despite the neighborhood’s ancient structures, the area didn’t gain historic status until 2000 after the Phillis Wheatley Neighborhood Association sent a nomination to the city in 1999. In the early 1990s, it was threatened with demolition and decay from neighborhood activists and national conservationists pressed for protection and restoration.
Fill up homes in the Wheatley Place neighborhood of South Dallas on February 11, 2021. (Lola Gomez / employee photographer)
The dedication to the preservation of the 29-block district goes back well before the 1990s. Ragsdale grew up in the 1960s watching her neighbors repair and give each other financial support during difficult times.
“We wouldn’t starve people,” said Ragsdale. “We wouldn’t have people without them. The love was overwhelming. “
Neyssa Shockley’s late father, James “Skip” Shockley, grew up with Ragsdale. Skip, a member of the Black Panther Party, organized the group’s free breakfast program, among other things. Last year Neyssa became one of the founding members of the Skip Shockley Foundation, named in honor of her father.
The foundation’s first project is a community garden on the Shockley family’s property on Dunbar Street. Next month the organization will plant the first crop for a summer crop. The garden pays homage to Skip’s passion for access to food.
“He knew South Dallas was in what was called ‘food apartheid’,” said Neyssa. “They only have access to unhealthy meals, unhealthy restaurants, but they are also able not to have access to healthier meals.
“It just made sense to continue with what he wanted to do.”
One of the neighborhood landmarks, Phillis Wheatley Elementary School closed in 2012 after serving students from the area since 1929. Cornerstone Crossroads Academy, a vocational school and second chance high school, is now renovating the historic school building for its students.
The opposite side of the district has also witnessed the recent changes. On the east side of Lenway Street, directly across from Wheatley Place, the Inner City Development Corporation of South Dallas Fair Park has built 19 houses in the past ten years. The nonprofit, founded by Ragsdale, focuses on home ownership, community education and professional training.
Diane Ragsdale poses for a portrait in her office at Innercity Community Development in Dallas on Thursday February 11, 2021. (Lola Gomez / The Dallas Morning News)(Lola Gomez / employee photographer)
Over the decades, Jackson has seen people come and go. What was once a community of black working class residents has turned into a diverse neighborhood of Latinos, whites, and other races. And while the population has changed significantly, the core values remain.
“We’re all having fun,” said Jackson. “We grill together. Our families are still very close. We care about each other. “
Wheatley Place facts
Wheatley Place was developed in the early 20th century as a result of two older African American neighborhoods, The Prairie and Queen City. The proposed subdivision, envisioned by Alex Camp in 1916, was one of the most successful residential areas marketed to upscale black residents. It was named after the 18th century black poet Phillis Wheatley.
DB Garner, a businessman who built the first house in Wheatley Place; Herbert Newell Gibson, one of the first black postmen in Dallas; John B. Rice, editor of The Dallas Express, a popular black newspaper; Juanita Craft, civil rights activist; and Diane Ragsdale, a former city council member
The Phyllis Wheatley School (founded 1928), Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights House
While the Phillis Wheatley School closed in 2012, the building was later bought by the Cornerstone Baptist Church. Wheatley Place’s artisan-inspired homes are designed to be preserved by the city, and the district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.