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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Demolition by Neglect?

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Open Letter to the Editor:

The Union Bankers Building, located in the heart of what we now know as Deep Ellum, is about to be upended.  Sadly, but not surprisingly, it is another in a series of Black heritage landmarks to suffer demolition by neglect.

“Demolition by neglect” may be foreign to you, but it is a national tragedy. It can be defined as the destruction of a building through abandonment or lack of maintenance. As we celebrate Black History Month, we must ask the question; “What can citizens and preservationists do about buildings that are destroyed by deliberate neglect?”

Obviously the answer is that we have to regard, maintain and protect our interests as a community.

By now you’re no doubt asking why the Union Bankers Building at 2551 Elm Street should be preserved, so let me spit some of Dallas’ Black history. You can find most of this on the Texas State Historical Association website. Google it; you Google every damn thing else!

This structure which was originally built in 1915-1916 was known as the Knights of Pythias Temple at 2551 Elm and remains the first major commercial structure to have been designed and built solely by African Americans. It provided office space for prominent African American professionals, such as lawyers and doctors. The top floor was used for social activities.

The site has enhanced significance because it was designed by architect William Sidney Pittman, son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. In 1907 Pittman was the first African American in the nation to win a federal contract in to design a building

That same year, Pittman married Portia Washington, daughter of Booker T. Washington, who was the founder and principal of Tuskegee Institute. In 1913 the Pittman’s moved to Dallas, Texas, where they raised two sons and a daughter.

Between 1911 and 1927 they resided at three different addresses; at each, Pittman operated his architectural practice from his home. He was the first practicing black architect in Texas.

During his sixteen-year practice in Dallas, he designed at least seven major projects in the city, as well as projects in Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Waxahachie. Only five of his known structures still stood in 1990. Most of the buildings he designed have been demolished. They were torn down to build freeways and parking lots and the like. Somehow corporate progress always runs through and over our community.

Later in his historic lifee, Pittman established a newspaper called the Brotherhood Eyes.  He used the paper to vent his criticisms of the black community. A firm believer in supporting black businesses, Pittman charged the black middle class with hypocrisy for patronizing white businesses instead of black ones.

What would he say to us today as we sit idly by and watch one of the last vestiges of African American progress in this community suffer demolition by neglect?….You can answer now, I’ll wait.

Westglen Properties obviously bought the property a few years ago and is about to build another in a long list of apartment communities. But what about our community, the African American community?

There are several instances whereby historical sites have been protected or at least fought for. Most recently we watched the battle to save the apartment complex where Lee Harvey Oswald once lived in Oak Cliff.

The place where the man known solely for assassinating America’s most popular President, John F. Kennedy is sacred, but the Union Bankers Building is expendable?

The fall of the Union Bankers Building is a classic case of demolition by neglect. But in this case, the culprit and chief conspirator is us. We have no one else to blame for the demise of a key vestige of history in our midst.

John Wiley Price

Dallas County Commissioner

  • Mack Hazley

    Perhaps if we ( the black community ) had known or was made aware of this historic site and it’s pending demise, we could have gotten a handle on it.


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