Volume 24, Number 3


Elizabeth Alexander


In 1874 when John Neely Bryan1 was committed to the State Lunatic Asylum, his bear dog, Mampoa, took charge of civic affairs. Accustomed to leading Bryan on one wild-goose chase after another,2 Mampoa set a frenetic pace that spread southeast to Houston and lasted approximately ninety-seven years.

So it was that, during the summer of 1954, when the national NAACP convened in Dallas, both the Negro organizers and their white antagonists sputtered about like mechanical wind-up dolls to their separate destinations: a prayer meeting at St. Paul Methodist Church, a Citizens Council meeting at the Adolphus Hotel, an eye examination in the Medical Arts Building, a dinner of smothered pork chops at Cooksie’s Cafe.

“Chickens with the heads cut off,” Dr. Allan Gadsden sighed. It worried him, the emotional tumult in all that racing around.

For himself, Allan liked nothing more than to relax his mind and rest his eyes in the folds of the peach-gold silk and velvet drapes in his living room or the primordial Dutch elm outside his study or on the brown terracotta baby Jesus on the facade of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Allan was least anxious when he did not know what came next. When time slowed down.


To slow and channel the tide of the inevitable3 released in Brown v. Board of Education, the Dallas Citizens Council created less separate and more equal opportunities in local government, education, and medicine for selected Negroes. The chosen (Dr. Gadsden among them) agreed to keep a lid on public protests in their community, thereby allowing Dallas to avert the unwanted publicity that law enforcers’ suppressing marches and sit-ins with fire hoses, guns and night sticks would bring to less foresightful Southern cities. This pact between white and Negro elites to handle race relations as the Citizens Council saw fit was known as “the Dallas Way.”

The Dallas Way promoted commerce. It fostered delimited interracial cooperation.

It pissed off a whole lotta people.


Allan Gadsden grew up near the Louisiana border (forty-two miles west of Shreveport) in Deep East Texas. He was born at home in 1900, the first of two boys and three girls. Summers he worked the family vegetable plot and picked cotton on O. H. Libby’s land, which his daddy sharecropped. Winters he attended the Negro school.

About his early childhood, Allan remembered first light in July before the haze rose over the field and his fingers, unaccustomed to picking cotton, bled in earnest. He remembered a biscuit with cane syrup and cool clear well water. He remembered wanting a full belly, his own bed, shoes that didn’t leak, longer school terms and shorter workdays.

In 1916, when word got around Carthage that a local colored boy known as Gadsden was bound for college, the Libby brothers (Junior, Buford, and Mathias) stomped into the Gadsdens’ yard, threw Allan onto the vegetable plot and made him dig potatoes with his teeth.

Embers of loathing.
Ashes of shame and grief.

He remembered wanting every last white man, woman and child shipped back to Europe.


In the summer of 1954, two months after the historic victory in Brown, Allan Gadsden perceived Jim Crow not lying down to rest like a worn out ghost but merely changing clothes. Hiding out in his study, looking out over the regal Dutch elm toward the warm sweet Trinity River, he pondered a distinction between democrat (little d) and Democrat (capitalized) that had been drummed into his head at Fisk. The democrat espoused political equality. The Democrat abjured it, insofar as the Negro was concerned.

Allan dipped a fountain pen in deep blue India ink and inscribed on his blotter:

democrat: Democrat :: desegregation: integration

The murky term integration, Allan reflected, allowed the worst white folks, who drew a beeline from mixed schools to mixed marriages, to bait and frighten the white folks who might otherwise come around. The more precise term desegregation, in the twinkling of a prefix, debunked the “equal” in “separate but equal.” (Given the throbbing inequities in separate but equal neighborhoods, schools, bathrooms, waiting rooms, swimming pools, army barracks, and so on, whites of good will—or, for that matter, whites of ill will who considered themselves quality—could not blithely oppose desegregation.)

“In-te-gra-tion,” Dr. Allan Gadsden4 shuddered at the oily term. He smelled a rat.

Allan’s skepticism put him even more than usually out-of-sync with his peers in the State-Thomas neighborhood where the wives of other doctors, lawyers, dentists and school administrators were festooning guestrooms with yellow or pink spray roses in cut-glass vases, the better to accommodate an estimated seven hundred delegates to the national NAACP convention.5 “Allan Gadsden, you are nothing but a spoilsport!” Mrs. Gadsden huffed. Why, she thought, couldn’t her husband be more like his partner, Dr. Wesley N. Segre who, never having paid much attention to what went on in his kitchen, was nowadays finding all manner of repair jobs (loose washers, burnt out bulbs, suspicious fuses) that put him at hand when the ham wanted basting, the butter beans needed stirring, or a bit of crust fell off the peach cobbler.

Allan sucked his teeth. A picture of his onetime mentor Jean Toomer,6 ensconced in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his second white wife, rose in his mind. “You think too hard,” Toomer had admonished the doctor in 1926 during his internship at Provident Hospital in Chicago.

He remembered Toomer’s round tortoiseshell spectacles and his spacious, lyrical voice. “There is no knowledge worth the knowledge that you have made your own and which has become a part of your being,” Toomer had said. “There is a you inside of yourself and one outside that looks at you. They should work together.”7

The metaphysical trick, Allan reflected, would have been to look past Toomer’s lunatic assertion, “I am neither white nor black but American,” to his insights. But life was too short for metaphysical tricks. He barely had time for golf.


“You know what happened to Mr. Carey’s little girl?” the Rev. Bryant T. Walker whispered, sensing Allan’s disquiet when CIO leader James Carey ascended the podium.

“I know.”

Hit by a car somewhere up North and knocked into a coma, twelve year-old Patti Carey was expected never fully to recover. Still and all, thought Allan, if she had been a little colored girl in Dallas, the white ambulance would have driven right on by and left her lying in the road. Her mother would’ve had to run home and phone the mortician and pray that his limousine was free. And even if that little colored girl somehow beat the odds and reached St. Vincent’s alive, she would, like as not, be killed by tuberculosis in the viciously overcrowded Negro ward.

No one, thought Allan, knew the facts of the matter better than Bryant Walker. Yet there he sat, snug as a bug in a rug, while the white girl’s daddy told the black man what was what.

“You have a problem with unions?” asked the reverend.

Following Carey’s presentation, NAACP Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall explicated the Brown decision. His delivery was at once somber and ecstatic. “If the law of the land is followed in good faith,” Marshall declared, “every American can now move about in his community without the threat of being penalized by racial segregation statutes. Good Americans can decide for themselves whether they do or do not want to associate with other Americans.”8

“Amen,” the reverend said.

“Do I have a problem with unions?” Allan fumed. “If I were a Pullman Porter, I’d be a card-carrying member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—and I would be based in Chicago.”9 Allan thanked his lucky stars that he had grown up during the migration which, sweeping up his mother’s younger siblings in Nagadoches and depositing them in Chicago, paved the way for his own halcyon sojourn there.

He remembered the sky over Lake Michigan as he had observed it from 31st Street Beach. He remembered Canis Major gleaming below and to the left of the red and blue-white supergiants that marked Orion. He remembered the youthful effulgence generated by his inane confidence and idiosyncratic Christian faith.

He remembered optimism.


Mampoa’s drumbeat faded to a faint badum in the mid-1960s when the Dallas Theatre Center mounted Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice; Lamar Hunt moved his football team to Kansas City; Texas Instruments developed the hand-held calculator; and the first black Americans since Reconstruction (Barbara Jordan, Curtis Graves, and Joseph Lockridge) were elected to the Texas legislature. Receding into folklore, Mampoa sniffed his way dyspeptically to Neely’s unmarked grave, on the grounds of the old lunatic asylum, and dug his way in. By the early 1970s, absent a native drummer and flush in revenues from commercial construction,10 Dallas had entrained itself with the nihilistic rhythm of the New York Stock Exchange.

The city fought integration tooth and nail. In 1954, the local NAACP petitioned the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) for the immediate reorganization of local schools. School Superintendent W. T. White dismissed the petition. “The schools of Texas are operated under the law enacted by the Legislature pursuant to the Constitution,” he said. “In Texas the Constitution prescribes segregation.”11

In 1964, the DISD opened its third black high school.

In 1983, following thirty years of litigation, Dallas became the last city in Texas to desegregate its public schools. To prevent chicanery and ensure that the schools remained in compliance with federal law, the Fifth Circuit Court oversaw the DISD for an additional thirty years.12 To whites of a certain age and disposition, judicial oversight evoked the occupation of 1865–1870.

Ashes of humiliation and defeat.


Three days before his sixty-first birthday, late in the evening after the national anthem finished and the test pattern came on, Dr. Allan Gadsden collapsed in his easy chair, a plate of reheated turnip greens on his lap and a glass of sweet iced tea at his side. His gaze clouded, rose over the mantelpiece, and condensed on the photograph that his granddaddy had taken after freedom came and all but two in the family were reunited.

“Swing low—” [the voices of the choir at the Pine Grove Baptist Church in Carthage traveled like starlight into 1961] “Sweet char-i-ot: coming for to carry me home.”

The pull of love tethered Allan toward consciousness, but curiosity as to where home might be got the better of him. “Swing low—” [he sang along, clapping the syncopated rhythm] “Sweet char-i-ot: coming for to carry me home.”

Within the space of three frantic days, Dr. Allan Gadsden’s body was laid to rest in Lincoln Memorial Park. His spirit wafted timelessly along the Trinity River through the damp pinewoods of Henderson County to the Gulf of Mexico, the wide blue deep.


1 Founder of Dallas, Texas.
2 To California (1849); to the Creek Nation (1855); back to California, thence to Colorado (1856–1860); into the Eighteenth Texas Cavalry (1861); and finally to Dallas (1862).
3 Integration of public facilities.
4 One of five Negro physicians in all Dallas who had admissions privileges to a major hospital, Gadsden was, in practice, an accommodationist par excellence.
5 Only the tiny Powell Hotel accommodated Negroes.
6 Best-known as the author of Cane, a precursor to Zora Neale Hurston’s more enduring novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the light-skinned Jean Toomer usually passed for white and was ambivalent about his African American ancestry. In the late 1920s, he led an esoteric study group in Chicago.
7 Paul Beekman Taylor, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1998. p. 7.
8 Cf. “45th Annual NAACP Conference,” The Crisis, Vol. 61, No. 7 (Aug–Sept 1954): 423–424.
9 Dallas District Judge F.B. (“Buck”) Davenport’s being no more inclined to uphold the 1951 amendment to the National Railway Labor Act than to book Little Richard’s touring band in the Old Red Courthouse.
10 Surpassing $366 million.
11 “NAACP School Plea Denied for 1954–1955,” Dallas Times Herald, September 2,1954.
12 Until 2003.