The Crowd in the Streets of Dallas

Portions of this post were adapted from my book Here Lies America, which is about how the United States has memorialized its past tragedies as tourist attractions. (You can buy Here Lies America here.)


In the winter of 1910, Dallas was suffering a crime wave of purse snatchings and assaults. The police didn’t know how to stop it, and people were hungry for blame.

One night amid this crisis, a 68-year-old servant named Allen Brooks was discovered in a barn outside of town in the company of 3-year-old Ethel Huvens. The record doesn’t state they were doing anything more nefarious than playing patty cake, but Ethel had been missing, and Brooks was a black man. And then there was the matter of the blood smeared on her legs.

Fearing a mob, the authorities did the fair thing: They hid Brooks away for a week while they waited for his trial.

The day of Brooks’ hearing arrived. But the people of Dallas were enraged and turned against the police. Feeling terrorized by the crime wave, they blamed police for dragging their feet. They demanded action. In a building facing what is now Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, more than 70 officers were needed to escort him to a courtroom on the second floor.

Before Brooks could respond to the charges against him, the mob stormed the courthouse—snapping the heavy chains that had been strung across Grand Staircase to stop them. Furious citizens, insane with rage, filled the courtroom, heedless of the police’s shouts for them to stop, and found Brooks shielding himself in a corner.

They tied a rope around his neck. The other end of the rope was fed through a window to the braying throng below, which hoisted it until Brooks was dragged kicking and clawing across the courtroom floor. He jerked through the glass and was yanked headfirst to the sidewalk below.

If the fall killed him, we will never know for sure. Because once they had him, the stamping mob “crushed his face into a pulp,” as a bystander reported, and dragged his body for blocks down Main Street—past Market, past Lamar. They stopped by an arch at Akard Street that was left over from an Elks convention two years before. Never pausing, they hanged his body from a telephone pole. The cheers of 10,000 people rang through the streets of Dallas’ central business district.

This happened in nearly the exact same spot as what happened last night.

Estimated to number at least 3,000, now the mob was empowered. It surged back down Main Street to the jail, also on today’s Dealey Plaza. They seized steel rails to batter a path inside, braying for the execution of four more accused criminals, three black and one white.

“The firemen were called out and attempted to disperse the crowd with water,” reported The New York Times, “but the threat to lynch them caused a quick withdrawal. Then dynamite was displayed, and the word passed that the jail would be blown up if the garrison held out much longer.” Officers had just enough time to race the four prisoners to safety by automobile in Fort Worth.

Dallas was in shock over what it had done. The mayor had to close all 220 of its saloons and mobilize the Texas National Guard.

But the incident was made minor. Despite 10,000 witnesses, no one was charged with a single crime.

A photograph of the mob surrounding Brooks’ broken body, dangling in the middle distance from the telephone pole, became a popular postcard traded by white supremacists—postcards of negro murders were considered powerful declarations of warning by white nationalists.

Brooks’ lynching became not a lesson but a souvenir, yet despite the meaning of the word souvenir it was not remembered beyond its generation. Even now, few in Dallas would even believe it happened, that its people would be capable of such a thing. No one bothered to put up so much as a plaque.

“Man, you’re talking about the bloody teens and the bloody ’20s,” said Darwin Payne, a journalist who researched the Brooks lynching, to the Wilmington Morning Star in 1999. “This was home to Klan Chapter Number 66, the largest in the country.” Texas was, after all, a slaveholding state, and in 1860, a third of its population was in bondage, which is not something Texans generally brag about when they’re boasting about their ten-gallon heritage.

Years after the horror, in our own times. Payne made a terrible discovery. While digging around archives on the history of Dallas, he discovered one fact that had never surfaced: A professional enemy of Brooks’, a rival servant in the same house, privately admitted to smearing chicken blood on the child’s leg in a plot to trick police into believing his enemy had harmed her.

Beside the Old Red Courthouse, where the luckless Brooks was seized, Main Street folds into Dealey Plaza, and this is where, decades later, Senator John F. Kennedy arrived in Dallas with his running mate, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. They were greeted by a marching band and another Dallas crowd—this one not lusting for vengeance but cheering its welcome to the affable candidates.

They walked up Main Street, stopping by the place where Brooks’ mutilated corpse had hanged a half century before. Some of the older people had been in the crowd that awful day, too.

Today, Dallas was all smiles. Kennedy greeted them, drew a breath, and delivered a speech.

It was September 13, 1960. He would return to this place.

It happened in Dallas.

It happened in Dallas.


Portions of this post were adapted from my book Here Lies America, which is about how the United States has memorialized its past tragedies as tourist attractions. (You can buy Here Lies America here.)

One Response to “The Crowd in the Streets of Dallas”

  1. Peter

    Great essay. “History is important because it repeats itself”.