On TV, William Jackson Harper is known for his role as Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, where he plays a tortured philosophy professor who helps his friends navigate ethics in a topsy-turvy afterlife.
But Harper got his start in theater, and this fall he returned to his roots, this time as a playwright, to tell the story of a largely forgotten ethical quandary that took place in his hometown during the civil-rights era.
Travisville, which ran through October at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, is a fictionalized account of Dallas’s very real (and successful) attempt in the 1960’s and early ’70s to buy up the land surrounding Fair Park, where the annual State Fair of Texas has been held since 1886. That land was home to a predominantly black neighborhood, and city officials and business leaders wanted homeowners there to sell their property at a loss to the Fair. A city document from 1966 says the goal was to “eliminate the problem” of white fairgoers having to see “the Negroes in their shacks.” The fair itself was segregated until 1967; the neighborhood and its homes were demolished and paved over.
“I never read anything about this growing up,” says Harper, who attended public schools in the nearby suburbs of Garland and Rockwall. The prevailing narrative in history classes, and even from family members who lived through the 1950s and ’60s, was that Dallas was relatively quiet compared to Birmingham and Selma.
“Dallas seemed to never have had a major civil rights moment,” he says. “I had a real bee in my bonnet about it. A lot of the finer points of Dallas history—that’s the sort of stuff you have to go and find.”
The full picture didn’t emerge for Harper until he snagged a copy of The Accommodation, an obscure 1986 book by local journalist and columnist Jim Schutze, who investigated the city’s attempt to buy the land. Reading the book inspired Harper to write a nuanced exploration of the city’s race relations. For decades, civic power in Dallas was held by white business elites who wanted to prove Dallas was a profitable and progressive Southern city, where race relations were under control. Black community leaders often balanced protecting their communities from racialized violence alongside demands for basic civil rights.
In writing Travisville, Harper abstracted the people and places. The play never explicitly references Dallas or any of the people involved in the Fair Park dealings—Harper says he didn’t want the play to be mistaken for a historical narrative. He also changed the battlegrounds, choosing to swap the fairgrounds for a mixed-use development that will, as civic leaders tell it, bring regional and even international investment and attention to the area. (The developer’s monologue describing the project bears striking similarities to billionaire art collector, banker, and developer Raymond Nasher’s lavish and art-filled Northpark Mall, which opened in 1965 to much fanfare on the other end of the city.)
A looser historical grounding allowed Harper to focus on the tensions within the black community that are often overlooked in the narratives he’d encountered before about the civil rights movement. The protagonist, newly-minted minister Ora Fletcher, feels pressured to follow the lead of his mentor Alden Hearst, who has long worked to appease the city’s elite and protect his community. But when a brash, young activist named Zeke Phillips shows up to town, staging sit-ins and organizing the community against the city’s plans to seize their land—and inadvertently putting a target on the families who live there—Fletcher has to choose where to throw his support as the consequences of action or inaction become increasingly dire.
“The character of Zeke Phillips—the young upstart who comes into town—is a surrogate for the Reverend Peter Johnson,” Harper says. Johnson was a civil rights activist from Louisiana, who had arrived in Dallas on a Southern Christian Leadership Conference project, but got pulled into advocacy on behalf of the south Dallas homeowners fighting the city’s plan to expand Fair Park over their homes in 1969. “The other characters are kind of an amalgam of different ideas and quotes from the book, but I couldn’t find a way for Johnson as represented in the book not be almost a direct link to Phillips.”
Although some of the history that Harper grapples with in the play isn’t well known, local writers and historians caught on to the fact that the play is based on real people and events in Dallas. And Harper is hopeful that there might be enough interest in the play for a production in the city sometime in the future.
Travisville is indicative of what local historian Michael Phillips sees as a larger resurgence of interest in Dallas’s racial politics and history, particularly against the backdrop of high-profile police shooting cases. This year, a jury convicted an officer of murdering 15-year-old Jordan Edwards as he was attempting to leave a high school party. It was the first cop conviction in the area in nearly 40 years. A grand jury also indicted former officer Amber Guyger, who is accused of killing Botham Shem Jean in his own home after she mistakenly entered his apartment. And the city is still segregated along racial lines. South Dallas is predominantly black, Latino, and working class, while wealth is concentrated in North Dallas neighborhoods like Preston Hollow, home to former presidents, sports team owners, and oil company executives.
Phillips argued in his 2005 book White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001, that city leaders and public figures are responsible for the city’s prevailing myths of progress and prosperity in the ’60s. He calls it “amnesia by design”—a force that may have been responsible for the relative obscurity of Schutze’s book. His original publisher backed out of an agreement, a decision that seemed to point the city’s lasting unwillingness to confront its own history, and received coverage in The New York Times. When the book was eventually published elsewhere, local media reviews were unkind to it.
Phillips is hopeful that works like Travisville can highlight that history, and he points out that Schutze’s book doesn’t describe the role of the Latinx community in the civil-rights era. Telling this history is always complicated, but particularly so since black and Latinx history aren’t adequately taught at public schools in the state. “It’s often not part of the main story,” he says. “Or [the curriculum] will ghettoize the history—that’s as insidious as simply erasing the history. It suggests that black history and Latinx history in not Texas history.”
As for Fair Park, things have come full circle in some ways. For one month in the fall every year, fairgoers from across the state still flock to the neighborhood. But the area has long been disinvested in and neglected by the city, and remains among the poorest census tracts in Dallas. In October, just after Travisville opened, the Dallas City Council approved a plan that will hand over operations of the park to a private company. The company has been tasked with “revitalizing” the area—a fraught word for a neighborhood that has, for decades, sat at the crosshairs of grand and sometimes abstract discussions renewal, decay and equity.
In fiction and in fact, there are no easy answers. In Harper’s play, the fate of Travisville ends on a note as ambiguous as the future of Fair Park. He had hoped to avoid the common tropes of civil rights stories: “Eventually the white people see the error of their ways and nothing was ever wrong in America ever again,” he says. “I don’t buy that, because then the world that we live in now doesn’t make any sense.”