When Sadye and Cleophus Gee were married more than 40 years ago, they had no place to live.
“There were no apartments for blacks,” Sadye says. “When they built the Roseland Homes projects (on Washington Avenue), they told us we made too much money on $60 a month.
“That’s when my father built onto his house for us, and we decided to save our money to move to Hamilton Park. Housing was a serious problem.”
The Gees were just one of hundreds of black Dallas families facing a housing crunch due to discrimination. So 40 years ago, when developers opened Hamilton Park, a neighborhood for black families on Lake Highlands’ western border, it was an answer to the Gees and many other families’ dreams.
“Only 750 homes were provided, and they were filled,” Sadye says.
“There were two high hills as you entered Hamilton Park from Forest. We had a park, but that was it. You never saw police cars; you didn’t need to. We could sleep outside all night until the sun came up.”
“Everyone’s children were everyone’s children. We didn’t lock our doors, there was no crime, and if there was, it was taken care of in the home.”
Hamilton Park is located north of Forest Lane between Central Expressway and the Texas Instruments complex. Over the years, the City grew and surrounded the small neighborhood with office buildings, shopping centers and highways.
Despite the growth, the neighborhood remains more than 95 percent black, and a majority of the residents are original homeowners who have lived in the neighborhood nearly 40 years.
As times change, Dallas grows, and younger residents move in, the original Hamilton Park homeowners are trying to keep their neighborhood and what it stands for alive.
February is Black History month. The story of Dallas’ history, and that of our neighborhood, isn’t complete without learning the history of Hamilton Park.
When families moved to Hamilton Park 40 years ago, it was an island community in the middle of farmland.
“It was far out,” says Doris King. She and husband James moved to the neighborhood 38 years ago.
“When you passed Northwest Highway, you could feel the difference. It was so quiet. There was nothing around but Hamilton Park.
“When I would go to work, people would say: Why did you move out to the country – there’s nothing out there? Well, there’s us.
“People 10 or 12 years later would say: How did you get in North Dallas? It was African Americans who settled in North Dallas. This used to be a freedman’s town.”
The 172 acres that is home to Hamilton Park were purchased from Anderson Bonner, an ex-slave who had been given the land by his former master after the Civil War. The land was purchased from Bonner by a foundation, which resold it to developers to create a neighborhood specifically for black families.
“There were no homes for blacks (before Hamilton Park),” says Charles Smith. His family moved to the neighborhood 39 years ago, when they lost their home to the construction of Love Field Airport.
“It was a beautiful neighborhood, you can imagine – everything was new,” Smith says. “Everyone was excited. A lot of us hadn’t had anything like this before. It was like a utopia.”
To live in Hamilton Park, residents went through an application process to prove they could meet mortgage payments.
Once approved, they picked their plot and chose from six floor plans for their woodframe home.
But it wasn’t just housing that attracted residents to Hamilton Park, it was the developers’ promises for a complete community with churches, stores, a school and a recreation center.
It took several years, but residents made sure every promise was fulfilled, down to the construction of the Willie B. Johnson Recreation Center, which today is the hub of the community.
“It took 30 years to get the recreation center,” Sadye says. “The story of Hamilton Park would not be complete without talking about Willie B. Johnson.”
Johnson was a Hamilton Park resident who lobbied many years for the recreation center. She died in 1992, and the City named the center for her because of her efforts.
“I can hear her now,” Sadye says. “She would say: You promised us a recreation center, and it hasn’t come yet.
“When she was done speaking, she would give you a smile that could cut you in two.”
Fighting For Their Home
But Johnson wasn’t the only resident willing to fight for Hamilton Park. Residents have fought off several attempts they say threatened the integrity of their neighborhood. They organized the Hamilton Park Civic League in 1960, and residents say it is one of the oldest organizations for blacks in the City.
“Its main purpose was the upkeep of the community,” says Smith, who served as League president from 1973 to 1987.
League members won battles against developers who wanted to buy-out the neighborhood for commercial development in the early 1980s.
They also defeated a proposal to build a large lumber yard on one of Hamilton Park’s borders and another proposal to construct a cement plant nearby.
“It’s important to maintain the neighborhood, to keep it peaceful,” Smith says. “It’s worth it.”
When Smith retired, the League’s helm was taken over by Eiland Collins, who moved to Hamilton Park in 1963. Today, the league’s biggest battle is not with development, but with just maintaining the neighborhood, Collins says.
Collins and other residents work closely with the City for code enforcement. And older residents reach out to the neighborhood’s children through youth programs, Collins says. They hope to pass their pride in Hamilton park to the younger residents, protecting the neighborhood from deterioration, Collins says.
“You wonder when all of us are gone – you just don’t want it to become a dumping ground, a place where things are falling down,” Collins says.
Even though the neighborhood made life easier for many residents, they still faced discrimination when they left Hamilton Park’s perimeters.
The first time Sadye went grocery shopping in Richardson, the cashier would not take her check because only whites and black maids shopping for their employers were allowed to buy groceries. Blacks could not shop for themselves.
So the Gees and many of their neighbors purchased deep freezers and had to bulk-order two months’ worth of groceries from a Fort Worth grocery store. The food was shipped on a train until a grocery store was built for Hamilton Park residents.
It’s these memories and the history of Hamilton Park that Sadye tries to keep alive. By talking to people, making notes and clipping newspaper articles, she has documented the neighborhood’s history. She stores her work in three, big-ringed black notebooks.
She designated herself as neighborhood historian when she visited the Downtown library a few years ago and asked to see the file on Hamilton Park. It contained one City memo.
Sadye now periodically goes to the library and deposits her research. She wants younger generations to know what Hamilton Park stands for – what it meant to the black community when it was built.
“Every Sunday, it sounded like a war zone with people out mowing their yards and working on their homes,” Sadye says.
“People would come from all over Dallas to see. It was like a circus. People would come to see the all-black neighborhood.
“Having known you had no other place to go, it made you work for what you had attained. Since it had become such an unprecedented landmark, there was a lot of pride.
“When I realized we were losing our history, I knew someone had to keep it together.”