Even as upper middle class subdivisions sprouted up around it in 1961, the post-Civil War black community known as Little Egypt persisted, atop dirt roads and without running water or sewage systems.
“Look at this. It is astonishing,” Richland College professor Clive Siegle says, pointing to a map depicting a bird’s eye view of the Little Egypt area as it looked 55 years ago.
“There are brand new homes, with all the modern conveniences, going in all around. A new shopping center, restaurants, service stations. And here you can see the Egyptians are still using outhouses. Imagine, going out there at night, in the winter. It had to be far enough from the house … well, and they probably had to move them from time to time because the pits would fill up …”
Sure enough, close inspection shows a straight path leading from a house to a tiny structure that can only be its outdoor toilet.
There are important lessons to be learned by studying local history, and Little Egypt is a fascinating case, Siegle says.
That’s why he and his honors history class, in collaboration with an honors anthropology class taught by professor Tim Sullivan, aim to virtually bring the historic neighborhood to life.
The land that once housed Little Egypt, just north of Northwest Highway between Ferndale and Audelia, now includes Northlake Shopping Center and a larger area that showcases beautiful mid- and late-century homes amid rolling hills and towering trees.
Siegle moved to a neighborhood flanking the former Little Egypt in 1964, when he was a teenager, but at the time he had no idea Little Egypt had ever existed.
“If I had, I would have been incredibly interested in it,” he says.
He now lives on Shoreview and recently learned enough about Little Egypt to leave him hungry for more history.
Curiosity was piqued when Siegle, out for a walk, noticed that the concrete and surrounding terrain on his street changed dramatically from one spot to another.
“I asked my neighbor, who actually lived here in the ‘60s, about it, and he’s the one who told me about Little Egypt, which he remembers from when he was a teenager. He told me about the fact that right next to his neighborhood of $40,000 homes (pricey in the ‘60s) was this neighborhood of houses with no running water … the change in the pavement is the spot where the dirt roads of Little Egypt began,” he says. “And I thought, ‘You have to be joking!’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
Creating the college course that challenges students to dig up all the information they can on Little Egypt wasn’t easy, Siegle says.
Policy dictates that classes must have a textbook, so they created one using a basic Texas history text and adding hyper-localized material, all provided by Richland faculty.
The students will use historical documents, census data and interviews with people who lived in and near Little Egypt to tell its story.
“It might take one, two or several semesters to get the whole picture,” Siegle says.
He and his students are “beating the bushes” in an attempt to find interview subjects.
The oral histories are going to be a vital piece of the puzzle, he says, so they want to locate anyone who has memories about Little Egypt — no detail is too small, Siegle stresses.
So far the class has tracked down a couple of people who grew up in Little Egypt, others who lived in neighboring areas and some who have studied local history.
Barbara Johnson, who wrote a thesis paper on the subject, guesses that in the day outsiders considered it a slum.
“But the people worked very hard to maintain their homes,” she notes. “The men did yard work while the women babysat, ironed and worked as maids to make a living.”
A 1961 Dallas Morning News article, “200 Little Egypt residents leave ‘bondage’ today,” describes the Little Egyptians finally selling their land en masse to developers. They prayed at church the night before their exodus that the rain would hold off (showers turned their dirt streets to impenetrable mud). According to the article, they were happy to move to more modern abodes with comforts heretofore unknown. Two hundred of them left all at once, with the assistance of 37 moving trucks.
The city had always neglected the neighborhood, but resident Sarah Robinson told a reporter that the homes in Little Egypt could have been condemned at any time, because owners could never afford the required upkeep. That is why they chose to “do it, and do it quickly,” she added.
For further background, Siegel hands over a packet of course information with newspaper articles, papers, pictures of Little Egypt residents and historical documents, including a copy of the original deeds signed by several of the first property owners.
“I’m going to give you this with the caveat that there is a lot of misinformation in here. It’s OK. We’re going to fix that.”
For example, everyone calls Little Egypt a Freedmen’s Town, but do we even know that for sure? “We are going to find out,” he continues.
Students are instructed to start by learning about Hannah and Jeff Hill, the original Little Egypt landowners.
“Who was this guy? Mr. Hill? We are going to use genealogy to figure it out as much as they can. We are going to get to know the Egyptians, and maybe we find out: they are not unlike me.”
Anthropology combines various approaches — historical, archeological, cultural and sociological research, Sullivan adds. “Our emphasis will be on adding the social and cultural dimensions to help bring the story of Little Egypt back to life. We hope to gain some insight on kinship, focusing on tracing lineages, and understanding what role this played in bringing families together and providing the social structure of the settlement,” he says. “We hope this will be a community project in the broadest sense, bringing students and surrounding communities together as we gain a sense of pride in our shared past.”
There are few physical remnants of Little Egypt, which students might examine — there is Fields Cemetery on Skillman, where some Egyptians are buried, including former Little Egypt schoolteacher Joe Giddings. There is the Little Egypt Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Cliff, which grew out of the erstwhile Little Egypt Baptist Church in Lake Highlands. And there’s that variation in the sidewalk that caught Siegle’s attention.
“This is a perfect example of, if you are going to teach people about history, how fragile it is,” Siegle says. “The fact that it astonished me, who lived here in 1964, only two years after it was gone, yet it was here decades and decades before that, goes to show that we have no idea of our surroundings, but we should. A lot of lessons in this.”
Share your knowledge
If you lived in Little Egypt or remember it, help Siegle’s class by emailing email@example.com or calling 972.238.6121.