An infamous relic of the Jim Crow era will on Friday complete its multi-decade transformation from an unvarnished symbol of hate to an artistic reminder of the struggle to overcome racism.
Officials will hold a special ceremony at the Dallas County Records Building to unveil what’s being called a “new media monument” at the spot on the second floor where traces remain of a faded “Whites Only” sign above a water fountain.
The installation, designed by Dallas artist Lauren Woods, will make use of the functional fountain that sits below the sign. Rather than producing water right after being pushed on, it will first trigger a video projection of newsreel clips showing civil rights-era protests.
“The sculpture acts as a response to the ‘Whites Only’ sign,” said Woods, who is black. “This particular monument is about honoring the spirit of people … everyday citizens who decided to come together to change the culture of the nation.”
The sign was rediscovered in 2003, when workers in the building started noticing the hard-to-see lettering. County leaders decided then — after some contentious debate — to preserve the sign with a historical marker.
Now — as then — some say the “Whites Only” sign should be removed altogether from the downtown Dallas building. But with the artwork coming to fruition, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the painful reminder serves an important purpose.
“If you don’t understand your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” said Price, who’s been a leading proponent of preserving the sign.
Woods, 36, first heard of the sign in 2003, when she was an elementary school teacher. The initial rediscovery touched off heated discussions in Dallas and elsewhere. And while others lamented the racist vestige, she sensed an opportunity to send a message.
Although she soon left Texas to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, the sign never quite left her mind.
She pitched her idea to Dallas County commissioners in 2005, pledging to raise thousands of dollars for the installation. And she began in earnest in 2009, after moving back to Dallas.
Woods raised around $30,000 to fund the development, which included intense research into archival footage. Then Price, who represents most of southern Dallas County, kicked in $15,000 from his district’s road and bridge budget to cover the rest of the cost.
And county officials were eager to unveil the artwork before the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“Needless to say, I’m overwhelmed and ecstatic,” said Price, who is the county’s only black commissioner.
The video projections will feature clips of everything from protest marches to black Americans being sprayed with fire hoses. And while the focus currently is on the civil rights era, Woods said there’s the potential to include footage from other seminal moments in history.
The important thing, she said, is to make a “living history.”
“Keeping these artifacts in a public context — rather than some special place like a museum — creates a moment where different people from different paths can stop and interact around it,” she said.
But some civil rights leaders still say the “Whites Only” sign should indeed be in a museum — or at least somewhere else.
The Rev. L. Charles Stovall said that regardless of the treatment, the image still portrays something that’s “not conducive to brotherhood.” Stovall, a black minister who pushed for the sign’s removal in 2003, said he questioned the significance of something being called art.
And he reiterated that some things belong in the history books, not out in the public view.
“That is a county building, a government building,” said Stovall, pastor at Light of Love Covenant Community Church. “Every vestige of racism and separatism should’ve been removed from that building.”
Price, for one, said he couldn’t understand that viewpoint, saying “you can’t act as though this kind of apartheid didn’t exist.”
And as Woods toured the site recently, she discovered something else that hammered home the project’s importance.
Not far from the infamous water fountain, a longtime county employee showed her another “Whites Only” sign in the Records Building. Barely visible — even then, only under just the right light — the image apparently escaped notice because its water fountain is now gone.
How many other such vestiges, she wondered, are out there without any acknowledgement of the sordid history that created them?
“They are probably all over the building,” she said. “But nobody really knows.”
Follow Tom Benning on Twitter at @tombenning.
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