- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

DALLAS (AP) - On Sept. 8, 1954, a story ran in this newspaper beneath the headline “Negro Pupils Denied Admission to School.” That was four months after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that separate was not equal.

Parents had brought some 90 children to the all-white Linfield Elementary, then part of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district. A photo ran with the story in which a boy and girl, both 7 years old, stared with wide eyes into the school they hoped to attend. But it was not to be: The principal explained to their parents that the Texas Education Agency had ruled schools were to remain segregated.

And so the kids were sent back to their home school - the all-black Melissa Pierce in Joppa, the community just south of downtown Dallas founded in 1872 by Henry Critz Hines and other freed slaves from the nearby Miller plantation. Their education would have to be put on hold.

The white schools opened in early September. But Pierce did not take students until late October, this newspaper reported, “for the convenience of several prominent farmers who wanted cotton pickers.”

In 1954.

“You’re getting back to that era when people lost their minds and can’t remember none of that - like it didn’t happen,” Edgar Green told The Dallas Morning News , laughing but not because he finds it funny. He went to Melissa Pierce in the late ‘50s and worked the cotton fields when he was a kid, voluntarily. He remembers going to Wylie, Sunnyvale, Italy - then far-flung small North Texas farming towns.

“The racism era,” he said. “That’s what it was. Segregation and racism.”

Green’s 68 and a lifelong Joppa resident who lives next door to the community garden he planted in a valiant effort to feed the food desert. Every day he drives past what remains of Melissa Pierce at the corner of Hull Avenue and Fellows Lane - the small tumbledown brick building that used to house classrooms and, behind that, the old gymnasium where light shines through holes in the rotting wood ceiling.

Pierce, which now belongs to Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, closed years ago, and for a long time the two surviving buildings housed a church; in small Joppa, there’s still at least one church on every street. The gym is filled with rotting pews, peeling paint and moldy memories of long-ago services.

One could make a case for its demolition - it’s likely full of asbestos, lead paint and other toxins. But for now - and, residents hope, forever - it will stand because it should, a memory worth preserving in a community founded by freed slaves and built by homesteaders who refused to settle in the projects and shantytowns available to blacks closer to the big city.

Habitat inherited the building a few months ago, after closing on a massive parcel of land upon which it will build more than a dozen new homes. The nonprofit has been in Joppa for almost 15 years, and has built some 90 homes while repairing dozens more.

Twenty-five years ago, Joppa was almost inaccessible - 18 streets, most still made of dirt, cut off from the city whenever trains pulled in and parked at the next-door rail yard. Since then, Habitat has done much to rescue a neighborhood City Hall mostly ignored.

Bill Hall, Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity’s CEO, has great affection for this neighborhood; so, too, do Habitat’s employees, who attend every community meeting and know the old-timers like family. After a recent tour of the school, Hall drove the short distance to the end of the street - past empty lots and ramshackle homes, the recently installed spray park and the brick house that serves as a church along the freshly paved dead-end.

“There,” Hall said, pointing at the postcard view at his feet. A few steps away were the Trinity River, narrow and placid, and the Great Trinity Forest filling the horizon.

“If this community were anywhere else,” he said, never taking his eyes off the vista, “it would be worth millions.”

It would be far easier to raze Melissa Pierce than save it. But Habitat executives will spare the school - because the neighborhood wants them to, and because they believe it’s the right thing to.

“Members of the community are attached to it,” executive vice president Cyndy Lutz said. “And they’re nostalgic for it. And they’re proud of it.”

Edgar Green has nothing but fond memories of the school; so, too, does 69-year-old Elizabeth Greer, another Joppa lifer who also went to Pierce and remembers when her aunt picked cotton in Ferris, another far-flung North Texas farm town. They envision its resurrection as a community center in a neighborhood without one. A safe place for kids to play. Somewhere seniors can spend their days.

“The community needs to decide what it will become,” Hall said as he stood inside the decaying remains of the old school. Habitat will partner with Joppa residents to form a nonprofit that will raise money to rehab Melissa Pierce.

It will not be easy, because it will not be cheap. Things like this just don’t get on billion-dollar bond packages.

“But anything is possible because God is in control,” Elizabeth Greer said. “And if he sees fit for it to happen, it will happen.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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