Deep Ellum was settled after the Civil War by formerly enslaved men and women and became one of the most important African American areas of the city. It started as a residential district, but commerce and industry grew with the addition of nearby railroad tracks.
African Americans, along with Jewish immigrants, set up enterprises in the new commercial area providing one of the only areas where they were allowed to do business. Due to the railroad, a cotton gin factory and a Ford Model T plant opened in Deep Ellum. Beginning in the early 1900s, a slew of one and two-story brick commercial buildings were built, many of which survive today. In 1916, one of the most important buildings in Deep Ellum, the Grand Temple of the Black Knights of Pythias, opened and housed some of the earliest offices for Black doctors, dentists and lawyers. It was also a social center for the community with events regularly held in the building’s ballroom.
By the 1920s, Deep Ellum had become a hotbed for early jazz and blues musicians, hosting the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Texas Bill Day, and Bessie Smith. Deep Ellum prospered in the first half of the 1900s, but as the popularity of the automobile grew it brought substantial changes to the area with the removal of the railroad tracks and numerous buildings to make way for Central Expressway. People were also moving to other areas of the city as desegregation of businesses and housing opened up additional opportunities. The area began to decline with the closing of businesses and clubs. It enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-1980s and 90s with new clubs featuring young musicians. That was followed by a period of decline before Deep Ellum started to diversify in the 2000’s with more restaurants and shops.
The success of the redevelopment efforts has brought new development pressure to the historic area. In the late 2010’s large scale high-rise apartment projects began transforming each end of Deep Ellum, and now mid-rise and high-rise apartments are starting to develop towards the center of the district. As the district continues to be successful there will be more pressure on the historic one and two-story buildings to be demolished for large scale development projects. There is nothing to stop a developer from coming in and purchasing large swaths of commercial blocks on Main, Elm, Commerce, and Canton Streets for out of scale mid- to high-rise development, thereby erasing an essential segment of Dallas’ black history. Preservation of this district should be of paramount importance to ensure all Dallas citizens can witness and celebrate their ties to the development of our city.