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Editorial

I WAS JUST THINKING: Donald “Don” Payton – our Dallas African griot. Look it up.

Dallas Black history is shut up in his bones – like fire, burning in a pit. He uses every opportunity to unleash those flames as nuggets of cultural experiences.

By Norma Adams-Wade

Donald “Don” Payton,
Donald “Don” Payton, genealogist and historian of Black Dallas.
Credit: Dallas Historical Society

Just finished a delightful two-hour conversation with the “unofficial historian of Black Dallas.”

For you who are not in the Dallas know, that would be the inimitable, the matchless Donald “Don” Payton. He is president of the African American Genealogical Interest Group, an affiliate of the Dallas Genealogical Society, and a former Dallas County Historical Commissioner.

You can call this a tribute to Payton. He is a repository of oral history that he carries around in his head. He is, in fact, our African griot. Look it up.

Oral history comes alive through him. Listen: “History repeats itself because during the first time we’re not listening and learning,” Payton said, explaining his theory of racial progress and decline. “Our traditions are always there. We just need to pick them up and carry them on.”

I don’t mean to be unfair and make Payton sound too good. He is, of course, a mere mortal. But — he has that special flare for walking us through history and making us like it. I hated history in high school, but now, I love it and can’t seem to live without it. That’s Payton’s point. I interviewed him on the Texas Metro News Blog that was recorded Wednesday, April 20, 2022 on Facebook Live and Blog Talk Radio. Look it up also.

More than a decade ago, historian and former university professor Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney and educator Dr. Alfred L. Roberts also interviewed Payton in a 2011 project that is now digitized history. The 72-page interview – in print and online — was part of a project entitled Documenting the History of the Civil Rights Movement in Dallas County, Texas. It is part of the University of North Texas Libraries Special Collections to The Portal of Texas digital repository.

Payton gave detailed memories and research about local happenings and his and other Dallas Black families’ histories since Dallas was settled in the 1830s. Payton’s ancestors are recorded as among the first enslaved Africans who arrive in Dallas with prominent Dallas settler William Brown Miller. The ancestors were given Miller’s surname that both White and Black descendants retain. Payton’s grandmother was a Miller.

“William Brown Miller brought my ancestors here in 1847. My ancestors walked from Independence, Missouri to Hord’s Ridge that is now Oak Cliff in Dallas,” Payton said. “My grandmother’s great grandfather John Miller became one of the largest Black landowners in Southern Dallas, near what is now Simpson-Stuart and Bonnie View roads.”

Ask Payton anything – anything – about the history of Black people in Dallas, Texas. He either will give you an exact answer –or tell you, almost with chapter and page number, where to look it up. Payton has been interviewed and recorded countless times in numerous other media over his more than 40-year career and he always has new stories and details to unveil.

You hear about folk with elephant memories. Payton has one. In our two-hour conversation, captivating historical facts, names and anecdotes about numerous Dallas pioneer families – Black and White — cascaded from his mouth with unbridled ease and retentive detail.

I was just thinking… Dallas Black history is shut up in his bones – like fire, burning in a pit. He uses every opportunity to unleash those flames as nuggets of cultural experiences.

Payton’s story telling does remind you of one of his role models, author and historian Alex Haley. Payton met Haley before the writer released his classic book, Roots, that later became a record-breaking television series. Similar to Haley, Payton (our own relatable and down-to-earth griot) first began to retain oral history while sitting as a preschooler in grandparents’ and relative’s homes listening to the elders’ stories of their early lives as African-Americans in the 1800s and early 20th Century.

Payton’s deep reservoir for detailed storytelling about such experiences; some laced with humor, some evoking anger and grief – indeed is extraordinary.

During our talk, his rollcall of names, places, and personal anecdotes sounded like a history course of Black and White Dallas. Our topics ranged from how to start your own family genealogy to what telling details to look for in a family photo. Payton shared many stories about persons whose names are now well-known freeways, buildings, schools, libraries, neighborhoods, such as Hamilton Park, Simpson-Stuart Road, Five Mile Creek community, Webb Chapel Community, Hord’s Ridge in Oak Cliff. He told nuggets about memorable individuals, including Frederica Chase Dodd and her Dallas attorney father Frederick K. Chase, William Brown Miller, T. L. Marsalis, John Neely Bryan, Dr. John Wesley Anderson and wife Pearl C. Anderson, Arch and Charlotte who were ton’s oral histories that reams of daily newspapers and broadcast recordings still have not told. We will keep listening.

Miller Family Park
Miller Family Park, 2814 Persimmon Rd. at Tracy Rd, near Bonnie View and Simpson-Stuart roads. Credit Dallas Park and Recreation Dept
Upcoming Miller Family Reunion

The free, annual, 24-hour Miller Family Reunion will be held July 9-10, 2022 at Miller Family Park, 2814 Persimmon Road at Tracy Road near Bonnie View, Simpson Stuart roads, and Paul Quinn College. The city renamed Cedardale Park to Miller Family Park in 1989 paying homage to Payton’s enslaved ancestors who helped settle and later owned the land. This is the 175th year since the Miller family –Black and White — settled in Dallas in 1847. The reunion draws relatives and friends internationally and features live music and lots of camaraderie. The public is invited but must bring your own food, beverages, tables and chairs if needed. A program will feature relatives who have achievements to celebrate.

To learn more, contact Payton at donpayton47@gmail.com or 214-328-2618. The African American Genealogical Interest Group meets the 3rd Saturday each month, 2 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., September through May, in the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, 1st floor West Room, 1515 Young St., downtown Dallas.

Norma Adams-Wade, is a proud Dallas native, University of Texas at Austin journalism graduate and retired Dallas Morning News senior staff writer. She is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and was its first southwest regional director. She became The News’ first Black full-time reporter in 1974. norma_adams_wade@yahoo.com
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