A new exhibit at the South Dallas Cultural Center aims to highlight the beauty of the neighborhood and, more importantly, the residents who call it home.
The Beauty of South Dallas exhibit, which opened on Friday, is a product of the Juanita J. Craft House artist residency program and Nitashia Johnson, the inaugural artist.
Among the collection of approximately 50 black and white photographs are South Dallas monuments, including the Forest Theater and the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House.
Craft was a black civil rights leader who fought to end segregation in the mid-1950s at the Texas State Fair. She was the first black woman to vote in Dallas and served two terms on the city council. She died in 1985 at the age of 83.
After his death, the house, which Craft used as a base of operations for his civil rights work, was turned into a museum.
Last week, the city of Dallas proclaimed Feb. 9 “Juanita Craft Day” to honor the late civil rights leader’s activism on what would have been her 120th birthday.
Photos in the exhibit feature structures and objects that may seem ordinary, but in the context of the rest of the gallery, they show how the historically black neighborhood is changing. One of the photos shows a swing in an empty playground, another shows a vacant lot.
South Dallas resident Latoya Porter attended the exhibit opening on Friday with her sister, nephew and nieces. She said she appreciates Johnson’s work because of how he captures the transformation of the neighborhood. One photo that stood out for her was one that showed a bungalow-style home, which is common in South Dallas, next to a modern new home.
Porter said the photo reminded him of the residents of the neighborhood and the history that needs to be preserved and protected from being moved.
For local youth, including his family members, the exhibit not only reinforces their appreciation of art created by members of the black community, but also their pride in South Dallas.
“It instills a sense of pride in seeing the places they pass through every day and seeing them displayed in such a beautiful way,” Porter said.
Johnson, who attributes her career as an artist in large part to a high school teacher, said she was happy that her exhibit could be a source of knowledge and inspiration for young people.
Although the exhibit seeks to highlight the changes in South Dallas, the heart of the project – which is deliberately placed at the center of the exhibit – are photos of some of the people who live there.
“They are the history of this area,” Johnson said. “If something changes, more people just need help to be able to love their community; it is their house.
More portraits will be added to the exhibit’s centerpiece, Johnson said, adding that she hopes it will also serve as a wake-up call to protect South Dallas residents.
“If they’re gone and they’re kicked out of the area, you lose the spirit of the community,” she said.
John Spriggins, the director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, launched the residency program as part of the revitalization of the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House, which was badly damaged by a broken garden hose in 2018. The exhibit by Johnson is the first project to come to fruits of the residency program.
Spriggins described artist residency as a social practice and added that people from all artistic backgrounds can apply for the program.
“All of the work in a way reflects Juanita Craft and what she has done, but will also focus with a broader focus on the South Dallas community,” he said.
The Beauty of South Dallas exhibit will be on view through March 19 at the South Dallas Cultural Center, 3400 S. Fitzhugh Ave.
To learn more, visit www.thebeautyofsouthdallas.com.