This article was written a number of years ago and by chance never ended up published to the best of my knowledge. I was paid my kill fee and moved on.
I thought it might be of interest to my blog readers — imagine a city-sanctioned red light district in Dallas, Texas …
By David Kirkpatrick
“The City of Dallas approves ordinance to OK prostitution” — a headline you expect never to read? It probably didn’t make the papers of the day, but in 1910 that headline would be correct.
Dallas was a bustling city in the early 20th century with many similarities to the Dallas of today. The earlier burg was full of commerce and civic activity, and was a transportation hub. Darwin Payne, professor emeritus, SMU, and author of several books on Dallas, opens “Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century,” with a quote that could apply today. Payne writes, “In 1907 a local businessman rendered this thumbnail portrait of Dallas: ‘A city of skyscrapers, resounding with the roar of trade.'” But the Dallas of 100 years ago had one thing today’s city does not — Frogtown, a red light district that operated within shouting distance of the Old Red Courthouse, Dallas’ civic center at the time, with the full blessing of the city’s leadership.
(head below the fold for the rest of the story)
Payne says Dallas was a town that suddenly emerged without a great deal of planning and quickly grew from its pioneer town status when the railroads arrived in the 1870s. He states, “In 1890 it’s the biggest city in Texas and yet there had never been a city plan.” He goes on to explain the city had strict social and racial classes with businessmen playing prominent roles in leadership. Once the Old Red Courthouse opened in 1893, the courthouse square became the center of town. Although government, civic and moral leaders never spoke publicly of the issue, prostitution was a visible part of Dallas once the railroads and growth came to the city.
In an effort to corral the world’s oldest profession and keep it from spreading across the entire city, an area called “South End” had been set aside by a 1907 charter that tacitly approved of the area as a red light district, but specified that no saloons could operate in the area. South End was probably located just south of current downtown Dallas in an area where a number of railroad tracks converge, although its definite location is most likely lost to the sands of time. As the railroads began taking over the South End area, prostitutes began relocating to various parts of the city.
A 1910 city ordinance adopted by Dallas city commissioners designated new boundaries for the prostitutes in an area just north of the Old Red Courthouse. Three of the commissioners wrote a report rationalizing the ordinance and in “Big D” Payne quotes the report, “We find that under the existing conditions bawdy houses and bawds are promiscuously scattered throughout the City, greatly menacing the decent neighborhoods and offending decent and respectable communities and parts of the City … We feel that the measure hereby suggested by us will entirely eliminate such objectionable characters from the decent neighborhoods of the City.”
Payne writes about the location, “This was immediately east of Lamar Street, from Cochran Avenue on the south to the MK&T railroad tracks on the north, and bounded on the east by a small stream known as Dallas Branch.” Payne points out three areas of particular interest in the district, “The 2100 block of Wesley Avenue, the 1000 through 1300 blocks of Broom (recently changed from Audrey), and the 2100-2300 blocks of Griffin Street.” The designated area was known as “Frogtown,” likely because of the calls of frogs that came up the stream from the Trinity River. Once the area became a designated red light district it was also referred to as “the reservation.”
Frogtown’s location relative to the downtown Dallas of today is an area straddling Woodall Rogers Freeway, beginning just east of the West End historic district and running north toward the home of the Mavericks and Stars, the American Airlines Center. One feature of early 1900s Dallas faded away and was resurrected in 1989, the McKinney Avenue Trolley. Payne points out that streetcars would pass by Frogtown and passengers would rubberneck to look down the streets of the reservation with curiosity.
During the time of the reservation, Frogtown consisted of mostly small residences with the occasional larger structure. After its dissolution, the area became a warehouse district and all the buildings dating to the days of Frogtown were likely destroyed and replaced by warehouses. Payne, in “Big D,” writes that the population of the reservation was estimated to range from 240 to 400, with the larger figure most commonly accepted as fact. He writes most of the women worked out of “cribs” consisting of two small rooms, one opening to the sidewalk where the women would advertise their wares from the window or door. Parlor houses were a higher class of establishment and the employees were required to be properly dressed, in the parlor by eight in the evening, and working until midnight, or later if customers remained.
The various brothels in the reservation made a great deal of money, and not surprisingly some were owned by some of the established businessmen of the day. An early writer-researcher visiting Dallas, Henry Bruere, learned one landlord invested under $10,000 in several small structures and land, and earned $50,000 a year on the initial outlay. J.T. Upchurch, a preacher who crusaded against prostitution and built a home for fallen women in Arlington known as the Barachah Industrial Home for Girls also published The Purity Journal, a religious monthly. Upchurch ran photographs of brothels in The Purity Journal, and in the October 1912 issue named some of the owners — a list including W.W. Samuell, a doctor whose name graces a park and recreation center in Dallas.
In the pre-Frogtown February 1905 issue of The Purity Journal, “J.H.Woodroof & wife” wrote, “We visited one of the large houses in the slum district a few days ago. The Madam was very kind to wife and myself. She told us she had banked $1000 during the last five months and that her expenses are $700 per month. Adding her expenses to the amount she cleared gave us … an average of $900 per month. This is only one house, there are many others. We asked: ‘Where did all this money come from?’ She answered: ‘From the doctors down.'”
Upchurch rallied against the 1910 ordinance creating Frogtown, saying the city authorized an area for the “despoiling of virtue, defaming of character, debauching of manhood, and the prostitution of girlhood.” Upchurch’s efforts led to the Dallas Council of Churches’ 1913 decision to no longer rationalize the red light district and to press city leaders to shut it down. In October the council passed a resolution that urged the dissolution of Frogtown, and against the judgement of Police Commissioner Louis Blaylock and Police Chief John W. Ryan, County Attorney Currie McCutcheon announced he would serve notice on the women in Frogtown that they must move out by 6 p.m., November 3, 1913 or face arrest.
On that date the women left the reservation to parts unknown (scattered around the city is one good guess) ending Dallas’ days of city sanctioned prostitution.
(Author’s note: This story could not have been written without the input of Darwin Payne and his book, “Big D” and the archives of the Dallas Historical Society. Many thanks to both for preserving the history of Dallas.)
Update 5/2/09: I came across a photo of Frogtown dating back to 1913. Hit this link for the pic.