How Dallas came to terms with tragedy

This week, Dallas marks the 40th anniversary of JFK's death. But it took decades for the city to fully recognize its place in history.

The gunfire that felled President John Kennedy 40 years ago on Saturday was an event so searing that millions of people, not just in America but worldwide, can still recall in vivid detail the moment they learned the news. Almost lost in that moment is the fact that those bullets left other casualties in Dallas that day and caused grave injury to the standing of the city itself.

In short order, Dallas would come to be dubbed "the city of hate." When its residents traveled out of state, they learned not to name their hometown. Some who did were thrown out of taxis, refused service in restaurants, or otherwise snubbed. Telephone operators cut them off. An assassin could have struck in countless other cities, but he fired at Dealey Plaza. The only way many Americans could cope with the assassination, it seemed, was to attack the city where it happened.

Those painful days are now behind Dallas, which has become one of America's most popular tourist destinations. Indeed, more visitors go to Dealey Plaza than to any other spot in the city - a tribute, of sorts, to how Dallas eventually came to grips with its ignominious place in history. In the end, the city made a conscious decision not to try to bury the past or hide from it, but to give full disclosure in the form of The Sixth Floor Museum, housed in the very building in which Lee Harvey Oswald waited in ambush. The story of the museum's birth is the story of Dallas's own recovery from the JFK assassination. It was not an easy delivery.

At first, Dallas behaved as if repressing its memory were the only way to cope with Nov. 22, 1963. For more than 15 years, the city did little to acknowledge the event. Yet even before the president was buried, throngs streamed into Dealey Plaza, finding only an abandoned warehouse locked up and showing no sign of its indelible mark on US heritage.

Dallas was like many other cities that have ignored or abandoned sites of historic tragedies for decades before commemorating them. Washington, D.C., for instance, allowed Ford's Theater, the site of Lincoln's assassination, to deteriorate almost beyond salvaging before the Eisenhower administration began to rebuild it.

But in the late '70s, a handful of visionaries resolved that Dallas would not wait generations before acknowledging its place in presidential history. Initially, they faced resistance beyond the borders of Texas. Lindalyn Adams, then chairwoman of the Dallas County Historical Commission, recalls a trip to Washington to meet officials from the National Register of Historic Places. Sitting in a restaurant, she heard two men behind her laughing. She had paid no attention until one said he was about to meet with some Texans.

" 'They want to put the Texas School Book Depository on the National Register,' " Ms. Adams recalls one of them saying. " 'Next thing you know, someone will want to register the Watergate.' "

Adams and two other Dallasites subsequently had a difficult meeting with the officials, who sat with their arms folded. The Register committee softened when members began to recall exactly where they had been the day Kennedy was shot. Still, the Dallas trio went home without any encouragement. "As a rule of thumb, nothing is historic until it's 50 years old," Adams recalls being told at the 1979 meeting.

At that point, Dallas took one key step, led by Judson Shook, a persistent engineer who had served as county director of public works since 1968. From his office window on Dealey Plaza he could see the old depository and the stream of visitors taking pictures or rattling the doors to find a way into the grimy building. He was concerned that keeping the building locked would only prolong Dallas's pain and make visitors more suspicious of the city.

"There are things in life you have to face up to," says Mr. Shook, now retired. "I thought it was time for us to say, 'This is what happened; this is where it happened.' "

At that time, Dallas was booming, and the county government was in need of more space. It was Shook's responsibility to find it, and the old Book Depository seemed one of the best sites for expansion. Soon after he made inquiries about buying the building, Shook received calls from business and political figures who were alarmed. They opposed any "monument to Lee Harvey Oswald."

Shook's reply was: "If we buy that building and tear it down, what are people going to think? If we don't buy it, how are we to know what someone else will do?"

A promoter from Nashville had, in fact, purchased it after the Book Depository Co. moved out in 1970. He intended to create a commercial JFK museum but defaulted on his mortgage payments in 1972, shortly after an arsonist failed to burn down the building. New rumors surfaced that other enterprising exhibitors had plans to buy the structure, leaving open the possibility for a macabre sideshow.

A plan to make "adaptive reuse" of the lower floors began to win adherents. In 1977, voters approved a bond issue to buy the building and adapt the lower floors as county offices. Shook and other county officials approached Adams and the county's Historical Commission. Would the commission take the next step?

Initially, Adams didn't want to even look inside the building, and she was offended by the fascination visitors had for the site. "I started observing the plaza crowds day and night," recalls Adams. "I realized that this was part of the city's history, tragic though it was. But we had nothing on site to explain what had happened. Something had to be done - and well done."

Adams tried to find help planning and funding the museum, but received no positive response. Philanthropists, accustomed to supporting warm and fuzzy projects, feared a museum could subject the city to a new round of criticism.

Adams turned to Conover Hunt, an energetic historian and museum consultant. As the county developed plans for the lower floors, Ms. Hunt received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring in museum experts, who concluded the best location for a museum was the sixth floor.

The old warehouse finally became a public facility in 1981, but plans for the museum still languished, despite hundreds of presentations. In his inaugural speech in 1987, Judge Lee Jackson, one of Dallas's county commissioners, reinvigorated the drive by publicly committing himself to making the museum a reality.

On Presidents' Day in 1989 the museum opened. It now attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year. The museum covers the legendary Kennedy charisma, the '60s, the Texas trip, the assassination, investigations, and conspiracy theories.

"It took the federal government 100 years to do with Ford's Theater what Dallas did in less than 30," Shook said.

The formal dedication ceremony took place Nov. 22, 1993, when 6,000 people filled the plaza. "Thirty years ago, fate brought me here as an unwilling player in the most unforgettable, tragic drama of our times," said Nellie Connally, former first lady of Texas, whose husband, Gov. John Connally, was wounded in the assassination. "Now, three decades later, we are gathered here not to look back with grief but to look forward with hope."

The museum will mark the 40th anniversary of JFK's death with two events: a concert by the Dallas Symphony and a photo exhibit by Jacques Loew.

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