Gentrification in West Dallas brings worry over streets named for Amos and Andy

Robert Wilonsky, City Columnist

Pauline Hamilton has lived on Amos Street in West Dallas since 1952. Her kids — six of them — grew up here when it was a neighborhood “where everybody knew everybody,” as Pauline said.

I met two of Hamilton’s kids Monday — a 59-year-old son named James, after his father, and a 72-year-old daughter named Gloria who preaches at a nearby African Methodist Episcopal church. They had come by to visit their sharp, kind 94-year-old mother, only to spend an afternoon answering a bunch of my dopey questions about the name of the street on which they had been raised.

Because, you see, they grew up on Amos, between Singleton Boulevard and W. Commerce Street. And Amos runs parallel to a street called Andy.

Yes. In West Dallas, in a small, formerly black neighborhood, streets are called Amos and Andy. And they are indeed named after two of the most popular, and loathed, characters in entertainment history.

From top left, Gloria Johnson, James Hamilton and Pauline Hamilton, all of Dallas,  in front of their home on Amos Street in West Dallas, which is block over from Andy Street

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The names may mean nothing to you if you aren’t of a certain age. The Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program, which began in the late 1920s, and the television show that followed in the early 1950s have all but been erased from modern popular culture. For good reason. Amos and Andy were characters created by white men who worked in black face, spoke in what historian Catherine Stewart has called “black misspeak” and treated skin color as a punch line.

“It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest,” the NAACP wrote in 1951, when the TV series debuted with black men in roles created by whites.

From what I can tell, those West Dallas streets are likely the last surviving vestiges of a radio show around which a nation once planned its evenings.

I stumbled across them a year ago, while driving around the townhomes and apartments swamping that stretch of Singleton, and thought it curious but let it slide. I even thought maybe it had to do with the fact that the TV version of Andy was played by a Dallas filmmaker — Spencer Williams, whose 1941 movie The Blood of Jesus was added to the National Film Registry in 1991. (I was wrong.)

But days ago a colleague, who just discovered the streets, sent me a note wondering “isn’t this kind of … disgusting?” And over the weekend a reader wondered, “with all the furor over changing school names,” how did Amos and Andy streets get by unscathed?

Maybe because few know they’re there, as the street signs just went back up two years ago. Or because the people who live there now — young, Hispanic — don’t know who Amos and Andy were. Or because the last of the original residents like the names.

Andy Street is all but an abandoned country road at this point, in the shadow of towering warehouses on W. Commerce Street. 

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“We knew who we were,” Gloria Hamilton Johnson said Monday. “We didn’t have an identity crisis.”

The Hamiltons were among the black families who actually didn’t find the show offensive. If nothing else, Amos ‘n’ Andy was the only program that exposed white Americans to black doctors and lawyers and a burgeoning middle class. And it “depicted the black family at a time when no one else was doing so,” writer Trey Ellis told The Root in 2016.

“We actually thought it was nice, living on streets named for African-Americans,” Gloria said, referring to the television show. “This was long before we had streets named for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I do know prejudice. But I was not offended because it was our legacy. It was legend. And they were the first people on TV who looked like us.”

Insurance and real estate man W.E. Kline named the streets in 1949. His son William told this newspaper in 1990 that Kline was a fan of the radio show and just “came up with Amos and Andy on the spur of the moment.”

The cast of CBS’ version of Amos ‘n’ Andy included,. at left, Dallas filmmaker Spencer Williams as Andy. Tim Moore, at top, was Kingfish, Spencer Williams, while Alvin Childress was Andy.

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That may not be the only reason. Melvin Ely, a history professor at the College of William & Mary who wrote 1991’s definitive The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon, said Monday that many business owners in black neighborhoods then referenced Amos and Andy. And if indeed Kline intended this to be an all-black neighborhood, which it originally was, he “probably thought it would be amusing to name streets there after Amos ‘n’ Andy characters,” Ely said.

When the Hamiltons moved in, Amos and Andy were short, dead-end dirt roads where residents couldn’t even park their cars. Pauline gathered $6 from every family to pave the streets.

The family’s original home was one half of a wooden duplex, which had an outhouse. But it no longer stands: In 2011 Dallas City Hall built for Pauline Hamilton a modest brick replacement as part of its home repair program. Several others, too, have been redone. But at the end of Amos, where it hits Andy, is the last of the original Kline-built homes. It looks ready to fall over. All the houses along Andy are long gone.

The Hamiltons worry some, yes. But about the encroaching developments — the townhomes blocking their views and bringing in traffic and speculators who might ruin their neighborhood. As for the rest?

“Amos is just a street,” Gloria said. “A place we called home.”

 

 

The Case For `Amos `n` Andy`

September 04, 1985|By Clarence Page.

I have a confession to make: I like “Amos `n` Andy.“

Yes, I know I am not supposed to like that ancient television comedy about Amos, Andrew H. (for “Hogg“) Brown, Kingfish, Lightnin` and the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge Hall.

After all, in the world of black entertainment, the names “Amos `n`

Andy“ have taken negative connotations like those attached to poor old

“Uncle Tom.“

The popular television program that was made from an equally popular network radio was taken off the air in the late 1960s as a result of protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups.

Former Ebony magazine reporter Donald Bogle expressed the prevailing wisdom of the show in his excellent book on Hollywood`s historical

stereotyping of blacks, “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks.“ Its major flaw, Bogle writes, was in “depicting Negro professionals as just as idiotic as the servant figures of the Hollywood films.“

But, to the best of my recollection, that assessment is not entirely fair. Amos, at least, was a level-headed cab driver who put his family responsibilities ahead of everything else and often had to bail Andy and Kingfish out of scrapes. In a world more perfect than ours, blacks would be no more offended by that than whites would be offended by “The Honeymooners.“

It also gave some fine black actors work, even if it was not the kind of work they would have preferred. No blacks were allowed on network noncomedies until 1967 when Bill Cosby co-starred with Robert Culp in “I Spy“.

Interestingly, since “Amos `n` Andy“ was censored, it has become a major hit in home videotape rentals and sales and I do not think all those customers are Klan members. “Amos `n` Andy“ is not “Birth of a Nation.“

Although the network stations are too nervous to think about it, there has been talk among the independents and cable stations of bringing the show back. While I will not actively campaign for it, I will not exactly lose sleep over it if it happens.

To me, the most objectionable aspect of the show was not its depiction of black life but that it was the only depiction of black life available on prime-time television. Sure, we could laugh at the antics of white people in comedies like “The Honeymooners“ in the 1950s, but we could also see the seriousness of white people`s lives with “Playhouse 90“ or “The Armstrong Circle Theater.“

Today we have a choice of black roles on television, although our choices remain ridiculously limited. Where are the depictions of the black experience that produced such fine works as “A Soldier`s Story“ or “The Color Purple“ in other media?

Too many television programmers believe the public will not accept serious black programs. These are some of the same people who thought the public would never accept a comedy about a mobile Korean War surgical hospital. Nevertheless, “M+A+S+H“ was a hit.

Yet we have made progress. Cosby was on Newsweek`s cover last week because his upper-class Huxtable family has become a number-one hit. As a comedy success for more than two decades without using race as material for his act, Cosby criticized young comics who do use it.

“`Saturday Night Live` is one of the biggest offenders,“ he said. “You don`t see a black person there unless they give you their signature that they are black, and therefore that`s what`s funny. The joke will be on his or her color, you see.“

He has a point. But to be fair to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, I do not think they are making fun of their color as much as they are making fun of those on both sides of the color line who make a big deal about color.

Every ethnic group produces its own set of comedians because we need to laugh at ourselves once in a while.

“Amos `n` Andy,“ for better or worse, is part of our American heritage. When we can feel secure enough about ourselves to enjoy the program in its proper historical context, we can say we have made real progress.

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