Moving on Civil Rights
Left to right, ministers Archie I. Tatum, Frank D. Lawson, and Kyev Tatum are part of the coalition seeking an investigation into housing and education programs in Fort Worth. (Photo by Scott Latham)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Local ministers want an investigation of the city and school district’s treatment of poor people.
By BETTY BRINK
“There are no parks, no community center, no library, not one health clinic; there is nothing in this neighborhood for the low-income families who live here.” Kyev Tatum, a minister who serves several small churches, is talking about Sun Valley, his neighborhood on Fort Worth’s far southeast side.
The area, between Loop 820 and Lake Arlington, is home to an ethnically mixed population of folks who are mostly scratching out livings at low-wage jobs. Small frame houses from the 1940s and ’50s valued between $20,000 and $40,000 line the narrow, poorly maintained streets that are prone to flooding. Some that are owner-occupied, like Tatum’s, are brightly painted and well kept; many more are run-down rental properties filled with yard junk. Mobile home parks hidden by privacy fences are scattered along the lake shore. Abandoned industrial parks dot the area, adding to its general atmosphere of despair and blight.
“Basically, it’s a pocketed area that no one saw if they didn’t live there. For a long time, it hadn’t been serviced,” said Frank Moss, the area’s former council representative. “It was ... simply forgotten.”
Now, however, if Tatum and a loose coalition of ministers, community activists and citizens from the Meadowbrook area and other parts of the East Side have their way, Sun Valley and other “forgotten” neighborhoods scattered throughout the city will soon be better known.
Leaders of the coalition — Tatum, fellow ministers Frank Lawson Sr., Roosevelt Sutton, and Lee Muhammad, plus neighborhood advocates Johnny Lewis and Wanda Conlin — are calling for a U.S. Justice Department investigation into discrimination by the City of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth school district against the poor and minorities through unequal allocation, misuse, and what one coalition member called “fraudulent waste” of tax dollars in housing and education. “The school district has failed to teach our kids, and the city wants to run us out of our neighborhoods,” Sutton said. “If we’re talking about anything except moving toward the courtroom, this is a waste of time.”
At a recent meeting at Tarrant County College’s South Campus, the group of more than 50 citizens, mostly black, voted to take their cause to the courts via a class-action civil rights lawsuit.
Conlin said the investigation must delve into what the coalition believes are the city’s violations of the Fair Housing Act for its failure to provide affordable housing for the poor and its abuse of tax increment financing laws by giving “huge tax breaks to wealthy corporations in clear violation of the law’s intent.”
At least one city council member thinks the group’s actions are justified. “There is great disparity in tax dollars, especially when it comes to TIFs (tax increment financing districts), that actually go into neighborhoods,” Donovan Wheatfall said. Although TIFs were designed as a way to give generous tax breaks to developers willing to invest in the revitalization of depressed, inner-city neighborhoods, only one of the city’s 11 such districts (the old Southside/Medical District TIF) meets the intent of the law, Wheatfall said. “All of the others were based on greed, not need.”
Elected last year from District 5, which runs east of I-35 from Hwy 287 near Kennedale north to the Euless city limits, Wheatfall represents some of the city’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods. “There are no TIFs east of I-35, where such a district is needed most,” he said. “We are allowing private developers to drive the location of the TIFs, instead of the city determining the need and saying to the developer, ‘You’ll get this tax break only if you’re willing to come into this neighborhood with your development.’” But now, he said, Fort Worth “has taken the only tool that was made specifically for restoring justice to long-economically depressed communities and made it completely ineffective. How do you attract a developer to Stop Six or Evans and Rosedale, when he can get a better deal out near Alliance Airport?”
The coalition has held three public meetings since the first of the year with representatives from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Services to air their complaints of what Sutton calls a “continuing pattern here of promises made but never kept.” More than 200 local residents have attended the meetings. U.S. Attorney Richard Roper and TCC South Campus president Ernest Thomas have come to at least one of the meetings — but not one local elected official has shown up, Tatum said, in spite of the fact that “all of the county commissioners, the school trustees, the mayor, and city council” have been invited each time.
Wheatfall said he had conflicts but that he plans “to have a conversation soon” with the coalition leaders. Roper said he came to listen, expecting some of the city’s elected to be there. When the people have complaints, he said, “we are open to hear them, and we’ll act if necessary.” Longtime educator Thomas talked about the “different reality” that black and brown children live in when the school system discriminates by exclusion. “If you are economically deprived and of color and you read many of the textbooks, you think you don’t exist,” he said. A lawsuit will take time, he said, but it has traditionally been the only tool minorities have had to find justice.
“We started this hoping to open a dialogue with the people in power,” Tatum said. “We wanted them to hear from the citizens themselves and from people who are working with the powerless. The poor are getting poorer and sicker in this town, their needs are ignored and the homeless [numbers] are growing; our children are not being educated. Tax dollars that should be spent on housing and schools, clinics, parks and community centers, and cleaning up the environment are going to enrich corporations or being stolen by corrupt school administrators and contractors.
“We hoped to get [the elected officials’] attention, open their eyes. But they don’t respect us enough to even respond. ... That’s the ultimate insult,” he said.
In addition to the city’s overall use of TIFs, the group wants the Justice Department to investigate Fort Worth’s efforts to shut down apartments in Woodhaven that provide housing for the working poor and those on welfare. The coalition is also outraged by the Evans Avenue/Rosedale revitalization project funded with federal money where local U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials have charged that the city wasted at least half a million dollars on inflated property payments, enriching the real estate agent hired to negotiate the purchases, and halting indefinitely the redevelopment of the mostly black, inner-city neighborhood. And the group wants Justice to look into the city’s use of federal tax dollars, targeted specifically for affordable housing for the city’s low-income residents, to buy land on White Lake for a high-end retirement complex.
On the school district side, the proposed closing of Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School and three other schools in low-income neighborhoods drew fire from neighborhood activist Johnny Lewis who lives near Van Zandt-Guinn with his wife Shirley. The closings would be part of the district’s effort to balance a budget that is now $23 million in the red.
“If you want to kill a community, close its school,” Lewis said.
One of the justifications for closing Van Zandt-Guinn was its need for extensive repairs because of long years of neglect. The school was built underground a little more than a decade ago, and touted at the time as a low-maintenance, energy-efficient facility. “Where did the money go that was supposed to go to Van Zandt- Guinn? Why hasn’t the Justice Department investigated this waste of the taxpayers’ money? Where’s the outrage in this city?” Lewis asked.
Van Zandt-Guinn is a school that is 100 percent minority. Its test scores have risen dramatically in the past three years; today it is rated “academically recognized” by the Texas Education Association. Lewis and his wife Shirley head up the Near Southeast Side Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group organized more than a decade ago to refurbish homes in the depressed inner-city community and make them affordable for low-income residents. Their efforts would have benefited from the Evans Ave./Rosedale initiative. Now they’re facing another blow: the closing of the one school in the community that has been a source of pride for the residents.
Lewis also called for the Justice Department to find out who profited when the district paid $3.6 million for the Motheral printing plant property, so polluted it can never be used for a school, and $900,000 for the Temple Beth El property, sold this year by the school board at a loss of almost $500,000.
Tatum is a new face among the old war-horse civil rights advocates in the coalition. He moved here last year from San Marcos to work in the successful city council campaign of his friend Wheatfall. But he’s not new to the city. He grew up here in “abject poverty,” he said, one of 10 kids raised by a single mother who worked as a school bus driver and custodian to support them. In 1972 they were the first family to integrate the Ripley Arnold public housing complex that had been built for poor whites in the 1940s.
“I got out of poverty because I had big hands,” he said with a wry smile. “I could throw a football.” He went to college on a football scholarship, graduated in 1991 with a degree in criminal justice from the University of North Texas, married, and began to study the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., which led him into the ministry. In 1994, he and his wife and son moved to San Marcos, where they founded the Mitchell Center, a charter school for disadvantaged children that has grown and thrived for 10 years in a “historic black community.” During those years Tatum became involved in politics, worked for the NAACP, and created a name for himself as an advocate for the poor and the powerless by lobbying in Austin and Washington, D.C. When he arrived here to work for Wheatfall, he ran into Mayor Mike Moncrief, whom he had met when Moncrief was a state senator. “The mayor took me aside and whispered in my ear, ‘Behave yourself.’ I was angered and insulted, but right away I understood what blacks are still up against in this town — the plantation mentality that ‘Old Massa’ knows best,” he said. “That’s gotta change.”
Moncrief has not returned e-mails and phone calls from Fort Worth Weekly.
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