Texas: Dealey Plaza, Dallas

This National Landmark District was the site of the assassination of U.S. president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In addition to 3.07-acre Dealey Plaza, the district includes the Dallas County Administration Building (formerly the Texas School Book Depository) from which Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the fatal shots; the triple underpass created by the convergence of Commerce, Elm, and Main Streets; and a portion of the railyards just north of Elm Street, including the railroad switching tower.

Site Office

The Sixth Floor

Dallas County Historical Foundation

411 Elm Street

Dallas, TX 75202-3317

ph.: (214) 653-6666

Before U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the small rectangular park named in honor of George Bannerman Dealey was known primarily as part of a plan to create a gateway to the city from the west and to relieve traffic congestion at the railroad tracks leading in and out of Union Station. An advocate of city planning, Dealey was the publisher of the Dallas Morning News. He was also president of the West of Commerce Realty Company, which had donated most of the right-of-way west of the underpass to the city. Construction began in 1934 and was completed in 1940. The park included extensive landscaping, Art Deco-style garden structures, and reflecting pools. Felix de Weldon, who sculpted the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, was commissioned to create a twelve-foot bronze statue of George Bannerman Dealey. The statue was dedicated in 1949.

Early History of the Site

The land occupied by Dealey Plaza and the rest of the historic district is part of the original town of Dallas, settled in the early 1840’s by John Neely Bryan. In 1849, Bryan sold this land to a homesteader for fifty dollars. The land’s ownership had changed twice before it was sold in 1894 to the Southern Rock Island Plow Company. Four years later the company built a five-story warehouse on the corner of Elm and Houston Streets. After the warehouse was struck by lightning and burned to the ground, the company built the current seven-story building in its place. The Carraway-Byrd Corporation purchased the building in 1937 but soon defaulted on the loan. Two years later, local businessman Colonel D. Harold Byrd bought the building at a public auction for thirty-five thousand dollars. In 1963, Byrd was leasing the building to the Texas School Book Depository Company, a textbook brokerage firm.

Three years earlier, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been elected to the presidency by one of the smallest margins in U.S. history, beating Richard M. Nixon by 34,227,096 to 34,108,546 votes. At age forty-three, Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected; he was also the first Roman Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office. His youth and vitality seemed to capture the imagination of the nation. Handsome and witty, Kennedy was also perfectly suited to the new medium of television. His wife, Jackie, and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., were admired and cherished.

Kennedy’s Political Problems in Texas

In spite of the country’s fascination with the First Family, not everyone was enamored of Kennedy’s political views. His liberal stance on civil rights, his pledge to return civilian control to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and his willingness to communicate with communist nations angered many Americans. Kennedy and his supporters knew that they would have to work hard to earn reelection in 1964. Texas was considered a pivotal state in the election. Kennedy had narrowly carried Texas in 1960, largely as the result of the influence of his running mate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a native of the state and powerful politician.

In November, 1963, President Kennedy traveled to Texas for a two-day campaign trip. So important was this trip that the administration decided to capitalize on Jackie’s popularity by having her accompany him. As an additional show of support, Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, as well as Texas governor John Connally and his wife, and Texas senator Ralph Yarborough joined the Kennedys for a ride through Dallas in an open-car motorcade.

Kennedy’s Motorcade Through Dallas

After a visit to Fort Worth, the Kennedys arrived at Dallas’s Love Field on the morning of Friday, November 22, and drove through the streets of the city on their way to a luncheon at the Trade Mart. An estimated 200,000 people lined the streets to greet the president and his wife. Mrs. Connally turned from her seat in the front of the limousine and remarked, “You can’t say the people of Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President.” Moments later, as the motorcade passed by the Texas School Book Depository and headed for the triple underpass, shots were fired. President Kennedy and Governor Connally slumped in their seats and mass confusion reigned for several moments before the limousine rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. There, the president was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m., Central Standard Time. Although seriously injured, Governor Connally recovered from his wounds.

Eyewitness reports that the shots had been fired from the Texas School Book Depository and from behind the fence above the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza sent police officers and Secret Service agents in both directions. A depository employee, Lee Harvey Oswald, was stopped in the building’s kitchen but released after being identified by a fellow employee. Forty minutes later, police entered the sixth floor of the building and found a barricade constructed of cardboard boxes in the southeast corner where the windows overlooked Dealey Plaza. They also found three spent bullet cartridges and a paper bag. Near the staircase, police found a rifle.

After leaving the Texas School Book Depository, Oswald traveled by bus and taxi to his rooming house but left again quickly. By now, a description of the employee seen in the building’s kitchen was being broadcast over police radios. Dallas patrolman J. D. Tippit apparently spotted Oswald and attempted to arrest him. Oswald allegedly killed Tippit and then hid in the Texas Theater where he was apprehended at 1:45 p.m. By the next day, November 23, Oswald was formally charged with the murder of President Kennedy.

Accused Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald

Born in 1939 in New Orleans, Oswald had dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. In the corps, he learned to be a skilled marksman. He also began to voice support for the Soviet Union and its policies. In September, 1959, Oswald was released from the Marine Corps. He soon left for the Soviet Union where he spent two and one-half years trying, unsuccessfully, to become a Russian citizen. While working in Minsk, Oswald met and married a Soviet woman named Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova. In June, 1962, Oswald was permitted to return to the United States with his wife and their daughter, June Lee.

During the investigations that followed the assassination, officials found that between the summer of 1962 and the fall of 1963, Oswald purchased a .38 caliber revolver, a rifle, and a telescopic sight through the mail; attempted to shoot an ultra-rightist, former U.S. Army general named Edwin A. Walker in Dallas; and set up a branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans. He also traveled to Mexico City in an attempt to obtain a visa to go to Cuba and to lobby the Soviet Union for permission to return. In October, 1963, he started work at the Texas School Book Depository as an order clerk.

Reaction to Kennedy’s Assassination

Many people in the United States and thousands around the world were plunged into shock and disbelief at Kennedy’s assassination. In the United States, workers and schoolchildren were sent home early. Schools, government offices, and businesses remained closed all Friday afternoon. Millions spent the weekend in front of their television sets. Certain images would become indelibly imprinted in the public’s memory: Jacqueline Kennedy’s blood-stained pink suit and stunned face as she witnessed Johnson’s hastily arranged oath of office aboard Air Force One; the endless lines of grief-stricken citizens as they filed past the slain president’s casket in the rotunda of the Capitol; Kennedy’s three-year-old son “John-John” saluting the casket during the funeral procession.

Millions also were watching on November 24 as Dallas policemen transferred Oswald from the City Jail to the County Jail. Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, pushed forward from the crowd and shot Oswald once, fatally. Ruby was convicted of murder in March, 1964, and sentenced to death. The verdict was overturned on appeal in 1966, but Ruby would succumb to cancer the following year before the case came to trial.

Creation of the Warren Commission

Seven days after Kennedy’s assassination, recently sworn in President Johnson appointed a national commission, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and charged it with determining who was responsible. Rumors of a conspiracy were already circulating. On September 24, 1964, the Warren Commission issued its report, stating that Oswald acted alone. In spite of the report, talk of a conspiracy continued. In the late 1970’s, a House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations (by then, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Kennedy’s brother Robert had also been killed by assassins) conducted an investigation based on acoustical information gathered in Dallas. The committee concluded that, while Oswald fired the shots that killed John F. Kennedy, a 95 percent probability existed that a second gunman had fired from behind a grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza. The committee went so far as to concede that a conspiracy “probably” existed.

Further studies based on the acoustical evidence, conducted in 1980 and 1982, resulted in a repudiation of the House Committee’s conclusions. In 1988, the Justice Department officially closed its investigation and stated that Oswald acted alone. However, a vast majority of Americans still believe that a conspiracy existed.

Legacy of the Assassination in Dallas

In the years that followed the assassination, the nation’s perception of Dallas was tainted by the events of November, 1963. Some civic leaders blamed the media for perpetuating the idea that the assassination was somehow Dallas’s fault. The sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository remained untouched from 1963 to 1977 as city residents tried to forget what had happened there. In 1970, Colonel Byrd sold the building to Aubrey Mayhew, a Nashville promoter with plans to convert the structure into a museum honoring the slain president. The Texas School Book Depository moved out of the building in 1971, and the following year an arson fire caused five thousand dollars in damages. Mayhew was struggling in his museum fund-raising efforts at the time, and his bank was threatening foreclosure proceedings. In August, 1972, the building was reclaimed by Byrd, who put it up for sale a year later.

It was not an easy building to sell. Some members of the community called for the city to tear it down, but city officials refused to issue a demolition permit. Paradoxically, no one wanted to move into the building, but the city could not condone its destruction. The site continued to attract visitors, who usually stood on some part of Dealey Plaza and pointed to the sixth floor window. The city fielded constant requests for information about the assassination site.

An option to purchase the building reverted to Dallas County in 1977, and that same year voters approved a $1.8 million bond package that included $400 million dollars to purchase the building. All floors except the sixth were then converted to county office space. In 1977 and 1978, the Dallas County Commissioners Court, the Dallas County Historical Commission, and the Texas Historical Commission worked out a solution to the nagging problem of what to do with the sixth floor. In 1979, a panel funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities recommended that the floor be converted into a cultural exhibit on the Kennedy assassination and its legacy, a recommendation that was approved by the Dallas County Commissioners.

In 1981 the exterior of the building was restored and the first two floors were renovated by the firm of Burson, Hendricks and Walls. The building was then renamed the Dallas County Administration Building.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1983, the Dallas County Historical Foundation was formed in order to raise $3.5 million for the creation of the exhibit and to guide its operation. Initially, the foundation met with opposition. The city of Dallas was preparing to host the 1984 Republican National Convention, and a general attitude prevailed that Dallas should focus on more positive images. The observance of the twentieth anniversary of the assassination in 1983 and the intense news coverage during the convention the following year actually worked to the foundation’s advantage, however. The foundation used the access to a wide audience that both events provided to publicize its goals, often invoking the words of President Kennedy himself: “History is the memory of a nation.” Consequently $1.3 million was donated from citizens, private corporations, and foundations. In 1985, the county commissioners advanced the foundation the remaining $2.2 million, to be repaid from admission fees.

The building continued to evoke strong emotions–a second arson attempt had been made during the Republican Convention. The fire caused minimal damage to the building’s basement.

The Sixth Floor exhibit was opened to the public on Presidents’ Day, February 20, 1989, and is described by the foundation as “an educational exhibition examining the life, death and legacy of John F. Kennedy within the context of American history.” Simple in design, the floor still resembles a warehouse. Instead of books, the walls are lined with plain, white display boards that present photos illustrating the Kennedy era.

The beginning sections depict the social and cultural milieu in which Kennedy came to office. Visitors can view print and video samples of his speeches and legendary wit. The achievements and challenges of his short presidency are presented: the space program, the Peace Corps, the Bay of Pigs disaster, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. A television monitor tells the story of the Kennedy’s arrival in Texas. As visitors move toward the southeast window, stills from the films taken by onlookers slowly reveal the assassination. Behind glass, the southeast corner of the floor is piled with book cartons, in much the same way that it appeared on November 22, 1963. The next step brings the visitor to a window overlooking Dealey Plaza and the spot where Kennedy was shot.

Another television monitor shows reporter Walter Cronkite breaking the news of the assassination. In a small, darkened theater, a videotape of the funeral and the reaction around the world plays every few minutes. Further on, the various conspiracy theories are discussed, involving organized crime, the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. military, the Dallas Police Department, even aliens from outer space. The final video presentation, narrated by Cronkite, presents possible reasons behind the ongoing fascination with John F. Kennedy.

The district was designated a National Historic Landmark on October 12, 1993, and was formally dedicated on November 22 of the same year, thirty years after the assassination of President Kennedy. According to national historical landmark guidelines, landmark status is not usually granted for at least fifty years after the historic event, unless special circumstances of “extraordinary national importance” exist.

For Further Information

Hundreds of documents, articles, and books have been published regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. The following is a small, select list.

  • Belin, David W. Final Disclosure. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. Written by the counsel to the Warren Commission, and supports the commission’s findings and rebuts conspiracy theories.
  • Groden, Robert J., and Harrison Edward Livington. High Treason. Baltimore: Conservatory Press, 1989. Advances a conspiracy theory.
  • Manchester, William. The Death of a President. New York: Harper, 1967. Details the assassination and its effect on the nation.
  • Marrs, Jim. Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1989. Supports the theory that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
  • Morrow, Robert D. Betrayal. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1976. Written by an operative who worked for the CIA in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Morrow implicates the CIA in a plot that killed Kennedy.
  • Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964. The Warren Commission’s report on the incident.
  • Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: General Printing Office, 1979. Another official government inquiry.
  • Simon, Art. Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. This title in the series Culture and the Moving Image examines artistic representations of the events in Dealey Plaza.