How racial bias shaped Dallas highways

SMU graduate student publishes book about forgotten history, seeks infrastructure change

DALLAS (SMU) – For SMU engineering graduate student Collin Yarbrough, a classroom assignment to evaluate the design of Dallas’ Central Expressway resulted in a recently published book about the long-forgotten history of Dallas’ racist past buried beneath the city’s freeways.


“I saw the same pattern of injustice over and over,” Yarbrough says. “From Tenth Street to Fair Park to Deep Ellum, the history of Dallas highways is part of a tangled web of infrastructure, policy and race.”


Among his findings:

  • In the 1940s, frontage roads to Central Expressway paved over more than 1,000 graves of Black residents buried in Freedman’s Cemetery. Construction of Central Expressway bisected a thriving Black community.
  • The construction of I-35 in the mid-1950s led to the demolition of significant homes and businesses and split a thriving Black community originally founded by formerly enslaved people. The Tenth Street Freedman’s Town Historic District is included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places.
  • In the 1960s, I-345, formerly part of Central Expressway, was redesigned to become elevated over part of the area known as Deep Ellum, limiting foot traffic and shuttering a once Black-owned commercial and residential district.


The Dallas native knew nothing about the racial history buried under the highways he traveled every day until he conducted research for his paper, which led to his book, Paved a Way, Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City (New Degree Press, 2021).


Yarbrough’s story is still unfolding. A former pipeline engineer for a utility company, he returned to college in 2019, preparing for a career change. First, he enrolled at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, then returned to his engineering roots to take courses toward SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Master of Art in Sustainability and Development degree.


Writing a paper on Central Expressway changed his life, Yarbrough says. He begins work in the fall on a Ph.D. in civil engineering at SMU, where he will specialize in transportation, economic geography and urban economics.


“Infrastructure is symptomatic of a larger ill – racism,” he says. “I’d like to seek ways to prevent infrastructure from promoting racism again.”


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.