We're Still Here

Assessing the continuing black Austin experience

Darren Griffin and Virginia Cumberbatch (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The first recorded African-American in Austin, Texas, was, somewhat predictably, a slave. Arriving in 1839 with Alexander Mur­chison, 10-year old mulatto Mahala – the illegitimate daughter of Alexander's brother and his indigenous American/black slave – was raised a wife's maid. She, of course, would not be the last slave to come to Austin: In 1840, 17% of Austin's 856 residents were black. In 1860, 28% were black.

So began the history of black Austin, the uncomfortable fact of slavery influencing what would come. Many Austin residents – even some blacks and Latinos – find the discussion of race awkward, unnecessary, or unwinnable. Some fight the difficulty by claiming colorblindness or saying something to the effect of, "If you just stop talking about it, it won't be an issue." Race brings peculiar allergic reactions.

"[One] of the things that I used to say is that Central East Austin used to be downtown black East Austin. For years it's been the final frontier of the central business district of Downtown, and for a long time investment services, all those things that should go to a city's communities, for a long time that is just ignored here because there are all these black and brown folks over here, poor white people, and creative-class people," explains longtime Austin resident, community activist, and musician Harold McMillan.

"If somebody comes by and offers you $100,000, you're going to take that $100,000. You're going to go to 'Pfluger-Rock' or somewhere and pay somebody rent or enter into another mortgage. Then, that prospector who came through here is going to raze your house, go up three stories on that small lot, and then turn around after they have spent $300,000, sell that for $700,000. That's where we are.

"Although there's rich history culture here, there's cultural legacy here, that core community of families and landowners and business owners, they're gone. Maybe it was meant that they were supposed to be out close to Webberville or Colony Park, or up north at Cedar Park and Round Rock and Pfluger­ville."

A Long History on the Eastside

One of the first known lots sold to an African-American was out of Outlot 55, Div­is­ion B, in what became known as Robertson Hill – which for blacks meant East 10th Street, north to Catalpa, south of East 12th, and from East Avenue (now northbound I-35) to Waller. A piece of the 21-acre lot called French Legation, it was sold to freedman Malick Wilson in December 1869.

Blacks were among the first to settle north of the Legation, but other ethnic enclaves could be found. Swedish, Irish, Italians, and especially Ger­mans settled throughout Austin's old east. Blacks living on the Eastside were not entirely safe from racist violence. African-American historian J. Mason Brew­er noted in An Historical Outline of the Negro in Travis County, "Although the ex-slave was now a freedman he was still confronted with problems. One of the gravest of these problems was the Nightriders Organization, composed of white men who threatened to harm negro landowners of rich and large tracts of land if they did not move out of the community."

However, black businesses thrived in Austin, especially on the Eastside. Many stores, clubs, and restaurants sprung forth after the end of the Civil War. Masontown was a viable neighborhood. Two colleges were established – Samuel Huston College and Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute. (The two are now Huston-Tillotson Uni­ver­sity.) African-Americans had also settled, as peacefully as could be expected at the time, in Austin's south (Kincheonville and Breckenridge neighborhoods) and in the west (Wheatsville, Parksville, and what's still known as Clarksville.)

Clarksville, specifically, has a unique history. Founded by Charles Clark, who purchased two acres off West 10th Street in August 1871, Clarksville was the oldest surviving freedomtown west of the Mis­sis­sippi, and one of (at least) six communities in Austin for freedmen. Displacement of Clarksville's black residents dates back to the early 1900s. Blacks owned sizeable property from West Lynn to (present day) MoPac, which white speculators desired. For roughly two decades, they tried condemning the area as a health hazard, as the city of Austin had elected not to provide Clarksville (and other West Austin areas) with basic services.

"I used to come here as a [Texas A&M University-Commerce] student. I remember streets in Parksville that weren't paved. I remember seeing houses in Clarksville that had outhouses – and I'm not 80 years old, and I didn't grow up here. We're talking about in my lifetime," emphasizes McMillan.

With Jim Crow-styled redlining already under way, 1928 saw the arrival of the city's Master Plan, a document crafted by Dallas-area engineering consultants Koch & Fowler – with the assistance of Austin-born architect Hugo Kuehne, who was incidentally named "Austin's Most Worthy Citizen" by the Austin Real Estate Board in 1954.

The plan accomplished two objectives. The first was the wholesale displacement of black residents, who were already being coerced away, from the west to east, over East Avenue. It reinforced the perception of East Austin as black Austin – synonymous to some with the wrong side of the tracks – precipitating white flight from the Eastside, and a subsequent reduction in city services.

Secondly, by placing the majority of African-Americans (and also Mexican-Americans) in one area, their tax dollars and votes were effectively boxed in, and thus easily controlled – a tactic that would have longstanding consequences. Running in tandem were national redefinitions of race, which led to white consolidation – suddenly Germans, Italians, Swedes, and Irish were considered Anglo-American.

In 1951, when Austin NAACP President Arthur DeWitty was nearly elected to city council, the city proposed a charter revision that changed the way council members were elected: The council would have designated places, each requiring a majority of votes to win. The action effectively blocked any chances for legitimate political agency for blacks and Latinos until the early Seventies, when the Voting Rights Act began to be enforced.

Improvement for Some

Title I of the National Housing Act (NHA) was passed in 1934, encouraging federally funded redevelopment. The best-known provision was credit for home ownership, which was a resolution measure in the housing crisis brought on by returning World War II veterans. However, nonwhites were consistently denied NHA credit access – leading to stunted starts in regards to the traditional wealth-building that the New Deal was supposed to encourage.

Harold McMillan (Photo by Andrew Shapter)

Many of the houses in East Austin were substandard and would eventually fall victim to "slum clearance" efforts. McMillan notes, "My house [near East 11th Street] that we're sitting in right here, I have four feet from my eastern wall. I have six feet from my western wall, and I have four feet from my back wall. You can't draw a single-family house lot that way anymore, but when these lots were drawn up, it's just black folks, so the city didn't care."

Forced to bring properties up to program standards, homeowners were often unable to afford improvements. Eminent domain was often enforced. These actions led to the city's hemorrhaging its black residents, many of whom lost their property, both residential and commercial. Whether the measures were wholly race-driven, or purely capitalistic in intent, or somewhere in between, is unknown.

However, each action effectively compounded the city's prior actions – which were largely detrimental to nonwhite Aus­tinites. Even so-called "affordable housing" has failed to create viable avenues for keeping residents of color in the area. In "vertical mixed use zoning," the city uses a laughable benchmark, with just 10% of all units built at 80% MFI – affordable for those making 80% of the Median Family Income. The affordability for other similar developments were set at 60-80%, where many nonwhite residents lived at only 30-50%.

1996's Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan focused on zoning and efficient land usage, with efforts to preserve and restore historical sites. Low-cost housing and maintaining historical heritage highlighted a revised 2001 plan, though serious concerns arose over security of the East's history, in the face of rising prices and associated taxes. None of these plans led to wide-scale protections. In fact, the city was able to abandon some of its responsibilities in protecting the East's history and culture.

The highly informative and much-discussed report by University of Texas assistant professor Eric Tang on blacks leaving Austin shows a decrease of 5.4% from 2000-2010. As of the 2010 census, blacks were at 8.1% of the population. And as of 2013, in the metropolitan area – including Austin proper – the African-American population was down to 6.8%. Blacks are not only moving to Pflugerville or Round Rock – they are leaving the Austin area altogether.

The greater picture is the media image of African-Americans. Whites are more likely to commit crimes and are in increasingly larger numbers with new residents in gentrified areas, but the media-created perception of criminalized blacks remains. "The majority of people committing crime are not African-American, but about 68 percent of the images you're seeing both in print journalism and TV broadcasting of crime on a nightly basis are black or brown faces. What does that perpetuate in terms of people's understanding of you when you walk into a room for a job interview or perpetuating myths about fear?" asks Virginia Cumberbatch, co-owner of Austin-based creative agency HUX Story­house, and a UT graduate student.

"We've never had full autonomy over [our images]. When you attribute that to the way that media just decides or assesses, or values us, and the way that our culture is portrayed, and then when you look at the way that our image or identity has been mismanaged ...," she trails off in thought.

"I studied this report over the summer with the Social Justice Institute, about Austin always touting itself as being this super-progressive liberal city, which we all roll our eyes at because there's this intrinsic nature of Austin to – it's like, 'keep Austin weird,' but that doesn't necessarily cross the lines of race or ethnicity. We create these boundaries where who gets to have access to certain things. People, I think, have a misconception about [the] difference between diversity and inclusion," says Cumberbatch.

Gone Before You Know It

Cumberbatch also explains that prospective African-American residents are sometimes lost: "When I first came back to Austin was the plateau of the loss of the black community: 2010, 2011 was when you were starting to see it. It had been happening for five or so years – and there was a direct correlation for people who experienced college here and then. [To] me, UT is a well-confined case study of Austin, a microcosmic experience."

"That's why [black] students that graduate, they're [leaving], and the same thing for the young professionals that came into town to go to those entry-level jobs at Dell, or Samsung, or UT or whatever. Then, they realize there's this liberalism that people kept talking about, and this music scene that's supposed to be so awesome – that apparently is only reserved for a certain identity of people. 'I don't feel a part of that social network. I don't feel like there's a cultural space for me. I don't feel like I get to be a part of the decision-making as a potential leader.' That's when you start seeing people leave. Austin has never had, in my estimation, a developed black middle class that you could identify. [But] the one that it did have just started to vanish."

Writer Darren Griffin concurs with Cum­ber­batch's assessments. "It's important for young people here, students at UT or H-T, to get that experience here, so they don't feel like they have to get it elsewhere. ... When I moved into Austin, I noticed a vast difference – looking for a church home, entering the workforce. Coming from Hous­ton, it was complete culture shock. In terms of [my career], in regards of a black experience, it's more about what you can or are willing to do. I know a lot of black people that moved here, like I did, around the early Aughts, and they left and went to other cities like D.C., Atlanta, New York, or L.A. – just based on the fact they could find more work, or [for] being in a culturally enriched environment," says Griffin.

McMillan says, "The other part of that conversation – that I think should be a corollary – is that although the population of black folks in Austin is small, there are a handful of families, who have direct bloodline links to the dirt in Central East Austin, who are moneyed and have commercial enterprises going on. They are not here doing business. It's not just about white folks coming in and taking our shit. It is also about some of us of means that are not hanging on to our shit, and going to the bank as entrepreneurs.

"A lot of folks pull themselves up out of there, and don't really look back because part of their sense of success is being able to move out of East Austin. I got a house on Cat Mountain now. I grew up in the projects of East Austin. I want that person to have their house on Cat Mountain, but if they got a pocket full of money and they care about that community that they grew up in, why don't they leave some of that money around in the community and do business? This conversation is about capitalism."

In The Half Has Never Been Told, historian Edward Baptist makes mention of a fitting phrase, applicable from Mahala's first steps onto Austin's soil to present day: "[The] new dynamic growth of Western capitalism was producing massive quantities of what the great twentieth century theologian Robert Farrar Capon called 'right-handed power': the strength to force an outcome. [It] is the power of domination, kings, weapons, and the letter of the law."

Once again, it bears repeating that actions of the city, and its moneyed influencers, do not directly spell out racism. However, what must also be repeated is that many measures, with use of right-handed power, were executed with bad intentions, and have had overwhelmingly adverse consequences for people of color – a population that will eventually become the majority in the U.S., and already is in Austin.

Then again, though it's unlikely, perhaps the numerous decisions made over the years directly affecting African-Americans and Latinos weren't made with race in mind, but with an overwhelming thirst for capital – itself a circular and regressive problem. Increasing tax bases while failing to fortify the qualities that brought Austin its name – in fact, leveraging those qualities with a crushing right-handed grip – is fast creating racial and class-based homogeneity.

McMillan understands the dollar chase, but urges deeper respect for what was, and still could be. "The focus of my work for the past several years is acknowledging that – not to be hung up on nostalgia, pining for the way that things used to be, accepting that the times march on and you got to deal with the reality of what is contemporary to you – but history is important."

"Cultural legacy is important, so even though the demographics of the neighborhood has changed, there still needs to be blues and jazz happening down there. There still needs to be some black folks doing business. Culture is important. Sense of place is important."

City of Austin demographer, Ryan Robinson

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Virginia Cumberbatch, Harold McMillan, black Austin, Huston-Tillotson University, Clarksville

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