Community Leaders Remember Akwasi Evans
The passing of Eastside writer and activist will be felt for "a long time"
"He was a man of small stature, but he filled a very big role," said Marion Nickerson of Akwasi Evans. "It's going to be hard to fill his shoes."
Nickerson, development director at radio station KAZI-FM, first met Evans in 1985, two years before Evans founded NOKOA: The Observer, the weekly newspaper he would publish and edit until his death on April 8, at the age of 70, according to his family obituary. "He was passionate about the African-American community."
Friend and former journalist Roxanne Evans said, "He contributed really a lot to the fabric of this community, and not just as an African-American journalist. He had a broad and deep following by progressives all over Austin. His loss is going to be felt for a long time."
Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion met Evans in the mid-Eighties, when Travillion was a graduate student at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs and involved in programs aimed at supporting minority youth. "My first job was with Upward Bound at Huston-Tillotson," said Travillion, "and I remember talking to him about youth issues." That was when he was still reporting for Tommy Wyatt, publisher of the Eastside newsweekly The Villager.
Travillion remembers the impact on Evans of the civil rights movement. "He was a child of the movement," Travillion said. "He was tremendously affected by marching with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Freedom Summer." Evans was also an "Alpha Man," Travillion noted – a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the legendary black fraternity that boasted such members as W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens, Thurgood Marshall, Cornel West, and MLK Jr. himself. Travillion said Evans worked in that proud cultural and political heritage.
"He had a sense of consciousness that was global," said Travillion. "I met him as a student interested in community development issues, but he always considered the place of things in the global economy." That influenced the editorial perspective of NOKOA as well, "in the editorials that he wrote, and in the folks he invited into the paper."
When Evans arrived in Austin in the Seventies, he initially reported for The Villager. Wyatt recalls, "We had an unusual friendship for a great length of time." In an "R.I.P." report following word of Evans' death, Wyatt wrote, "He was a tireless warrior for East Austin, who would spare nothing in support of his friends or his beloved community." Wyatt said that when Akwasi decided to start his own publication, it was to establish "a different perspective" than that of The Villager, which Wyatt conceives as "serving the whole community – preserving the history and keeping people informed."
"Akwasi just wanted a freer hand," said Evans. "He wanted to go to the activist side, to be more of an activist newspaper for the African-American community." But Wyatt emphasized they never saw each other as competition. "We were not partners," he wrote, "but very loyal associates that supported each other." That collaboration extended to the financial side of the papers, he said. "We did not bid against each other on advertising. We never had a competition that way."
Both men attended the Million Man March in D.C. in 1995, reported son Thomas Wyatt, and afterward Akwasi and Tommy joined forces on KAZI's conversational Friday morning show, The Breakfast Club. "We had different points of view on issues," said Wyatt. "He was one of the most learned people I ever met, and I yielded to him on history. We didn't always agree ... but we didn't fall out about it."
Nickerson recalled an emotional moment when Evans spoke at the 2008 dedication of the Center for African and African-American Studies in honor of longtime Director John L. Warfield (also one of the founders of KAZI). "Akwasi reminisced on that day, and how the Center came to be, with so much emotion we thought he might break down. He loved the community, and anything that could help the community – that was his activism."
"Akwasi was a smart, hardworking guy," Travillion recalled. "He sacrificed a lot of economic opportunity, in order to give a voice to issues that might not be popular. He sacrificed, to talk about things that mattered, and he spoke his truth."