East Austin Walking Tours Tell the Area’s History Through its Landmarks
By Swathi Narayanan
On a humid April morning a small crowd gathered on a sidewalk near Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin to kick off a three-hour walking tour of landmarks in the traditional home of the city’s African-American and Latino populations.
The threat of rain didn’t stop the 50 or so men and women, ranging in age from college students to retirees, from embarking on an expedition arranged, free of charge, by a Facebook group calling itself East Austin History and Tours.
The initiative, which started last year, comes amid rapid change in East Austin. As rising property prices and taxes spur long-time residents to move to the suburbs and new development spreads, community organizers say architecture important to East Austin’s history is being erased. Just a week before the tour, the empty structure that once housed Mount Sinai Baptist Church, the area’s oldest Baptist congregation, was bulldozed by its developer owner.
According to tour organizer Rocío Villalobos, East Austin History and Tours was inspired by Jane’s Walk, a citizen-led movement in the U.S. and Canada that enlists residents to share their knowledge of their neighborhoods by organizing walks. The inspiration was the late Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the classic 1961 critique of urban planning that, she argued, gave roads priority over people.
In launching the Austin tour, “the goal was to help people become more connected to each other and to the community by learning about the history of the community and the complex changes it’s undergone,” Villalobos said.
Getting to know the history of East Austin requires an understanding of its close connection to its African-American population. A 1928 city master plan designated the area as the “negro district.” Most Mexican-Americans also settled there.
In recent years, gentrification has prompted flight to the suburbs. From 2000 to 2010, Austin lost 5.4 percent of in its African-American population. It was the only one among the country’s 10 fastest-growing cities to experience a net decline in its black population, according to research by Eric Tang, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The tour started at East 11th and Chalmers streets, north of Huston-Tillotson University. Fred McGhee, a historical archaeologist and anthropologist, managed to make himself heard above the rumble of passing cars as he and two other guides led the group through the streets, stopping at eight sites.
“This is the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi,” founded in the 1870s, McGhee said of the university. Indeed, H-T’s roots date back to 1875, when Tillotson College was created. A merger with Samuel Huston College in 1952 formed the university that stands today.
That history makes H-T five years older than UT, which was established in 1881, McGhee said – a fact that was a surprise to many of the tour participants.
The reaction caught the attention of Colette Burnette, H-T’s president and part of the tour group. “People thought that Huston-Tillotson University was founded to educate blacks because they could not go to the University of Texas, when in fact Huston-Tillotson University is the oldest institution of higher learning in Austin,” she said.
Next stop was Edward L. Blackshear Elementary School, a two-story brick building near the corner of East 11th and Chalmers, in an area once known as Gregorytown, one of the Freedman Town communities that emancipated slaves created across the South after the Civil War.
“Blackshear School opened in 1894 as the Gregorytown School,” said guide Tara Dudley, a lecturer at UT’s School of Architecture. “It was renamed in 1936 for Edward Blackshear, who was an important African-American educator.”
As the group walked on, McGhee administered a pop quiz about the nearby Texas State Cemetery. “Who was Barbara Jordan buried next to?” McGhee asked, referring to the first African-American elected to Congress from Texas, serving from 1972 to 1978.
McGhee answered his own question: Jordan – a famed civil rights advocate — is buried next to Minerva Fannin, the daughter of James W. Fannin — a professional slave trader, McGhee said.
The irony didn’t escape tour participant Christopher Irvin, a Huston-Tillotson history major. “Barbara Jordan, who fought endlessly for human rights. especially for African-Americans, is buried next to the daughter of a slave owner,” he said. “Shocking!”
Next stop was Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Lydia Street, the oldest Hispanic Catholic church in Austin.
According to guide Eliot Tretter, a Catholic church on the west side of downtown wanted to keep non-whites out of its congregation. So in the 1920s, the parishioners raised money to build a bigger church for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had been established at the turn of the century.
The tour marched on, eventually arriving at Kealing Middle School. Today, Kealing is a magnet school that draws students from across the city. It was established in 1930s as the city’s first junior high school for African-Americans. In the 1960s, the area was disrupted by an urban renewal project that displaced some residents. “Urban renewal projects intervened in the heart of the communities and reorganized them,” Tretter said.
After almost three hours, the walkers stopped to catch their breath and sip water. But there was one more important stop: Rosewood Courts, one of the oldest federally funded public housing projects in the country.
The group stood before a one-story cinder block residence, where a stone slab marked the year of construction, 1939, and named then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Austin Mayor Tom Miller. Today, McGhee said, Rosewood Courts faces the threat of demolition by the city’s housing authority so it can build new projects.
For Pflugerville resident Darwin Hamilton, 43, the tour was a bittersweet retracing of his family’s past. His people had lived in East Austin for five generations until Hamilton moved out in 2005, when the city sued to acquire his home of 30 years on East 11th Street for an urban renewal project.
“These walks need to happen as the demographics of the city has changed in this area,” Hamilton said. “The people that come here need to know what this area was and appreciate and respect it.”