Over the weekend, I was hired to document an all-day event that shed a light on the history of an East Austin neighborhood; deeply settled in an area that was once dubbed the “Negro District.” This neighborhood sits on San Bernard Street and stretches from the south to Rosewood Avenue, all the way north to East 14th Street. The area that was highlighted in particular stretched about 2 1/2 blocks from Rosewood to just beyond Cotton Street (map). That event was called Celebrate San Bernard! An informative and purposeful event that commemorated the historically designated and culturally significant sites on San Bernard Street. Historically, this was a very important street and neighborhood for Austin’s black community, and it was most certainly an eye-opening experience for all of those that attended (me included). This event was hosted by Six Square, which is apart of Austin’s African American Cultural Heritage District, and who has hired my company to document and photograph many of its events throughout the year. This was my fourth assignment with them, and although I was working, I found myself being very much a participant!
Let’s Take “A Long Walk”
My Photographer and I started the day with a walking tour of some of the Historical Landmarks. With a small group in-tow, and Jill Scott playing in my headphones 🎶 (song referenced in the heading, AHA); we arrived at our first stop, the Costley-Goins House. A house built in 1897 and first occupied by John Costley, who was an Anglo American principal in a downtown book-keeping firm. In 1918, Rev. Joshua V.B. Goins, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, purchased the property. Hence the name, Costley-Goins. As we observed the architecture, our event coordinator, Eshe Coles joined us at the front of the house to introduce our first speaker of the day, Libby Doggett.
As the front door opened I remember the feeling of surprise overcoming me because I had envisioned an African American woman in her 70s, 80s, maybe even 90s with gray hair sharing decades upon decades of knowledge and stories of the house with us. However, Libby was a 50, 60-something sweet, Caucasian woman with beautiful, thick, white pearls draped around her neck. She carried with her a huge photo album full of pictures of the house before it was renovated. Should I have been so surprised? After all, I’ve had frequent conversations about gentrification in East Austin with other locals, who lived in the area long enough to have witnessed the change, but I digress. Libby welcomed everybody to her home and stated, “I have to read some of this because I do not know the history perfectly myself.” After reading the historical context of the home, she shared her personal stories from when she and her husband purchased the property in 2004, to fully restoring it a year later. She then led us inside to give us a brief look at all of the restorations and renovations they made. She mentioned that the house suffered from an upstairs fire in 1973, was completely gutted and that the only things they preserved from the original house were the fans, window panes, shiplap floors (bottom floor only), and the posts on the porch. The ceiling (complete with recessed lighting), kitchen, stairs, and bedroom were all completely made over and modernized. The kitchen was actually relocated to the opposite side of the home from the original, and an office occupied the original location of the kitchen. We were then led back outside and invited to indulge in some homemade cookies and lemonade.
We were not able to go inside of every house on the tour, but the general scenario whereas the house was purchased for a below-the-market value, and/or completely gutted, completely renovated, fully preserved, partly restored/modernized, completely restored/modernized, and occupied by a non-African American was the same. Other houses we toured/visited were: The Spinola-Smith House, Arnold House, Thomas House, Benjamin Lee House, Scott Hammond House, and the House of Dr. Lewis and Carolynn Mitchell. The Mitchell house was the only house that looked like it was left in its original condition. You can read on all of these houses here (pg.6).
A brief look at the district
The next leg of our tour took us on a charter bus to visit portions of the Six Square District. We loaded up with about 12 other participants and headed out to learn more history. Harrison Eppright was our tour guide for the trip. He wore a white button-down shirt with khaki pants, small bow tie, straw fedora, casual shoes, and a well kept, but imposing gray beard. He definitely looked the part of a classic gentleman straight from the 50s and 60s! A native East Austinite, Eppright was nurtured by the Six Square District and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the places we were about to see.
The first stop of the tour took us to the George Washington Carver library. The first African American Museum in the State of Texas (1980). Next, we passed by the Southgate-Lewis House, a house built by John Southgate in 1888, and later sold to a Black businessman, Charles Lewis in 1913. We then visited the historic Downs Field. Named after Karl E. Downs, a black Minister and President of Samuel Huston College, Downs Field was once the home of the Negro Baseball League’s Austin Black Senators, and greats such as Satchel Paige and Willie Wells (to name a few) played there. It now serves as the home to the Huston Tillotson Rams baseball team. Next, we passed by Rosewood Park. Originally known as Emancipation Park, it was created in 1928 to serve as a municipal park for African Americans. We then passed by Austin’s first modern housing project, Rosewood Courts. Here’s an interesting fact that (like me, and everyone else on the bus) you probably didn’t know, but the construction of the Rosewood Courts began in 1938 and was completed in 1939, making it THE NATION’S first public housing project! That’s right! “The Projects” (slang) started here in Austin and gradually spread to other cities such as Chicago, New York, Compton, and everywhere else a “Projects” exist! I was blown away about that, that I exclaimed, “Man, Austin has street cred!” Which garnered laughter from the entire bus! However, although it still serves as an affordable housing development in East Austin today, Rosewood Courts is in danger of being demolished like many other properties in East Austin due to gentrification. However, there is an initiative to save it. Next, we visited Huston Tillotson University, named after Minister George Tillotson, who traveled to the Southwest in search of land to establish a school for African Americans. After finding several acres of land in Austin, Tillotson succeeded in raising $16,000.00 for an educational enterprise. H.T. was chartered in 1877 and opened its doors in 1881. The last stop of the tour took us to the Texas State Cemetery. Many prominent Texans are buried here such as Barbara Jordan, who was the first African American congresswoman. Upon entry, the first monument we approached was a black granite plaque that commemorates the African Americans that served in the Texas Legislature from 1868 – 1900. There’s also a structure that commemorates the lives lost on 9/11 and has a couple of steel beams from the World Trade Center towers. There were so many other great stories and mentions (too many to list here) that you should read about it in the link above (Texas State Cemetery), but one very interesting thing is the fact that the main road that runs through the cemetery is actually a State Highway, making it the shortest highway not only in Texas but anywhere! If you live in Austin or are visiting, I would definitely recommend scheduling a tour of Austin’s African American Heritage District!
Last stop: Gentrification!
What this all means in the grand scheme
After we exited the bus, we made our way to Wesley United Methodist church. It was built in 1929, during The Great Depression. Upon entering we were greeted to a gothic style, vast auditorium with a high wooden ceiling, huge wooden pillars, stained glass windows, and wooden pews that gave a sense of being at home. It was very cozy and intimate. We then went to Olivet Baptist Church, where Educator, Author, and Archaeologist, Fred McGhee gave us a brief history of the church (we were not able to tour inside). The building was designed by John Saunders Chase, Jr., who was a prolific American architect that was the first licensed African American architect in the state of Texas, and was the only black architect licensed in the state for almost a decade! Uh, YEEEAH. However, Saunders had trouble finding clients so he and his wife went to East Austin and introduced himself to individual churches such as Olivet, and was able to obtain various contracts throughout East Austin.
Our last stop took us to the Thompson House, where we met up Stanton Strickland, who is a current resident. As he shared stories of the house with the group, I remember observing everyone’s face as I recorded Stanton on my camera. Everyone was smiling and laughing at his stories about him and his housemates, but yet I was not. The stories he shared were phenomenal in every sense of the word, but I was in deep thought with myself and went even deeper as his stories continued on. It was almost like everything was going to black and white with ambient noises, and the group’s laughter echoing in the background slowly fading out. You know, that kind of deep thought. Then everything suddenly returned back to normal. I stopped recording, but remained quiet as people from the group began to ask Stanton questions about the house such as: How many rooms does the house have? Renovations? etc, Etc, ETC. It wasn’t until someone asked Stanton “How long have you lived here?” that I made up my mind to voice my “deep thoughts”. As Stanton was finishing his answer to the question, I aimed my camera back at him and started recording. As soon as he finished, I decided to play devil’s advocate and asked him: When did you find out that this use to be a predominately black neighborhood? (paraphrasing) “I was aware of it for a long time. I’ve been in Austin since 1995, and in 1999 I started looking to buy a house. I found a place on Lafayette Avenue, not too far from here. So my awareness of the east side and the history and all was something that I’ve gathered from living here already, and the longer I lived here, and the more I got active in the community, the more I learned. It’s just a wonderful, very rich history and culture that needs to be preserved so we can have more events like this, and learn more about it”, Stanton explained. I followed up with: And your personal thoughts of the gentrification that is happening in this part of town? “Boy, that’s a tricky word to throw out there and bring up, because it means different things to different people. It’s tough when you have a huge market pushing everyone that’s trying to find the right balance, and I just hope the best for the city and all of us that are involved in trying to find that balance. Because that is something that if it goes the wrong way, it can be bad on either side of the scale, and it’s a tricky issue to deal with. A big challenge!”, explained Stanton. The group then thanked Stanton for sharing his stories of the Thompson House with us and went on with the tour.
As we were about to leave, Stanton came up to me and thanked me for asking him those questions. I thanked him back for sharing his thoughts with the rest of us. We talked for about 15-20 minutes more about the issue; with the tour leaving my Photog and I way behind, but this was a much more pressing issue for me. I shared my personal stories with Stanton of growing up right outside of the district and witnessing the change for myself. He shared his stories of how he and others have fought with the City in the past about protecting/preserving some of the houses/properties in East Austin from demolition. I challenged him on how we could go a step further to get African Americans back into the houses and to make them affordable? Of course, we did not come up with solutions right then and there, but it was very nice and comforting to see that Stanton was all open to any suggestions and ideas.
My thing is this. I do not believe that a “Historic Preservation” is the answer to gentrification. When you have people who come in that are not African American, that has the means to buy these properties, gut them, renovate and restore them to move in and tell OUR STORIES??? Seriously? That’s pretty frustrating. With every house we visited and toured I grew more and more frustrated with the stories of the houses and past owners were being told to us as if we (African Americans) were extinct. I literally wanted to yell out: “Hellooooo, we’re still heeere!👋🏿 We’re right here in front of yoooou! Hellooooo!” Excuse me, but we can tell our own da.. *clears throat* darn stories! And no we do not, will not need a piece of paper to read from either! Let’s be clear. I’m not mad at Libby, Stanton, or the other peeps we visited with during the tour. I’m mad at the entire situation that is happening, and being allowed to happen by the City of Austin in East Austin! Rather than allocating all of these funds into “preserving” these houses and communities, why not allocate funds to moving African Americans back into these neighborhoods, and making them more affordable? Hmm, HMMMMM? I also applauded Stanton (who also mentioned that he works for the State) for the work he’s done in the past, doing now, and will do in the future, and explained that some people have voices that are louder than others… SOME PEOPLE HAVE VOICES THAT ARE LOUDER THAN OTHERS… SOME RACES/ETHNICITIES HAVE VOICES THAT ARE LOUDER THAN OTHERS (there I said it). But we can’t leave it up to those that are willing to go the extra mile to voice their opinions and concerns to the City, because believe me it is extra. Don’t get it twisted, they do not have to preserve these houses and communities to have them converted into Historical Landmarks, so it is appreciated! However, we still have to do our part! Yes, that means we have to be inconvenienced and go to City Hall, The Capitol, The Governor, and whoever we need to and fight for our territory! That’s if we truly want it. It’s not going to happen overnight, so please bring your tents, sleeping bags, resolve, and most importantly YOUR VOICE. If you’re not doing anything to oppose gentrification in East Austin, please have several seats and do not complain.
What are your thoughts on gentrification in East Austin, and the houses in the African American Cultural Heritage District either being made into Historical Landmarks or being torn down? What are some of your solutions or suggestions? Please do tell!