Telling Austin’s Whole Story

Last month was more than just a celebration of the achievements of Black Americans. This Black History Month was a means to both acknowledge and remember. As always, it offered an opportunity to acknowledge the role that African Americans played in creating the United States, and it served to remind us of the injustice that has shackled the black community with generational burdens. 

Unfortunately, Austin has struggled with both of those aspects. First, the city has fought (and mostly failed) to acknowledge influential African Americans in Austin. Secondly, citywide racial policies from the ’20s feel long forgotten, despite the visible impact that they have left on Austin’s current black community.

In Austin, the former issue — acknowledging the role of African Americans in the city’s history and development — is one that has been swept under the rug. While the community has shown an increased attentiveness to subtle racism over the past several years, its efforts have failed to substantively acknowledge black history in Austin. In 2016, for example, there was a push to rename schools and memorials that were named after Confederate leaders. But instead of actively recognizing influential Black Austinites, the schools merely dropped the Confederate nomenclature. For instance, despite a strong petitionto be renamed after a nearby site of African American history in Austin, Robert E. Lee Elementary was changed to Russell Lee Elementary and — in effect — avoided taking on a new name at all. Similarly, before the 2019–2020 school year, five other schools were also renamed(but none of them after African American Austinites).

However, while these examples highlight the city’s relative lack of acknowledgement for African Americans, there have been some positive situations. In April 2018, for example, two streets connected to the Confederacy were renamed after leaders in Austin’s Black community. Robert E. Lee Road, which winds through the east side of Zilker Park, was changed to Azie Morton Road, after the first African American U.S. treasurer, and Jeff Davis Avenue was changed to William Holland Avenue, after a man who was born into slavery and later served as the superintendent of a school for disabled children of color.

In the same way that Austin has struggled to acknowledge the African Americans who contributed to its growth, the city has also struggled to remember its unjust past and the resulting contemporary issues. In 2017, the Mayor’s racism task force issued an official report, saying that Austin’s “institutional racism and systemic inequities are not myths” and “evidence of their impact exists in each of the five sector areas (Education; Housing and Real Estate; Health; Finance, Banking, and Industry; and Civil and Criminal Justice).” 

Unfortunately, the report’s results have been supported elsewhere. Eric Tang, an associate professor at UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies Department, wrote about the impact of systemic and historic issues on Austin’s current African American communities. In 2014, Tang cited Austin’s “Master Plan of 1928” as one of the most harmful past racial policies that still impacts the current Black community in Austin. The plandesignated a specific district for African Americans on the East side of what is now IH-35, and recommendend that: “All the facilities and conveniences be provided the Negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the Negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities for this area.”

Tang claims that this segregation caused serious generational problems, including disparities in public education, unequal employment opportunities, gentrification, and more. (Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureaushow that the largest population of African Americans still reside across the border of IH-35 in East Austin, near the designated district.) Tang suggests that this is one of the systemic reasons why Austin’s Black population declined from 2000–2010, despite Austin being the third fastest growing major cityin the country.

When looking at Austin’s inequitable past and the burdens that remain in the present, there is a clear call to action — a need for us to do better, to do more than just passively brush off the subtle forms of racism. There is a need to actively acknowledge those who influenced Austin and helped it grow, and a demand for us to keep remembering the city’s past inequalities so that we can move forward to the future.

On UT’s website, an online and self-guided racial geography tourshows how racism, patriarchy, and militarist nationalism are deeply embedded in the city’s history. The tour’s conclusion asks participants to “interrogate the cultural and social organizational aspects of our present” in order to see the influence that past inequities have on current social dynamics. By doing this, it concludes, “we can begin the hard work of transforming the inequities that continue to exist in these aspects of our present lives.”

As the racial geography tour suggests, the first step to solve current inequities is to recognize that they exist. While there are many systemic issues that can’t be solved overnight, we can start to create change by telling untold stories and further recognizing marginalized voices.

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