Originally published on RenitaColeman.com
Photos and story by Samantha Reichstein
If one types the phrase “East Austin” into a search engine today, titles including the words “eclectic,” “cool” and “hipster” appear within moments.
Whether it’s the latest hole-in-the-wall restaurant with Instagram-worthy meals, or a new brewery establishing itself among the area’s beer-enthusiast community, in 2017 East Austin portrays itself as a modern escape for millennials craving a creative outlet.
Six square miles of it, however, bask in historical remains, artifacts framed from community-wide leaders and preserved, prominent houses built in the 20th century. Those six miles represent the African American Cultural Historic District.
East Austin’s Real Roots
The city of Austin was founded in 1839, and African-American families made their move into the town just three months later. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was common to find prominent African-American families dispersed throughout various Austin communities, such as Pleasant Hill, Clarksville and Masonville to name a few.
All of that changed in the year 1928.
Following the mindset of separate-but-equal, the planning and consulting firm Koch and Fowler produced Austin’s first zoning map. Legally establishing East Austin as a Negro District, the city eliminated services in other areas where these families lived, eventually forcing all African-Americans to live in East Austin by the 1930s.
This residential segregation indirectly continued until the 1990s. However, the initial frowned-upon plan laid the foundations for a strong African-American culture, providing East Austin with rich roots many can visit, view and track back today.
After doing a bit of research online, past the “eclectic”, “cool” and “hipster” articles, I jotted down a handful of places that were unfamiliar to any of my past East Austin ventures, and decided to visit these patches of history.
The George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center
Location: 165 Angelina St, Austin, TX 78702
A snapshot of African-American culture can be learned through visiting the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.
Originally built in 1933 as a “Colored Branch” library, the building served its majority African-American community living in East Austin as a resource for over 30 years. Once a new library was created down the road, the building transformed into the museum it’s known as today, officially re-opening to the public in 1980. Filled with archival records such as photographs, interviews and interactive stations dating back to the Emancipation Proclamation, the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center serves as an open textbook for its community.
A large portion of the museum is dedicated to the legacy of L.C. Anderson High School; the first public school offered to negro students.
Walking into a room covered in trophies, letterman jackets and blown-up black and white photographs, African-American culture of the city instantly emerges, some of which dates back as early as 1884. Interviews played on loop from former classmates, personalizing each monumental anecdote presented on a lengthy, painted timeline. On tables, pages of notebooks titled “Record your L.C. Anderson High School Memories” were filled with visitor’s’ black-inked notes, covering pages from the top left corner until the bottom right.
Eric Jarmon began working at the museum this past July, and said he has learned a lot just from walking around on his breaks, specifically about L.C. Anderson.
“I’ve worked in various museums across the city, but a space like this is rare,” Jarmon said. “Austin is very blessed to be able to educate and entertain any visitor about its African-American roots, and L.C. Anderson paved the way for many of these students to become community leaders.”
Four other sections comprise the George Washington Carver Museum: The Juneteenth monument, an exhibit on the 10 original, prominent African-American families of Austin, a child’s interactive station teaching the studies Dr. Carver and an artists’ gallery that rotates the works of local African Americans in the visual arts.
Location: 1501 East 12th St., Austin, Texas 78702
While historical landmarks cover this six-mile square, a two-story, gothic-style home stands almost unnoticeable if driving through the area.
What caught my eye were the blown up posters hung along the exterior of the house. Each showed painted faces of various African-American Austinites, such as World War II heroes, minor and major league athletes and black leaders throughout the Austin education system. After unsuccessfully turning a few locked doorknobs, I heard a woman’s voice greet me from the side of the house, welcoming me in and offering a tour.
That woman is Adrienne Isom, current member on the Board of the Travis Country Historical Commission.
The Southgate-Lewis house has stood on this street corner since 1888. Originally home to Wesley H. Passon, a Black educator and prominent churchman, the home was bought by a family in the 1970s, and later turned over to the W.H. Passon Historical Society in 1986.
Today, no one permanently lives here, but Isom gives tours to visitors who notice the home and feel a wave of inquisitive thoughts, like me.
“The South-gate Lewis Home is the only place I know that houses this much of Austin history in such a confined place,” Isom said. “It’s a good tourist attraction, and should get more traction that it does.”
That amount of history starts from an initial first step into the house, and continues throughout the second floor and even backyard.
Photographs, paintings and life-sized wax statues flood every open wall-space both upstairs and downstairs, serving as a visual gallery representing the African American experience in Austin and Travis Country. Framed memorabilia highlight the first African American leaders in various positions, including members of the City of Austin Police Department and various Austin school boards. Two bedrooms upstairs have remained intact, giving visitors a peek inside what life was like for the Passon family.
Isom, a full-time artist outside of her volunteer efforts, specializes in historical pieces—all of which can be viewed in the South-gate Lewis backyard.
Each of Isom’s pieces relates back to African-American culture in Austin, whether it’s a sculpture of the first black woman to be noticed in the city, or a re-creation of the Old Harlem Theater, the only cinema blacks could attend. Isom now offers a painting class once-a-week to the community, hoping the stories inside the house will not get lost overtime.
“I’m trying to make this location more popular, because there is not enough going on here,” Isom said. “Without activity, things die. I can’t let all of this history go to waste.”
Some of that history includes documentation of a Black Panther Party held on the property, along with artifacts like typewriters and furniture, dating back to Passon’s family. A tiny schoolhouse—restored by Isom as well—remains in the far backyard of the property, where Passon’s wife taught Spanish class to the local youth.
“This a good tourist attraction, but it could be better,” Isom said when finishing up my personal tour. “It’s a focal point to communicate with the neighborhood, and needs to educate more on a daily basis.”
Multi-colored murals cover brick walls of dilapidated buildings, showcasing a modern twist on East Austin’s African American culture. Some highlights history, including faces such as Martin Luther King Jr., Willie Wells and Berta Means. Others are colorful messages speaking to 2017, with words like “resist” and “we are making history” spray-painted across long walls.
Most can be viewed on foot by walking down E. 12th St. A staple, the “We Are East Austin” mural, sits right across from Dozen Street Bar. From there, others follow on the backs, fronts and sides of buildings down Poquito Street, Angelina Street and into Rosewood Avenue.
East Austin’s African American culture can also be defined by how many churches line this six-mile square.
I spotted 10, but I’m positive I missed others. Many date back to the mid-1880s, and have remained in these locations ever since. All are open to the public, offering services every Sunday morning.
East Austin is more than a gentrified area of the city building trendy apartments and millennial outlets. Inside the central sphere lies foundations created by African Americans dating back to the 1880s. Today, Austin continues to decline in its African American population, representing a mere five percent—constituting the smallest minority group in the city. These six miles of East Austin preserve that population, and allow for an educational and interactive experience for any visitor, unable to be found anywhere else in Austin.