My first involvement with the Civil Rights Movement came in 1955 when my dad was assigned as the clergyman to an all African -American Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. We were the only White family in an all Black Church. What I witnessed then sticks with me to this day and brought my childhood to an early end. I have actively advocated for all human rights and inclusion ever since.
Some decades later, in 1984, I came to live in the Clarksville National Historic District in Austin, one of only two African-American National Historic Sites, the other being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Clarksville is said to be the first Freed Slave Community west of the Mississippi River. In 1865 Texas Governor Elisha Pease deeded some of his land to his freed slaves, followed in 1871 by the purchase of some of Gov. Pease’s land by Charles Clark, a freed slave, who subdivided his purchase with other freed slaves, which is considered the official founding of Clarksville, which has an incredible history of creating progress out of slavery.
During the 23 years I lived in Clarksville, the historic African-American population of the Clarksville Community was being decimated and displaced by gentrification at an increasing rate, which Jim Crow plans and efforts had failed to do. There was a lack of equitable funds for neighborhood parks and community center, code violating development, and an illegal sale of community owned, low income, neighborhood housing with the city participating in that skullduggery.
The name Clarksville was often used to describe a larger area than the historic district, including an area called Old West Austin, on the “other side of the tracks” for Clarksville residents. Even into the 1970s the “Colored” residents of Clarksville who were not welcome there unless working for an Anglo int the neighborhood. “Colored” residents were even harassed in the 70’s for waiting for their children at the local elementary school which sits on the border line.
Opportunities came to me to sit on the Board of Directors of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation CCDC, and on the Steering Committee of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, OWANA on the other side of the tracks still at that time in many ways and not interactive with the Clarksville community. Much of my work was to get the communities to know and work with each other and I felt like Clarksville needed Old West Austin OWA as a political ally against increased destruction as a National Historic District. Over the objections of the old guard in OWANA, I was successful in getting the its Steering Committee to hold its monthly meetings in a public place, in the Clarksville Neighborhood Center rather than in the private homes of affluent residents, a practice which continued even after I was out of political favor with the upper crust.
The City of Austin established official Neighborhood Plans thru stakeholder elected Neighborhood Planning Teams circa 2002-03. Stakeholders in the Neighborhood Plans were defined as residents, property owners, and businesses within the official neighborhood plan area. The preliminary meetings for the OWA Neighborhood plan, whose name I got changed to the Old West Austin / Clarksville Neighborhood Plan, were being held in in private homes of the rich and influential not as announced public meetings. I became officially recognized Ad Hoc Co-Chair of the Neighborhood Planning Team by the OWANA Steering Committee, the Clarksville Community Development Corporation, and the City of Austin Neighborhood and Community Development Department, then later became Ad Hoc Chair, and had the task of forming an elected Neighborhood Planning Team with Bylaws. I immediately required that all Neighborhood Plan Meetings be given broad notice of and held in a public place, the Clarksville Neighborhood Center. There was a lot of meanness coming from a powerful few on the other side of the tracks.
It was on the morning of Juneteenth in 2005, a Saturday, at the Clarksville Community Center that Officers were officially elected and Bylaws passed for the Old West Austin-Clarksville Neighborhood Plan Team, I was elected Chair. We reviewed, discussed, and amended the Bylaws giving all a chance to participate. I had organized the meeting well, stuck to businesses, and we were done in about an hour and a half, so everyone could celebrate Juneteenth. Some said it was the best meeting they had ever attended.
It did not take long for the upper crust to attack the legitimacy of the well noticed meeting, claiming adequate notice had not been given, even though a notice had been published in their own OWANA newsletter, and in man other public places.
At first City Staff stood behind the legitimacy of the proceedings, but under relentless pressure from the powerful, rich, elite, and businesses, many of which were not Stakeholders, the City retreated and by late August I had been deposed just like so many who are democratically elected in oligarchical controlled governments and our Bylaws were thrown out. One of the powerful and rich scallywags involved in this coup, soon got elected to the Austin City Council.
What was put in place of a neighborhood wide elected Neighborhood Plan Team was your old fashioned Troika, not elected by all neighborhood Stakeholders per their right to vote in the Neighborhood Plan election of officers and proceedings. One of the Troika was elected by only the dues paying members of the OWANA, the second was elected only by the dues paying members of the West End Alliance of businesses (many not legally Stakeholders), and third and only democratically elected member of the Troika was from all who lived within the boundaries of the CCDC, though that too did not include all in the greater neighborhood. All in Clarksville though had the universal right to vote without paying dues. which in the case of OWANA and the West End Alliance created a Poll Tax to vote in official City of Austin Neighborhood Plan proceedings. Under the Troika regime, the Stakeholders, being all residents, property owners, and businesses in the neighborhood plan boundaries were mostly disenfranchised voters in the official Neighborhood Plan.
The really weird thing about Austin is how this kind of stuff goes on all the time and gets swept under the rug, with news media refusing to report about it. Austin is far from being as egalitarian as it claims and has recently been named as the most economically segregated city in the US. Like so many, I became a displaced refugee from Clarksville, to which by that time I had blood ties through a grandson of Afro-Anglo heritage. A matriarch of the community was like an aunt to me, and my in-laws included a good many in the historic African-American Clarksville community. The City of Austin did all it could to get rid of me and did.
The City of Austin has forsworn its commitment to its citizens, neighborhoods and good sustainable planning for the greed of money from unsustainable, unbridled and irresponsibly “planned” development, which has displaced historic minorities and working class trades people, creating extreme economic segregation.
One of my most satisfying results of my efforts there was in the way the members of the Clarksville and Old West Austin began to socialize, become friends, and organize with each other, which continues to this day, with the historic Clarksville Sweet Home Baptist Church and the Clarksville Neighborhood Center being common gathering places.
Another of my life achievements from that time which I hope will stand the test of time is initiating the rescue, preservation of, and City and State Historic Landmark designations for the historic Free Slave built and owned Haskell House in Clarksville, the featured photo in this post. At one point, a long time, powerful political figure in Austin who was then in charge of the Convention Center and Visitor’s Bureau suddenly pulled funding for the preservation of the Haskell House blind siding Historic Landmark Commissioners and all who were working on the project. I called this petty racism, and managed to get the city’s Chief Financial Officer to negotiate restoration of funding.
And I hope the trees I helped get planted in Clarksville Park will grow for hundreds of years providing shade and comfort to all. Someday in fifty or a hundred years I hope a pair of lovers will fall in love under one of those trees.
Finally, the City of Austin illegally forced some of the neighborhood owned, low income housing in Clarksville to be sold to pay the city back for its investment in a housing project which failed due to the city itself and violations of federal banking law against our community. Through some intense and ugly efforts, we managed to get legal representation and recovered most of the houses illegally sold. I hope they remain forever to provide homes for the community.
So on this Juneteenth, I remember and celebrate the ever vigilant work of equality, inclusion, and justice for all.
We shall all be free someday.
Watch 12 seasons of episodes of “Juneteenth Jamboree” online at the link below
Created, by Michael Emery, Producer at KLRU / PBS Austin