Entrepreneurship & Businesses - Intro

A History of Entrepreneurship & Businesses in the East End

    African-American enclaves existed throughout Austin after emancipation, with former slaves founding neighborhoods such as Wheatsville, Clarksville, St. John's, and Kincheonville. However, Austin's 1928 City Master Plan created a segregated "Negro District" east of Interstate 35 (East Avenue, as it was called then) forcing all blacks living in West Austin to relocate across I-35, officially giving birth to the area's ethnic identity as "East Austin."    

The cross-town migration saw East Austin's population grow quickly with families, churches, schools and prospering black-owned businesses serving the community. Within two decades, well over a hundred businesses were operating in the area with many of them lining the busy 11th Street corridor. There were restaurants, bakeries, a beauty school, newspapers, grocery stores, and professional offices (doctors, dentists, attorneys, et.al.) as ambitious black entrepreneurs helped build East Austin into a group of self-sustaining neighborhoods amidst Austin's segregated environment.    

Establishments such as Hillside Drugs, the Deluxe Hotel, the Harlem Theater, Rhambo's Barber Shop, and the iconic Victory Grill were community staples and the Grill became a historic landmark. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places on October 16, 1998. The Grill, which opened in 1945 on Victory over Japan Day, became the most popular entertainment stop in East Austin – for blacks and more than a few whites. Its owner, band manager Johnny Holmes, converted an icehouse to a club venue for African American servicemen on R&R as well as those returning from World War II. The Victory Grill became known for its blues and jazz music as well as its food and drink. At its peak, in the 1950s, most of the popular national R&B and jazz acts performed there as part of the "Chitlin’ Circuit." Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Chuck Berry were among the many performers who did shows there.    

Black entrepreneurs such as Robert Wormley (insurance), Marcellus "Andy" Anderson (real estate), and William Tears (mortician) also established thriving businesses. Wormley opened the first black-owned insurance agency (Wormley-Mitchell & Associates) in Austin in 1954 with Wormley as the first black member of the Austin Association of Independent Insurance Agents. Anderson was the first licensed African American realtor in the South and served as President and Co-Founder of the Texas Association of Real Estate Brokers, a group for black realtors. He partnered with Wormley to form the Anderson-Wormley Real Estate and Insurance Company. (In 2014, Anderson's widow, Ada, donated $3 million to Huston-Tillotson University – the largest gift in school history – towards the naming of the Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center.) William Tears also founded the Tears Funeral Home, which is believed to be the first African American-owned funeral business in Texas.    

Those illustrious pioneers helped lay the foundation of East Austin's business community and despite ever-increasing and encroaching gentrification, pushing black residents further east and outside of East Austin and forcing the demise of some black-owned businesses, the area still contains thriving for-profit entities with interesting stories and on-going developments in the community.