How East Austin Became a Negro District

During the early years of the 20th Century, African Americans occupied settlements in various parts of the city of Austin. By and large, these residential communities had churches at their core. Some had Black-run businesses and schools for African American youth. Though surrounded by Anglo neighborhoods, these island enclaves functioned as fairly autonomous residential neighborhoods often organized around family ties, common religious practices, and connection to pre-emancipation slave-status relationships with common slave holders/land owners. Though some date back to slavery, by the 1920s these communities were located across the City and include Clarksville, Masonville, St. Johns, Pleasant Hill, Wheatville, Kincheonville, and other settlements. The social movement of African Americans within the city was prescribed by Jim Crow Laws, but the residents of these Black communities had social, business, familial, and religious connection to the other neighborhoods that functioned as an interconnected network that sustained African American life and commerce in Austin. 

Though slavery and some elements of the segregationist past had been struck down by federal law and constitutional amendment, Austin and many other American cities still grappled with finding “legal methods” to enforce separation of the races. Empowered by repeal of most Reconstruction civil rights acts, segregationists welcomed the 1896 Plessey vs. Ferguson decision, which made separate-but-equal the law of the land.

By the 1920s the Anglo political leadership of Austin sought legal methods to deal with what they characterized as the “Negro Problem.” As it was then articulated, it was a problem for Austin to provide equal protection under the law, schools, city services, parks, utilities and such for African Americans. And, if the City were legally required to do so, it was more of a problem if African Americans were allowed to continue to build communities throughout the City.

In 1927 the Austin City Council engaged the services of Dallas/Forth Worth-area urban planning and consulting firm, Koch and Fowler, to produce the City’s first city plan and zoning map. The work of Koch and Fowler resulted ultimately in the City Plan of 1928, and is the legal basis for the establishment of East Austin as a Negro District. An excerpt of the document is published below:

"There has been considerable talk in Austin, as well as other cities, in regard to the race segregation problem. This problem cannot be solved legally under any zoning law known to us at present. Practically all attempts of such have been proven unconstitutional.

In our studies in Austin we have found that the Negroes are present in small numbers, in practically all sections of the city, excepting the area just east of East Avenue and south of the City Cemetery. This area seems to be all Negro population. It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will be the recommendation of this district as a Negro district.

This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities."

Later in the plan...

"We have already mentioned the Waller Creek Driveway which will provide a convenient avenue for traffic from the northeast portion of Austin to the business district, and on south to the Colorado River Drive. The completion of this drive will entail the acquisition of certain cheap property along the banks of Waller Creek from Eighth Street to Nineteenth Street. Most of the property which will be needed is at present occupied by very unsightly and unsanitary shacks inhabited by Negroes. With these buildings removed to provide for the trafficway, most of the remaining property will be of a substantial and more desirable type"