The Blackland neighborhood is located on the East side of Austin, North of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, South of Manor Road, East of I-35, and West of Chestnut Street.  Swedish immigrants originally founded and organized the neighborhood, profiting from the agricultural benefits of the rich black soil in the area.  In 1927, Austin initiated a plan to segregate the city, confining black people to the East side of town and providing the University of Texas at Austin with rights to expand its property Eastward.  The Blackland community, now made up of primarily black people, took part in the heyday of the 11th street “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the music scene of the fifties and sixties.  Blues pianist Robert Shaw owned and operated his barbeque and grocery store on Manor Road, acting as a hub for the Blackland community, college students, and politicians.  The neighborhood grew in its architectural and cultural diversity, layering styles and cultures one on top of the other.

Despite the city’s rejection of the 1927 plan in 1956 because of its racist foundations, the University of Texas continued to cite it as a part of its initiatives to expand.  In 1981, when UT was pushing for its 6th expansion Eastward, activists lobbied for affordable housing and preservation of the Blackland community.  The University agreed to negotiate and the neighborhood maintained its current boundaries.

In the late 19th century, the Blackland area was home to farms of cotton, which grew readily in the fertile soil.  By the turn of the century, Austin’s population growth necessitated the division of this area into urban housing.  Swedish immigrants, who had created the farms to the East of town originally, built these houses at equal distances throughout the subdivision, leaving a comfortable amount of room between units.  They were wood-framed, made of cedar, the abundant hardwood of the central Texas area.  Many of them accommodated large families with their double windows and high ceilings.  Though they were not wired for electricity originally, owners later added external wires to their home, providing for one outlet per room.  Many of these homes still stand today, survivors of natural and manmade disasters and the damage from a century’s use.

The landscape of the Blackland neighborhood changed drastically in 1927, when Austin passed an urban development plan which confined all blacks to the East side of the city.  Sections of this plan also included the University of Texas’ annexation of land and expansion towards the East.  The new black settlers followed in the trend of their Swedish predecessors, constructing wood-frame houses in the spaces between the existing structures.   These wood-frame structures retained much of the architectural style characteristic of the Blackland neighborhood.  Their exterior walls bore wooden siding and their windows, tall, narrow, and often grouped in pairs, wooden paneling that separated them from the rest of the house exterior.  These newer homes included electricity and plumbing in the original plans, but had lower ceilings and less space.  Many of the owners living in them later built onto the original structure to accommodate growing families, often without regard to city codes. 
The construction of major roadways such as East Avenue (I-35) and 19th Streets (present-day Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd) accentuated the segregation that the 1927 plan codified.  Because of legal, cultural, and geographical segregation, the Blackland neighborhood became its own microcosm, an area separated from the rest of the city.

Within this alienated area of Austin, people congregated around their own stores, music, and venues.  One of the most recognized of these places was Robert Shaw’s “Stop n’ Swat,” a barbeque and grocery store which moved from West Lynn in Clarksville to Manor Road in the Blackland neighborhood in the 1950s.  Robert “Fud” Shaw moved to Austin in 1935, playing piano on the so-called Santa Fe circuit.  He played in the “boogie woogie” style, which took its rhythms from the beats and music of the railroad trains that traveled East from Santa Fe.  This type of music was popular on the music scene and Shaw was an admired musician during the 30s until he married and started his first store later in the decade. 

After he moved his store to Manor Road in the 50s, Shaw and his “Stop n’ Swat” became the center of the Blackland community.  “When my father would drive around,” said Shaw’s daughter, “he’d know every single person on the street.”  In his grocery and barbeque stop, located where the “El Gringo” restaurant stands today, Shaw catered to the local community and also attracted collegiates and politicians from the West side of the city.  He practiced his playing skills daily on an upright piano he kept in the back room, preserving the old style of “boogie woogie” music he had played before settling down.  In 1963, a music historian discovered Shaw’s skills in his store and persuaded him to record an album.  With his album “Texas Barrelhouse Piano,” later re-titled “Ma Grinder,” Shaw brought back a crisp version of the Santa Fe circuit’s boogie woogie style, recording the old signatures as if the 1930s hadn’t ended.  The hippy, folk, and blues musicians of the 1960s admired Shaw’s skills and the Austin music scene embraced him once more.  After performing with Janis Joplin in ’66 and playing in 14 Kerrville Folk Festivals, Robert Shaw suffered a heart attack in 1976.  In 1985, the Blackland community laid Shaw to rest after a funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist, recognizing the man who had fostered the neighborhood’s growth while preserving its music on a back room piano.

At the time of Shaw’s death, the Blackland neighborhood was fighting the University of Texas for its land and housing rights.  Though the city had repealed its 1927 plan based upon its racist foundations in 1956, the University continued to cite the legislation in order to acquire rights to acquire land to accommodate its growing needs.  Ever since the 1927 plan, the University had been buying land on the East side of I-35, on the North-West side of the Blackland neighborhood.  As property values lowered just East of the University, speculators bought the devalued property in order to sell it at a profit to the University at its next annexation.  Though the lower property prices provided Blackland residents with cheaper rent, living conditions in the area also declined drastically.

In 1981, members of the Blackland community formed the Blackland Neighborhood Association in order to protect the neighborhood’s property rights and fight for better housing conditions.  After two frustrating years of opposition, the association formed the Blackland Community Development Corporation, a non-profit which aimed to help the neighborhood by buying property and building affordable housing in the area.  After a twelve year struggle between the University, the BCDC and its political, collegiate, and public support, the two sides agreed on a compromise in 1994.  The University’s limited its Easter acquisitions to the area bound by Leona Street, with an exception along Manor Road to Chicon Street.  The BCDC continues to renovate and build affordable houses in the and around the University’s former holdings, providing shelter for those whom speculators had pushed from the neighborhood.

These new houses add another layer of physical history to the Blackland neighborhood, which displays its history through its eclectic mix of residents, cultures, and architectural styles.


Photograph of the Cowboy House.