African Americans in Austin

African Americans have lived and worked in the area now known as Austin since its earliest days as a city. During enslavement, African Americans helped build the city, with thirty-five percent of Austin’s families owning slaves by the year 1860. After emancipation, African American Austinites built freedmen’s communities all over the city, working together to establish communities and invest in one another. With the implementation of the 1928 City Plan, African Americans were forced to relocate to East Austin, where they assembled a thriving neighborhood of businesses, schools, and recreational facilities. Though gentrification and dispersal threaten East Austin and the people who called East Austin home, activists remain committed to cultural preservation. African American Austinites remain vital to the larger community of the city of Austin.

The First African in Austin

The first known African American to enter the area now known as Austin was Mahala Murchison. The Portal to Texas History, maintained by the University of North Texas Libraries, has a short biography of Mahala Murchison in its Texas History Collection. It reads, “Mahala Murchison, a ten year old mulatto girl, was the first Negro to appear in Austin. Four months after Austin was founded, Alexander Murchison arrived here to make his home on July 16, 1839. He was accompanied by his wife and maid, Mahala.” The Portal to Texas History also includes an undated photograph of Mahala Murchison


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Undated photograph of Mahala Murchison Mahala Murchison (undated)

Growth of Slavery in Austin

The State Gazette, Austin, TX 9/29/1890

The State Gazette, Austin, TX 9/29/1890, p.3

While most enslaved people in Texas lived and worked in East Texas, there were a significant number of enslaved folks in Austin by the middle of the nineteenth century. According to the Handbook of Texas, there were 145 enslaved people in the city of Austin by 1840 (out of a total population of 856), and 225 enslaved individuals by 1850 (out of a total population of 854). By the dawn of the Civil War in 1860, there were 3,546 total people living in the city, including 1,019 enslaved men and women. Enslaved men and women labored as domestic servants, tended livestock, and helped construct buildings and infrastructure. Maggie Tate, in her chapter in Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City, writes about how enslaved laborers were hired from their owners by Edwin Waller to help construct some of the earliest buildings in the city.

Slave Stories

There are also stories of the experiences of free African Americans in Austin during the antebellum period. Rachel Hamilton Hornsby was freed before the Civil War, but was jailed due to a Texas law that said free blacks were not permitted to live in the state or risk re-enslavement. After the Civil War ended, Austin became one of the many cities across Texas to participate in Juneteenth celebrations, where African Americans celebrated the abolition of slavery.

After Emancipation

After emancipation, formerly enslaved African Americans set up Freedmen’s Communities in various neighborhoods throughout the city of Austin. The Austin Library features a map of early Freedmen’s communities including Wheatville, founded by a formerly enslaved man named James Wheat and the home of noted pastor Reverend Jacob Fontaine, and Clarksville, founded by men and women formerly enslaved to Governor Elisha Pease. According to The Origins of Clarksville: “In 1865 after emancipation, Pease sold land in the Clarksville area to some of his former slaves some of whom continued to work for him as freed men…This area formed the nucleus of what would become the community of Clarksville, which according to tradition, Clark envisioned as a place where former slaves could reunite with their families and friends, direct their own lives and freely practice their religion.” While most of the residents of Clarksville were forced to move to the East Side as part of the 1928 city plan, the Clarksville Community Development Corporation continues to operate to share the story of this historic neighborhood and to care for some of the area’s Historic Landmarks.  


Eliot M. Tretter’s Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City discusses the city plan and its work in conjunction with racially restrictive housing communities like Hyde Park to isolate African Americans in East Austin. The Austin American-Statesman’s “Inheriting Inequality” series provides maps to show the “Evolution of a ‘Negro District,’” and documents members of the community in “What You Don’t Know About the History of East Austin.” 

First Baptist Church – Congregation, 1922:

Forced Segregation to East Austin

Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City

In 1927, a consulting firm named Koch and Fowler provided a proposal for a city plan for Austin, Texas. The plan noted that small communities of African Americans lived in neighborhoods throughout the city and suggested that city officials work to remove African American Austinites from their neighborhoods west of East Avenue (now I35) and segregate them in East Austin, the location of the city’s slaughterhouse. The plan clearly states, “that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area” (57). This meant that African Americans choosing to remain in areas like Clarksville would not have access to city utilities like water and sanitation. This recommendation would change the demographics of the entire city of Austin; by the 1940s almost all African Americans had relocated to East Austin. Furthermore, the City’s Industrial Development Plan of 1957 zoned all property in East Austin as industrial, including single-family homes. This meant that the most polluting industries in the city were located and remained in this area. For instance, all the city’s trash was hauled to and burned at an incinerator located at Hargrove and East 12th Street. Residents nearby said that ashes from the incinerator would rain down on their vegetable gardens.  Due to these conditions and “this zoning, few residents were able to get bank loans (red-lining) for repairs or replacement of their original homes, leading to deterioration” of the housing stock, according to The Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities Final Report (19).

“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 Cemetary. 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 the negro district; and that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negros in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area.”

O. H. Koch (Koch & Fowler (1928) p. 57)

Thriving East Austin Community

While city services remained inferior on the east side—many roads were not paved until the mid to late twentieth century, streetcar routes ended at the entrance to the neighborhood on 11th street, and segregated schools received second-hand books and resources—African Americans built a thriving community of businesses, culture, and arts. Austin’s East End Cultural Heritage District documents this community, providing descriptions of black-owned businesses and music venues in the area. Many of the buildings in the neighborhood remain important landmarks of the community, including the George Washington Carver Library, Museum, and Cultural Center. The Carver Museum includes a permanent exhibit exploring early black families living in Austin, featuring the Fontaine family, the Anderson family, and the Simond family.  Sharon Hill writes about the businesses, people, and neighborhoods of this community in The Empty Stairs: The Lost History of East Austin.

Victory Grill Reunion
(L-R Standing) Henry “Blues Boy” Hubbard, James Kirkendall, T.D. Bell, “Little Herman” Reese, William Fagan, B. Brown, Johnny Holmes, Grey Ghost, (Kneeling) Ural Dewitty and Erbie Bowser – photo by Tary Owens

Civil Rights Leaders

As the Civil Rights Movement gained prominence throughout the entire United States community members of color worked to desegregate schools and public facilities in the city of Austin. Austin Public Library includes a chronology of efforts to desegregate Austin. Five Decades of Social Change: A Timeline includes Arthur De Witty’s appointment to a Travis County grand jury (the first African American to be appointed), Heman Sweatt’s legal battle to attend The University of Texas at Austin, and Wilhelmina Delco’s (pictured here) election to the Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees and later to the Texas House of Representatives. Joan Khabele describes her efforts to desegregate Barton Springs for Austin Revealed, while The Honorable Wilhelmina Delco discusses her decision to run for the school board and Tommy Wyatt recounts the creation of The Villager, Austin’s black community newspaper.

Honorable Wilhelmina Delco

Urban Renewal and Gentrification

At the same time that African American Austinites made strides to desegregate the city, efforts toward Urban Renewal began to take shape, foreshadowing changes in the East Austin community. These efforts began in earnest in the 1990s, triggering changes that would lead to gentrification. In The Empty Stairs: The Lost History of East Austin, Sharon Holland provides a definition of gentrification: “This is when the increasing value of a property exceeds the capacity of local residents to pay the higher taxes, resulting in changes of ownership. As longtime residents leave, individuals of different socio-economic levels replace older residents” (12-13). As East Austin experiences gentrification, with large apartment complexes replacing older homes and property values rising, the landscape and community of the area has changed. Dr. Eric Tang, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, published a study entitled “Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population” in 2014. The study found that Austin is the only major US city experiencing a decline in black residents while also experiencing rapid population growth generally. African American residents describe high taxes, changing businesses, and lack of employment opportunities as reasons for leaving East Austin, according to Dr. Tang’s follow-up study, “Those Who Left: Austin’s Declining African American Population.” Many African American Austinites have felt compelled to move out of the city altogether, relocating to Manor or Round Rock or even Houston.

Cultural Preservation

While African American business owners continue to fight to stay in East Austin, community activists have stepped up efforts toward cultural preservation. DiverseArts Culture Works maintains a directory of African American artists, community organizations, music venues, and general African American history in the city. East Austin Walking Tours share the history of the East Side through visits to the area’s landmarks. The Austin Chronicle interviewed African American residents of East Austin for a 2016 article entitled “We’re Still Here: Assessing the Continuing Black Austin Experience” and discusses some of the effects of gentrification for African American community members and businesses, while The Huffington Post describes cultural preservation efforts in a 2018 article, “Austin Is Stepping Up Its Fight Against Gentrification.” The story of Blackland is a particularly heartening example of this fight: the Blackland Community Development Corporation was created to counter encroachment by UT into the historic Blackland neighborhood. The Blackland Neighborhood Association was formed and struggled with the university for years before the university agreed to cease buying property in the neighborhood, and the Blackland CDC continues to work to build, purchase, and maintain housing for low-income families in the area. While East Austin continues to experience gentrification and African American migration away from the city remains an issue, community organizers deserve recognition for their efforts to keep the memory of East Austin’s history alive.

Reflections Mural by Houston Artist Reginald C. Adams.
Commissioned by City of Austin Art in Public Places. The mural captures some of the important people, places and events of Austin’s African American Community and is in the plaza of the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility.