Before Interstate Highway 35 divided Austin, East Avenue was the line that separated white and non-white Austin. Whites lived west of the East Avenue and African Americans and Mexican Americans occupied the area to the east. But before that, before the 1930s, black Austinites resided in enclaves throughout the city, says Eric Tang, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the UT, a former community organizer, and co-founder of the website East Avenue. Clarksville, today one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods and the crown jewel of the Old West Austin Historic District, was founded by freedman Charles Clark in 1871 and remained one of the longest surviving “freedomtowns” established by former slaves and their descendants west of the Mississippi River.
In 1928, Austin city leaders inaugurated the “Negro District” just east of downtown. During the height of Jim Crow, the municipal government established “colored only” schools, parks, and public facilities opposite East Avenue in an effort to confine African Americans and Mexican Americans to a single neighborhood in the Texas capital. East Austin retained the city’s single largest concentration of African Americans until the gentrification of the late 1990s and early 2000s uprooted many of the neighborhood’s low-income and long time residents of color. Between 2000 and 2010, Austin bore the ignominious distinction of being the only fast-growing, major U.S. city with a rapidly shrinking African American population. While the city’s population grew by 24 per-cent between 2000 and 2010, its African American population shrunk by 5.4 per-cent.
In 2016, Eric Tang and UT doctoral candidates Bisola Falola (Geography) and Chelsea Ohueri (Anthropology) launched East Avenue, an online project committed to documenting and analyzing the past and present of racial and economic segregation in Austin, Texas. Featuring the close collaboration of university scholars and Austin community residents and civic leaders, East Austin aims to produce new research to influence public policy and grassroots initiatives to advance racial, social, and economic equality in one of the nation’s most segregated cities. Tang, Falola, and Ohueri, in collaboration with the University of Texas-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, published “Those Who Left,” a 2016 report assessing the socioeconomic drivers of black flight in Austin. Researchers studied census data and surveyed more than one-hundred African Americans, the majority of whom left Austin for the nearby cities of Pflugerville, Del Valle, Elgin, Bastrop, and Manor between 1999 and 2010. They discovered that racial disparities in public education, distrust of law enforcement, and discriminatory hiring practices in Austin’s technology sector and construction industry led many long-time residents of color to abandon the city where they grew up.
“Racial divide. They wanted us out,” an unnamed 63 year-old African American woman told East Avenue researchers. “Lack of space and in order to own, we had to move.”
“I feel like no one sees me,” said a 44 year-old African American male. “They don’t value I’m there. They only notice me when there’s a problem. Thousands of black kids don’t get the same appreciation that a pet gets.”
East Avenue shares the findings of the landmark 2016 “Those Who Left” report with the general public, featuring testimonials, demographic data, and interactive charts tracking Austin’s shrinking African American population. It uses a multimedia approach to research dissemination, providing links to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a new Vimeo page including interviews with African Americans relating the hardships they have endured since leaving the city. It remains to be seen if the City of Austin can reverse this disturbing trend. In the meantime, East Avenue researchers and community collaborators are committed to make sure the voices of the city’s community of color are heard.