The last stand: Inside the Black arts community's fight to restore East Austin's soul
A resolution before City Council would start the process of establishing a cultural arts center where Black musicians gave birth to the city's sound
History displaced the cultural arts traditions of East Austin, long the home of the city’s Black community. Now, its champions — Black artists, creatives and community leaders — are working to restore that soul.
Untangling that displacement is complex. Sixteen years after the city began studying why African Americans in Austin experienced a different standard of living than other residents, local leaders have undertaken a historic reckoning on decades of discriminatory city policies.
In March, the Austin City Council unanimously voted to formally apologize for the city's involvement in segregation and systemic racism, including the reinforcement of a 1928 plan that designated a “negro district” in East Austin. The council also created a Black Embassy to support business owners.
In 2019, the city began an extensive, equity-focused review of the way cultural arts grants are awarded. The process, paused in 2020 because of the pandemic, is ongoing.
In June 2021, the council unanimously approved a long-promised expansion plan for the Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in East Austin.
And in July, the Live Music Fund Event Program was announced, prioritizing grant opportunities for historically underserved communities.
As the city engages in “continued conversations around reconciliation” for the wrongs of the past, “atonement should come in the form of action,” Natasha Harper-Madison, the only Black member of the City Council, told the American-Statesman.
Harper-Madison is one of five sponsors of a new resolution that aims to bolster the vitality of Austin’s African American Cultural Heritage District, a section of central East Austin that was once a vibrant community center for Black residents.
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The resolution, before the council on Thursday, calls for adding historical markers, branded street signs and public art to the neighborhood. It lays out plans to nurture the growth of African American entertainment and creative industries in the area using city resources such as the Live Music Fund.
Notably, the resolution also calls on the city manager to begin soliciting proposals and developing cost estimates for the creation of a cultural arts center in the 1100 block of East 11th Street, where jazz artist and music historian Harold McMillan has operated Kenny Dorham’s Backyard for 14 years.
In 2018, McMillan formed the East Austin Creative Coalition, a group of Black artists and community leaders. They developed plans for the Kenny Dorham Center, a music-centric arts hub with rehearsal and classroom space, artist studios, a gallery, a cafe with a small stage and an outdoor music venue.
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The resolution calls for affordable housing units, too. McMillan imagines the space with 12 to 18 low-cost, live/work studios that would host artists-in-residence for tenures of two to three years. He wants to prioritize opportunities for artists who have generational ties to the neighborhood.
McMillan hopes the center could create a “right of return” for Black artists who have been priced out of the district.
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Kenny Dorham’s Backyard is illuminated by whimsical string lights and the cool glow of one of Austin’s historic moon towers. Afro-centric murals are attached to the fence around the property. The most recent addition pays tribute to two celebrated Black Austin pianists: Ernie Mae Miller, who held down a regular gig at the New Orleans club on 11th and Red River streets (now part of Waterloo Greenway), and McMillan’s musical mentor, Margaret Wright, who graced clubs around town with her torch songs and jazz standards for four decades before her death last year.
The only thing that’s ever been certain about the future of East Austin’s only Black-owned outdoor music venue is its impermanence. For more than a decade, McMillan has operated Kenny Dorham’s on Lot 18, an East 11th Street property owned by the city. It was always slated for development, but McMillan’s year-to-year lease didn’t deter him from trying to build something meaningful.
Naming the venue after an accomplished jazz musician who grew up nearby, McMillan created an inviting community gathering space with food trucks, vendor markets and weekly blues and jazz jams that honor the neighborhood’s history.
The block where Kenny Dorham’s Backyard sits once hosted a cluster of music venues. It's where such local masters as Blues Boy Hubbard and Major Lee Burkes pioneered the electric blues, which drifted across Interstate 35 with the Vaughan brothers to “sow the seeds of what ultimately becomes the Antone's scene,” McMillian said. When Stevie Ray Vaughan became an international sensation, the city used that sound to brand Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World.
In 1999, the city released a planning document that promised “quality development that is compatible with the traditional character of the community.”
At the time, the city and its affiliated entities owned 64 parcels of land in the area, the devastating legacy of failed urban renewal policies in which blighted homes and businesses were condemned and razed but land was slow to be redeveloped.
But in later years, with development lagging, Austin’s Black population experienced a steep decline. In a 2016 report, city demographer Ryan Robinson noted that just a few decades earlier, Black residents made up 15% of Austin’s population. According to a 2020 Census Bureau figure, 7.25% of Austin’s population identified as Black.
“Austin has growth and sprawl down cold and does not have community building and healing at all,” said Pamela Benson-Owens, interim director of Six Square (the nonprofit organization charged with preserving the legacy of African Americans in East Central Austin).
These days, East 11th Street between I-35 and Rosewood Avenue hosts two large retail and office buildings built by the Austin Revitalization Authority, a nonprofit created by the city to serve as its preferred developer for a 10-year period that began in 1999.
Several older buildings are scattered along the street. A few have plaques explaining their significance. There’s a small African American Cultural Heritage facility and a plaza with a pair of colorful mosaics dedicated to Dr. Charles E. Urdy, an educator and community organizer who served on the City Council.
But the street is dominated by upscale businesses, boutiques and eateries patronized predominantly by white people. Property values are soaring.
Lot 18 is one of two city-owned parcels of land left in the district.
Performance poet Stacie Shea Williams has been working with McMillan to build out Kenny Dorham’s Backyard. “This is literally the last bastion of any evidence that there (were) Black people in Austin,” she said.
‘A community within a community’
In 1928, the Koch and Fowler city plan designated a “negro district” in East Austin. It became the only section of the city where Black residents could access schools and other public services. Many Black Austinites who had lived in former freedmen’s colonies scattered all around the city relocated to the district.
From the post-World War II period through the 1960s, a music scene flourished. The historic Victory Grill — opened in 1945 as a watering hole for Black soldiers returning from the war — sits next door to Kenny Dorham’s. Jazz and blues hotspot Charlie’s Playhouse was down the street, and across from that was Ira Littlefield's IL Club.
“One of the things that comes with the installation of segregation is that there was a Black commercial and business class that owned businesses, restaurants, joints,” McMillan said. There were “a good handful of live music clubs, and it was Black musicians playing for Black audiences at Black venues owned by Black folks.”
The clubs were part of the Chitlin' Circuit, a network of venues, primarily in the South, that welcomed touring Black musicians. Legends of the era such as Nat King Cole, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimmy Reed and B.B. King made tour stops in the district, tapping local artists to back them up. On weekends, the block was hopping.
"It'd be 5,000 or 6,000 people. ... I'm talking about people with them nice three-piece suits on, the nice car, with their jewelry on, nice little stash of money in their pockets," trumpet player Pat Patterson, who played in the blues outfit the East Side Band, told the Statesman in 1992.
Benson-Owens is quick to note that the East 11th Street scene was more than just a party.
“That's where entertainment and community have been, but it's also where civil mobilization for the civil rights movement happened,” she said.
The six square blocks of the African American Cultural Heritage District were once “the community building space, the advocacy space, the convening space, the commerce row, the ‘I just need to make it to there to feel safe’ space,” she said.
Austin’s Black residents made “a whole community within a community thrive,” creating stores, restaurants and churches, she said.
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McMillan never experienced that scene first hand.
When he arrived in Austin as a graduate student in 1979, the bassist fell in with a crowd of older musicians, including Hubbard and Burkes.
They shared stories of closing down the house at the Victory Grill, then hitting up after-hours spots where they would play all night and “drink their whiskey and gin out a coffee cup,” McMillan said. “They spoke about this history with a sense of proud nostalgia and some heartbreak, because by the time I got to town, the live music scene in East Austin was pretty much decimated.”
In the post-segregation era, Black families and business owners in Austin began to relocate to other neighborhoods. With city resources allocated to other parts of town, rising crime and little commercial investment, buildings on the eastern side of the city sat vacant and fell into disrepair.
Still, the area’s close proximity to downtown made it desirable to developers. “In the next 15 years, I think we will be pushed back. They are coming up the hill,” Victory Grill owner Johnny Holmes told the Statesman in 1978. “I think someone will buy all this out.”
Harper-Madison recently told the Statesman, “Speculators would come in and say, while this dirt is cheap today, because of the slum and blight, it won't always be. This will one day be highly valuable, relatively, you know, close to downtown property.”
There were no banks in the area before 2004. “One bank, at 11th Street and I-35, failed in 1986. An ATM once in the area was shut down,” the Statesman reported in 1990.
In the mid- to late ’90s, the neighborhood began a transformation that has accelerated dramatically in the last decade as property values have skyrocketed.
Harper-Madison, 44, grew up in East Austin and watched it change.
“I remember the first time I saw a white person jogging in my neighborhood, and asking my mother what was happening,” she said. “I remember the first time seeing a bank in deep East Austin. I remember having friends that moved from our small, tight-knit community to gated communities in what was, at the time, far-flung Round Rock and Pflugerville.”
Benson-Owens also grew up in East Austin. “There was a level of sacred ground respect on the east side,” she said. She finds it painful to watch high fences go up between houses in neighborhoods where traditionally “everybody on the street can raise you and discipline you.”
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Benson-Owens was priced out of the neighborhood when her family outgrew their two-bedroom condo. “I loved the convenience of leaving my home at 9:55 and being in the choir stand at church at 10, you know, and so a lot of that's been lost, too,” she said.
A mural painted on East 11th Street last summer reads “Black Artists Matter,” but many indications of the neighborhood’s cultural significance have disappeared. Williams, the poet, senses a “total disrespect” for the area’s place in music history.
She also was priced out of East Austin a few years ago. “It's devastating to watch,” she said.
‘We owe it to ourselves’
Many activists feel that the political will to make amends is stronger than it has been in decades.
“America did not become post-racial with Barack Obama,” McMillan said. “America, post-George Floyd, has just entered a watershed period, where things have to be different. Different people have to be involved. So Black folks can't fix racism. White folks are the only people that can fix racism, because white folks own s---. They run this country.”
Carl Settles, who runs the nonprofit group E4 Youth, said, “I think we're in that third Reconstruction phase.”
Harper-Madison thinks it’s unproductive to talk about what the city owes East Austin.
“What I would say is, what does the city of Austin want to see itself as?” she said. “As the capital city of the great state of Texas, who do we want to be and how do we want to be represented?
“If I were to think of owing, I would say we owe it to ourselves as a city to be the best we can possibly be, and we won't get there until we address the deep, deep disparities that exist in our city."
“We have to, to really take account of the fact that the success of the city and the state began at the expense of slaves,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during the City Council meeting this spring.
An 1825 census of Stephen F. Austin's colony, located east of the area that that would become the city of Austin, showed a count of 443 enslaved people, nearly a quarter of the colony's total population. By 1860, Adler said, the number of enslaved people in Central Texas increased faster than the population as a whole, as colonization laws granted settlers an additional 80 acres of land for each person they enslaved.
In the post-Civil War period, "Austin was a refuge for many freedmen who had suffered at the hands of lawless whites," archivist Michelle Mears wrote in her 2009 book, "And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928."
By the 1890s, there were 15 freedman communities scattered all over the city. After taking measures to reinforce a “negro district” in East Austin in 1928, the city “doubled down” on discriminatory policies in the 1950s, Adler said, through so-called urban renewal.
“On its face, the initiative is intended to clean up communities and make them more vibrant and economically viable,” Harper-Madison said. “But the truth is, like many initiatives that clean up neighborhoods, oftentimes what gets cleaned up are the people.”
In the 1970s, the homes of low-income families on six blocks just west of I-35 were condemned as part of urban renewal and city beautification projects that led to the creation of Waterloo Park. In 1978, the city created the adjacent Symphony Square as headquarters for the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
Around the same time, Black artists were lobbying for a community arts center of their own. In 1975, John Henry Hines, creator of the Austin Black Arts Council, told the Statesman the lack of a cultural center in East Austin was a “vacuum that desperately needed to be filled.” In the ‘80s, the City Council explored multiple proposals for arts centers, but many of the city’s federally funded projects turned out to be boondoggles.
Harper-Madison believes the city should take a “creative” approach to funding the Kenny Dorham’s proposal.
“It's going to take some investment. It's going to take some buy-in from the stakeholders,” she said.
In October, the city approved the creation of the Austin Economic Development Corp., a public nonprofit that works with the city on large projects. McMillan hopes that group, which has more latitude than the city to develop public/private partnerships, might be able to help secure funding.
Settles has successfully formed relationships with tech companies to help fund his work with E4 Youth, which includes a music program. He believes the Kenny Dorham Center will need to be funded through public-private partnerships to be sustainable.
Austin’s music and culture is a big selling point to tech companies that are relocating to Austin, and he said there’s a strong case to be made for “why they should be investing, making this actually happen” because it enhances the quality of life for their workforce.
“I think it's completely plausible to have an actual physical space, to be able to provide some jobs for some of the more senior musicians of color in this city that have been laying it down for years and like to put some money in their pockets so that they can share their knowledge with the younger folks,” he said.
Settles believes a new spirit of cooperation, what Benson-Owens calls “an abundance mentality,” will help drive the project’s success.
The Black arts community has grown and matured over the last decade, Settles said. He thinks the leaders at the forefront now won't reap the full benefits of this push — "it's the folks behind us."
Settles believes the effort to create the community center answers a larger question for Austin’s Black creative leaders: “What is our legacy in this city?”