As Austin's Black community shrinks, moves to suburbs, community leaders push for change
Danielle Austin moved to Austin for work in 1997, shortly after graduating from college. Two years later she met Ron Austin, who had moved from Miami, and they later married. They bought a home in North Austin in 2004, but as their family grew and their needs changed, the Austins moved to Pflugerville with their two children, where they have lived for about six years.
“We needed more space and wanted to make sure we found a school district with good education programs and where athletics and extracurricular activities were active and built up,” Ron Austin said.
More Austin families have started to move to neighboring Central Texas cities over the past decade, and local leaders attribute that to a combination of factors, including the rising cost of living in Austin, the tightening housing market, the desire for more space, and the importance of good schools and welcoming communities.
The trend is particularly apparent in communities of color — primarily Black and Hispanic communities — which have seen sluggish growth in Austin over the past decade. But even through families have continued to move out of the city, many return each week to embrace and celebrate their East Austin roots.
Since 2010, Austin’s total population has grown about 19%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
In the 1960 census, the percentages of Austin's population that were Black and Hispanic were about equal. Over time the percentage of African Americans has declined to less than 10% of Austin's total population, and for the first time in 60 years it has fallen below the percentage of Asians, according to demographic data from the city.
Today, of the 950,807 people in Austin, census data show the Black population to be 70,618, growing about 14% since 2010, while the Asian population, which has grown by about 53%, is 71,576.
“If African Americans are migrating away from Austin, the question is why do people not plant their lives here?” said Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University. “People want to plant their lives where we want to grow and have good experiences, where our children can have a good education, good jobs, arts and music they are attracted to, and be close to restaurants with foods we like.”
Nelson Linder, president of Austin’s NAACP chapter, said that seeing Austin’s already small, and once thriving, Black population continue to decline is a concern. To reverse the trend, he said, the city needs to invest in affordable housing, make sure jobs pay high enough wages for people of color, and put money back into the community and programs that foster Black culture.
“We need to put the money where it belongs,” Linder said, “so that we have a city where everyone can live here and have the same life experiences. We will just have to keep fighting for it.”
Investing in a community
Still standing as a beacon for many Black families in Austin is Mount Zion Baptist Church. The congregation, made up primarily of African American families, has stood in East Austin for nearly 150 years.
As the East Austin population has changed, Mount Zion has been a constant, working to be a resource for the community spiritually, physically and mentally. The Rev. Daryl Horton said the church started a Family Life Center to provide a place where parishioners and community members can gather for education, worship and support services.
Through the center, church and community members can seek help from several ministries, involving health; marriage; alcohol, drugs and other addictions; and criminal justice.
The next phase of the project is the construction of a full-size gymnasium with a basketball court and exercise room.
When the entire project is complete, Horton said, Mount Zion will be a place that can offer youth sports programs and health clinics and can connect families with food and housing assistance programs.
“This is where God has called us to serve,” Horton said. “We want to help people and take a holistic approach to their needs.”
He said all of it is possible with the help of the many people who have been attending Mount Zion for generations.
As families have moved away from the area, many return each week, driving from as far as Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Buda and Manor. So while Austin’s Black community is small, the dozens of families who return each week — often multiple times in a week — are still part of the community and give back through church groups, sports programs and other extracurricular activities.
Ron Austin, who is an associate minister at Mount Zion, and his wife, Danielle, lead the marriage ministry, guiding people through premarital counseling, marriage strengthening workshops and marriage conferences.
Danielle Austin said their children are involved in a number of church groups and participate in extracurricular activities in East Austin, including the NAACP and Top Teens of America, a group that provides teenagers the opportunity to receive extracurricular support and career and character development training, along with community volunteer opportunities.
Vincent and Nicky Carter settled in Cedar Park more than 20 years ago. They knew they wanted to start a family, and they wanted to be close enough to Austin for work and other activities but in a quieter and safer area that had good schools and programs.
In the past two decades, the couple said, they have seen Cedar Park build up around them, providing access to just about everything they need, from restaurants and grocery stores to shopping and entertainment. Mount Zion, however, is a 30-minute drive from their home.
Much like the Austins, the Carters help lead church ministries, and their daughters are involved in sports clubs and church groups in Austin.
“Even though we all live (outside Austin), we are also involved in East Austin,” Danielle Austin said. “East Austin is a thriving community. And while the population of African Americans may be decreasing, there is still a large group of us still functioning as a cohesive unit within the community.”
Fostering a culture
While creating jobs and affordable housing is a step in the right direction, Huston-Tillotson's Burnette said part of the efforts must also include making sure people feel that they are part of the community and that everyone is treated equally.
She said Huston-Tillotson, which has seen a demographic shift along with Austin, has created a partnership with the Austin school district that funnels Black men into teaching. While the program prepares them to go anywhere, she hopes they will come back to Austin and be role models for young Black children.
“There is all kinds of data that shows when one person of color sees at least one person that looks like them, they will do better and are motivated to do more because they are inspired by that teacher, and that gives hope and connection,” Burnette said. “The numbers of Black male teachers are few and far between, so we are doing our best to fill those gaps and needs.”
The historically Black university also is working with Apple to create a pipeline for people of color in the technology industry, she said.
“You can create jobs, but if people don't feel part of the community or they are questioned differently than that of peers, they won’t want to stay here,” Burnette said. “People move to places where they feel like they are part of the community.”
With its new video podcast, “The Pivot,” T.J. Owens, program manager and facility director of the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, said the city hopes to do just that. "The Pivot," a project prompted by the coronavirus pandemic to help people stay connected while isolated at home, began Feb. 3 with a biweekly livestream on Facebook.
Each episode highlights the work of Black leaders, entrepreneurs and business owners, and musicians and artists, and covers a series of topics, including social climate, self care, mental health, history and cultural preservation through the lens of equity and inclusion.
Owens, a fifth-generation Austinite, said the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility's goal with the program is to create a platform for people to connect to Austin culturally by including Black stories and perspectives.
“Part of our job is to preserve culture and history, and having a better understanding of that is important,” he said. “If you don’t know where you came from, it's hard to know where you’re going.”
Committing the dollars
After two controversial police incidents in 2016, Mayor Steve Adler created a task force, which Burnette co-chaired, aimed at combating systemic and institutional racism across the city.
Breaking down recommendations to address institutional and systemic inequities in education, real estate and housing, health care, finance, and civil and criminal justice, she said the group pushed for the same concepts that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. believed in — a beloved community with equal opportunities for everyone. Not a utopia, but a place where everyone has the opportunity to rise to the top and a place to feel welcomed.
City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, whose district includes a portion of East Austin, agreed that the city has some work to do in this area, and she wants to address some concerns with plans for improved housing and transportation.
“Short term, we need to fix the housing crisis,” Harper-Madison said. “More and more people move in, and prices go up. We need to build housing across all income levels and all parts of town.”
And by improving mobility options, and making them accessible and affordable, more people will be able to get around the city better. She said the city is making some strides with Project Connect, the plan to build three light rail lines throughout Austin. Voters approved the work in November,
She added that increasing access to health care and food is also a priority.
She said the solution is investing in communities of color with education, job training, financial literacy and other opportunities that help address inequities.
“That is a long-term commitment,” Harper-Madison said. “But we have to make a commitment to help people. We have to reconcile the wrong that inherently made it so that some people have and some people don't.”
Linder, who also served as a member of the task force, said that though the city has narrowed down where it needs to improve, it is time to put the dollars in.
The opening of the Tesla factory in Del Valle could mean more jobs for people of color, he said, and the key is providing transportation to that area. Project Connect will help, but more transit options are needed in East Austin so that people can get to work, medical appointments and the grocery store without taking multiple buses or walking several miles.
Linder shared similar views about educational opportunities for Black students.
“I'm hopeful that things will change,” he said. “You’ve got to fight for it. And if you keep fighting, you can change things. But you have to be committed and hold true to your principle.”