'Austin is more than the sum of its parts': Harrison Eppright escorts folks through city's history
Harrison David Eppright embodies Austin history every day.
That’s because he serves as a cherished tour guide for Visit Austin, as well as manager of visitor services for the tourism nonprofit. Most days, when there is no pandemic, he entertains and educates tourists, old-timers, newcomers and potential newcomers on the subject of the city’s deep past, as well as its more recent developments.
“My father was a lover of history,” Eppright says. “He shared stories of his life and the national history. He was an avid reader. And then the times: I was born in 1955 – America’s midcentury. I was an eyewitness to history through television, radio and the newspaper.”
Born and raised in East Austin, the dapper Eppright also helps out the city’s other keepers of the historical flames. For instance, at noon on Feb. 5, he will speak during the 2021 Angelina Eberly Online Event to raise money for the Austin History Center Association. The event includes a performance of “All Aboard! The Train Arrives in Austin,” a 20-minute filmed play by Paullette MacDougal.
He molds his own performances for tourists from the basic materials of Austin.
“I am inspired by what I see around me, especially in East Austin, but all over the city,” he says. “I love good narratives. And looking around East Austin today, looking at the streets and the architecture, you might not know the richness of what came before. ”
Austin history podcast:Check out the latest episodes of Austin Found
Additionally, Eppright serves as the primary tour docent for Six Square: Austin’s Black Cultural District, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve the community and legacy of what was identified in the 1928 city plan as the “Negro District.” Its headquarters sit on San Bernard Street in the same block as the historic Wesley United Methodist Church.
“When I was a boy, if you lived on San Bernard, it was a sign you had arrived,” he told Tribeza magazine in 2017.
On both sides of the family, Eppright’s roots in the area go back to the era of slavery.
He is named after both of his grandfathers. His paternal grandfather was named Harrison Charles Eppright, whose father was the son of an enslaved person and her enslaver, who adopted the offspring. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was David W. Bedford, whose father was enslaved and who later adopted the name of the family that had enslaved him.
"We were directly descended from the white Epprights," he says. "It was a mark of distinction among the Black Epprights that they did not adopt that name after Emancipation. That was a bit of a sign of social distinction, such was race and perceptions back in those days."
His great-uncle Andrew H. Eppright was born in 1894 and served as a private in World War I. He died at age 81 in 1975.
Texas history newsletter:Sign up to receive Think, Texas every Tuesday morning
Harrison grew up on Greenwood Avenue due east of Evergreen Cemetery. Movies meant a trip to the Harlem Theater. A haircut meant going with his dad to Marshall's Barber Shop on East 12th Street.
"A byproduct of segregation was that Black people of all classes lived close to each other," Eppright says. "So affluence and poverty within a few streets of one another."
While Eppright does not shy away from the history of racial oppression in the city, his eyes are always on the broader horizon as well.
“When I talk to people from out of town, I want them to remember that we are the capital city, a very historical, social, cultural, ethnic and educational city,” he says. “Austin is more than the sum of its parts.”
Like anyone who engages with out-of-towners, he encounters common misperceptions.
“They think that, outside of music, there isn’t much going on here,” Eppright says. “They also think that all of Texas is flat. They are surprised at the topography of Austin. They don’t think that Austin has much history. Many seem to think that the history of Texas is all about the Alamo in San Antonio. They don’t think about the historical significance of Austin as the capital of Texas.”
He encourages newcomers to check out materials archived at the Austin History Center and the Texas Historical Commission, as well as books about Austin on sale at stores such as BookPeople and Sue Patrick.
Eppright — whose warm voice, deep laugh and crisp delivery hint at a background in theater as well as a time when his teachers stressed manners, deportment and elocution — combines his dramatic and historical skills for his tours and performances.
On Sundays, Eppright serves as a lay reader and a choir member at St. James Episcopal Church.
Eppright thinks that Austin’s current breakneck growth, while it has disrupted many communities, also provides opportunities for more storytelling about the city’s history.
“Austin is attracting tourists and researchers interested in Austin’s past,” he says. “So identifying and preserving Austin’s past is exciting. I think we’re doing a pretty good job, but there is always room for improvement. We need to encourage Austinites about buying into their role in identifying and recovering that past. That history is not only the past — it is the present and the future, as is the roles played by people of all colors and ethnicities in Austin’s history.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2021 Angelina Eberly Digital Event
This event is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Austin History Center Association. Single tickets start at $76.99, and there are table options as well. The event starts at noon Feb. 5.
For tickets, go to austinhistory.net