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A generation of Black and Hispanic civil rights pioneers left Austin a better place

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The postwar generation of civil rights activists in Austin picked up steam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This protest on Feb. 11, 1961, is one of several contemporary demonstrations against segregated movie theaters.

They are departing one by one.

The death of Ada Collins Anderson, 99, on May 3, coming soon after the loss of Bertha Sadler Means, 100, on March 16, reflected the waning of a whole generation of postwar civil rights leaders in Austin.

In some ways, the two pioneering women of the post-World War II period could not have been more different. Yet they accomplished much and did not stop there. They remained respected and contributing leaders all their lives.

It seems like just yesterday, too, that Austin lost Willie Mae Kirk at age 92. She died in 2013. 

Philanthropist and civil rights activist Ada Collins Anderson, visiting McKinney Falls near her family's ancestral land in 2003, died May 3.

Together, those three fearless women, with the help of families, friends and allies, could do almost anything.

Like Hispanic, white and other counterparts — and before their children or grandchildren got involved in activism — they faced down segregation, voter suppression and active hostility from the city's entrenched establishment.

They organized for different causes — libraries, education, parks, churches, fair banking, legal aid and more — but they came together when concerted action was needed.

"They were pretty formidable together," said civic leader Saundra Kirk, daughter of Willie Mae. "They collaborated a lot during the civil rights movement. But some things required an even bigger response."

Texas History:The Texas State Cemetery shapes its identity for 21st century

One such early big campaign was the long but effective protest against a skating rink, initiated primarily by Means, that excluded their children because of their race.

It turned into a test case.

"We marched for a whole year," Kirk remembered. "It took the entire East Austin community to do it. You'd see people on multiple nights. That was the first big project they did together."

This postwar generation made great strides in civil rights, voting rights, fair housing and social justice by the end of the 1960s. The work remained undone, but these three women helped set the tone for the city's civic advances, and not just for African Americans. Hispanic leaders, for instance, used similar tactics and achieved similar results.

Texas History:The Texas State Cemetery shapes its identity for 21st century

Among their allies nationally were some of the most famous activists in history, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"I was bothered for a long time that there was no plaque or marker in the courtroom where the landmark discrimination case Sweatt v. Painter was tried," the late trailbalzing journalist Arnold García, longtime editorial page editor at the American-Statesman, said before his death in August. "Researching that also led me to wonder: Where in the world did Thurgood Marshall stay while in Austin?

"Security was always a problem for Mr. Marshall as he traveled around in the South. It just so happened that I had a lunch date with Mrs. Anderson, so I asked her: 'Where did Mr. Marshall stay while here?' She gave me a look, took a bite, and replied simply: ‘My house.’”

Bertha Sadler Means, an Austin civil rights leader, served as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. On March 16, she died at age 100.

Power from independence

While early Hispanic leaders are associated with close-knit communities, often tied to churches, businesses or sports leagues, many of the early Black leaders of the civil rights movement trace their ancestry to the post-Emancipation freedom colonies of independent landowners.

Educator and businesswoman Bertha Sadler Means' ancestors, for instance, founded Valley Mills, a freedman's community of independent, landowning African Americans west of Waco.

A restless — and often athletic — strain of grit has served her family well through six generations in Texas.

“I grew up playing sandlot football,” Means, who played golf every week through her mid-90s, once told the American-Statesman with a twinkle in her eye. “When you get knocked down, don’t fuss. Just get up and say: ‘I’ll get you next time.’”

Means passed that grit on to her daughter, Joan Means Khabele, who helped integrate Barton Springs Pool and Austin High School, before going on to a lifetime of achievements in Africa and the U.S. She died Oct. 11, just months after her mother, as well as after her school-founding son, Khotso Khabele, educator and entrepreneur, died.

Quiet and elegant, Ada Collins Anderson, the first African American elected to the Austin Community College board and the first to serve on an Austin bank board, descended from Newton Collins, a twice-freed slave who helped develop the area near what is now known as McKinney Falls State Park and built the first school there in the late 1800s.

Looking after these independent communities appears to have played a role in later activism.

Considering the aims of today's Black Lives Matter movement, Willie Mae Kirk was well ahead of her time: One of her major causes was to protect the lives and liberty of those who lived in East Austin, home to several former freedom colonies, even after many African Americans who could afford to do so left after the passage of fair housing laws and ordinances in the late 1960s.

"She always wanted to know every police chief, every district attorney and every mayor," her daughter remembered. "To get to know them and to bring them back to introduce them to the community. She hosted countless receptions. She knew her politicians. She knew that there needed to be that link to help people in the community."

Other postwar Black civil rights pioneers

Any list of deceased Black postwar civil rights leaders — active in Austin during the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s — is destined to be incomplete.

Nevertheless, among the other African American leaders of the time were Virgil Lott, the first Black graduate of the University of Texas Law School and the first Black judge in Austin, who died in 1968, and J.J. Seabrook, who did much to expand and improve Huston-Tillotson University. He died in 1975 after collapsing in an Austin City Council meeting while speaking in favor of naming the whole of 19th Street, east and west, after Martin Luther King Jr. Several Austin landmarks, including the King-Seabrook Chapel on the Huston-Tillotson campus, are named for him.

Volma Overton Sr., local leader of the NAACP, often acted as spokesman for the activists, as he was during the six-day confrontation with the Austin City Council in April 1964 over a proposed civil rights ordinance. A widely respected humanitarian, Overton played a major role in desegregating Austin public schools. He died in 2005 and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

A tombstone sits on the burial site of civil rights activist and former NAACP President Volma Overton Sr. at the Texas State Cemetery.

Frequently mentioned in reports of activity during this postwar period are 1951 City Council candidate and NCAAP President Arthur DeWitty (died in 1968), the first African American appointed to a Travis County grand jury; dentist, civic leader and East Austin swimming pool namesake Dr. Everett Givens (d. 1962); educator and high school namesake Charles Akins (d. 2017); and educator, author and federal administrator William Astor Kirk (d. 2011).

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Gen. John King (d. 2011), a businessman, professor and ultimately president of Huston-Tillotson, was also a decorated military leader.

Add to this list Myrtle Washington, who in 1953 refused to move to the back of a bus, as well as Mrs. Howellen Taylor, who did the same in 1955 and was the subject of a drawn-out civil rights case.

Also Beryl Hancox, active in business and civic affairs, as well as Azie Taylor Morton (d. 2003), the only Black U.S. treasurer, appointed by President Jimmy Carter.

In 2018, the city of Austin renamed Robert E. Lee Road near Barton Springs after Azie Morton.

Activist pastors, mostly Baptist and Methodist — including the Revs. Freddie Dixon, Wesley Sims, B.L. McCormick and Luther Holland — are often mentioned in reports from the period.

A good place for anyone to start learning more about these leaders is the Evergreen Cemetery, dedicated in 1926 for African Americans in East Austin. Previously, Black Austinites had been buried in mostly segregated parts of old Oakwood Cemetery, established in the mid-19th century. 

As reported in a 2016 American-Statesman story, right at the entrance, one finds the William Tears family, co-owners of King-Tears Mortuary and civic leaders.

Not far away are educator and folklorist John Mason Brewer and June Brewer; educator and activist Lucille Dotson Crawford; civil rights leader Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft; musician Nathaniel “Nat” Greene Williams Sr.; physician and community leader Dr. Connie Yerwood Conner; and Lee Lewis Campbell, longtime Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor and moderator of the St. John’s Regular Baptist Association.

J.J. Seabrook and Willie Mae Kirk are there, too.

Women led the way

While men often vied for the official positions, female leaders — among them Anderson, Means and Kirk — kept the flame alive. These three were recognized, along with Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears (d. 2018) — the first African American in Texas to hold that post — for their trailblazing work during a ceremony held at the Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in 2011.

Also honored during that ceremony — and both still living — from that breakthrough generation are former Judge Harriet Murphy, the first permanently appointed female African American judge in Texas, and former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, who became the first African American to serve on the Austin school board.

Delco grew up in a political family in Chicago and attended Fisk University, a historically Black school in Nashville, Tenn. She and her husband, Exalton Delco, moved to Austin in the 1950s. Like some other Austin civil rights pioneers, she was particularly sensitive to how discrimination affected their children.

In 1968, she ran for the board of the Austin school district.

"Blacks had never been elected to public office," Delco told an Austin History Center interviewer in 2019. "I knew of a couple that had run. I’m almost sure we ran at large. I believe the only reason I was elected rather than rejected like the others who had preceded me was because the election was on Saturday, and Martin Luther King was assassinated that Thursday before."

Delco first won a seat in the state Legislature in 1974. Her focus continued to be — even after she left office in 1995 — the practical matters of education.

Although she did not emphasize larger philosophical issues as did another Texas legislator, Barbara Jordan, Delco followed in her footsteps.

"She was a role model, not just for African American women like me, but for all women — and indeed, all people," Delco wrote in a 2001 opinion piece for this newspaper. "She was a force of nature whose life’s focus was on human rights and that every American had a level playing field."

At least three Austin monuments are dedicated to Jordan, who rose to power representing Houston in the Texas Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. She lived and taught here during her later years and died in 1996. 

In her Austin History Center interview, Delco acknowledged that the rhetorical tenor of the city's political leaders has changed in recent times as the city has changed.

"I don’t think that their priorities now are as narrow as ours were," she said. "Remember, when I was in it, everything was segregated. It was clear to me what was Black and what was white, what they were doing here that they weren’t doing there. Now there are more Blacks in white communities, more whites in Black communities. When you go to a neighborhood meeting now, our Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association has as many white members as it does Black members. You don’t have that segregated, one-group priority that you used to have."

The late Willie Mae Kirk always looked out for the lives and liberty of East Austin residents.

Looking to Latino leaders

For decades, the fiercest divisions in Austin politics and jurisprudence were between white and Black people, a legacy of Texas' partial identity from the Old South. 

As Black activists made significant progress in the postwar period, they were sometimes allied and other times at odds with advocates for Latino, women's and LBGTQ rights, as well as backers of the green, antiwar, labor and youth movements.

Modern Hispanic leaders, many of them military veterans, were actively fighting for rights in this part of the state as early as the 1920s, following the periodic conflicts between Anglos and Tejanos that go back at least to the 1820s.

During the 1850s, for instance, Hispanics were driven from Austin for fear of their presumed abolitionist sympathies.

Galvanized by mounting injustices after World War II, the Hispanic fight for rights reached two particular transition points locally during the Economy Furniture strike in the 1960s and the protests against obnoxious boat races during Aqua Fest in the 1970s. Many also supported the farm labor strikes and marches associated with the Chicano movement in South Texas during this period.

The Economy Furniture strike became known as the "Austin Chicano Huelga" once UT student activists became involved, according to the Handbook of Texas. The student activists helped the strikers nail down a victory and influenced the political climate of Austin by helping elevate political figures such as Richard Moya (d. 2017), who became the first Hispanic county commissioner in 1970, and Gustavo “Gus" Garcia (d. 2009), who won a seat on the school board and later became the only elected Hispanic mayor of Austin.

From those battles also came leaders such as John Treviño (d. 2017), the city's first Mexican American City Council member and mayor pro tem. Also activists such as Emma Barrientos (d. 2009), namesake for the Emma Barrientos Center for Mexican American Culture, along with her living husband, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos.

Gus Garcia became the only elected Hispanic mayor of Austin. Before him, City Council Member John Treviño had served as mayor pro tem.

Sen. Barrientos grew up in a Bastrop family of primarily migrant farm workers who faced painful prejudice and discrimination. His first opportunity to help out as a community organizer came through federal programs while he was a student at the University of Texas in the early 1960s.

"I was organizing neighborhoods in the African American part of Austin, East Austin, and in the Mexican American part of East Austin, Montopolis," Barrientos told an Austin History Center interviewer in early 2021. "To some degree, also Clarksville, which was a little section in West Austin that had many African Americans living there back in the 1900s and before. So I worked as a community organizer, getting paving of streets, asking people to register to vote, referring people to services."

He later also worked as a trainer for Volunteers in Service to America and placed volunteers in poor communities all over Texas before serving as a boycott coordinator for Cesar Chavez and the farm workers and running for the state House of Representatives. 

"I ran because of everything I had seen and witnessed in my life," Barrientos said. "People should help each other, regardless of color, the discrimination, the bigotry, the racism, the inequality, all of those things, and I thought we could do a lot better. And it should be led by people in elected office. I still believe that."

As in the Black community, women often led the way. Several of those trailblazers were honored recently during a ceremonies at the Austin Central Public Library and in East Austin, where mosaic portraits of them commissioned by the nonprofit group Latinitas were unveiled.

Peggy Vasquez, right, talks with Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes at a ceremony at the Austin Central Public Library in October, when Latinitas honored trailblazing women of color, including Vasquez, with mosaic portraits.

This group included Ana Sisnett (d. 2009), who lobbied for greater access to technology; Teresa Lozano Long (d. 2021), who contributed mightily to education in health, literature and the arts; Sylvia Orozco, co-founder and longtime leader of Mexic-Arte Museum; Martha Cotera, a founding memory of the Chicana Caucus whose was instrumental in the building of the Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center; Cathy Vasquez Revilla, a journalist and an activist; and Peggy Vasquez, a media pioneer who introduced much of the local Hispanic leadership to others in Austin.

The last four are still alive. The late Bertha Sadler Means was also recognized among these women of color.

An activist of another type from that generation was Raul “Roy” Guerrero (d. 2001), a longtime advocate of recreation for East Austin youths. Among the leaders of activists protesting the Aqua Fest boat races was Edward Rendon Sr. (d. 2018), now namesake for a park where the fest took place

Among a younger generation active at the time, Johnny Limón (d. 2020) and Paul Hernandez (d. 2020) have already passed away.

We should not forget the influential and informal leaders, sometimes called "patróns," who helped the community achieve basic services, even before the first Hispanic was elected to office.

Chief among these was Roy Velasquez (d. 1981) of Roy's Taxi, but the list also includes Rudy “Cisco” Cisneros (d. 1995) of Cisco's eatery, Joe Avila (d. 2011) of Joe's Bakerybusinesswoman Soledad Guardiola Guajardo (d. 1983), bar owner Rosalio “Rabbit” Duran (d. 2020), Jorge Durón Guerra (d. 2017) of El Azteca restaurant, and the still-living Fidel Estrada Jr., longtime owner of Estrada Cleaners.

Some explicitly worked in the civil rights space, while others provided social and economic "glue" for the community without joining the activists or organizers.

Rosalio "Rabbit" Duran, left, at his bar with Rey Treviño, center, and former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, announced that Rabbit's Lounge would close in 2011.

"Usually it was because they were business owners," native East Austinite Lonnie Limón said. "They had the means to help out politicians, but it was usually a small amount of money. More important was the influence effect.

"Remember, there was no social media at the time. These business owners talked to so many people on a daily basis, and they hung out at each other's businesses. Theirs were the gathering places for civil rights ideas. All of them, sitting and having a beer and talking about what happened today, but also the news of the day."

This list of postwar Hispanic leaders, too, is far from complete, but as in the African American community, that generation of civil rights pioneers is waning.

"Often it was people you never heard of," Limón said. "That was the beauty of old East Austin. You'd go neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, and there would be influential people in each block. They were the people who powered the movement."

Austin civil rights in context

Before his death, newspaperman Arnold García put these leaders into the context of their times.

"It takes very little to get longtime Austinites to indulge in their favorite game of nostalgia," he said. "It's all Armadillo World Headquarters, Jeffery Jeff Walker, Freda and the Firedogs and, of course, Mr. Nelson.

"In the rosy retelling, Austin was a nonstop party. Cheap rents, cheap pot and the famous laid-back way of looking at everything. Like all memory, this is partially truth and partially fiction. It was a great party, all right. If you were invited.

"Often omitted from that telling is that Black and brown people had a tough time wrangling an invitation."

When Arnold arrived in town, African Americans tended to get scarce downtown once the sun went down.

"It didn't take me long to discover that East Austin — now considered hot property — was declared dirty and dangerous, and the people who lived there were good for dirty and dangerous jobs," he said. "There were plenty of white people of good will, all right, but by and large they didn't control mortgage and business loans that helped keep Jim Crow flying high over groover's paradise.

"That's the harsh reality that people like Ada Anderson, Bertha Means, Wilhelmina Delco, Gus Garcia, Gonzalo Barrientos and John Treviño pointed out and worked to change," he continued. "There were successes and failures and plenty of heartache, but the community is a much better version of itself now than it was then."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.