CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Billy Harden (1953-2018) opened doors and shaped minds

Teacher Don Webb greets Dr. Billy Harden (center) then-head of Goodwill industries’ charter school, and Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement. Goodwill launched a pilot program with funds from the Texas Legislature to help students 19-50 receive their high school diplomas.
RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Billy Harden’s imprint on Austin was indelible.

Not just because he was a towering figure in the African American community. But because Billy (whom I’ve known for over 25 years) was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education community.

Billy died this week of colon cancer. He was 64.

Certainly, Billy was an accomplished educator, actor, musician, producer – and loving son to his mother, Ada, and siblings; Roosevelt Harden Jr., Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis.

His reach was long, from Metropolitan AME Church in Austin where he served over the years as choir and music director, to Hollywood through his life-long friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.

Billy, Roosevelt and Tennon attended junior high together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, Billy, Roosevelt and Austin friends Winston Williams and Roy Henry joined Tennon and Davis in Los Angeles to witness Davis getting her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

With many accolades in theater, a career in education and demand for his talents, Billy was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Billy opened doors for so many African American actors, dancers and singers to a local theater community that wasn’t always welcoming to black performers.

He didn’t throw bombs or call folks out. He worked behind the scenes, building relationships and partnerships that moved African Americans from their near-invisibility in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.

Aside from knocking down barriers and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances needed to look like, sound like, or be shaped like, Billy’s efforts went a long way in helping black performers land paying jobs in mainstream performances, so they could carve out a living locally.

“He did that in a quiet, nonconfrontational way,” Roosevelt told me. “He did it relentlessly.”

“My brother had a knack—in a nonintimidating way — of getting people to look at themselves and when they did, they saw gaps in the community that needed to be filled. Billy did everything he could do to fill them.”

In 2013, continuing to build on Vance’s legacy, Billy co-founded Spectrum, Austin’s leading African American theater company, with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson. Tennon and Davis – members of Spectrum’s advisory board — helped get it off the ground.

As a member of the group’s governing board, I worked with Billy, who was executive director. But my history with him goes back to the days when I was a single mom earning wages as a journalist that qualified my family for food stamps.

As I recalled to Roosevelt, “We were poor. I needed affordable after school childcare,” which I was fortunate to find at an Extend-A-Care program Billy ran in East Austin.

That was the other side of Billy: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing academic achievement, Billy opened children’s minds to a world of art and music, believing the two – education and the arts – could transport any child to success.

The homework and studying got done under Billy’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps the most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Billy did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Billy’s program better than they went in.

With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just some: He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University; served as a former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.

The American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes noted that Billy had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff but kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.

I was lucky to have seen so many of those shows. I will never forget.

No doubt some of Billy rubbed off on my sons: Billy Brooks is featured in Austin’s long-running stage performance, “Esther’s Follies.” Mehcad Brooks co-stars in the television series “Supergirl.”

I’m glad Billy’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund that that aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent and support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Contribute at  https://www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.

 

As Austin’s black population falls, a question of representation rises

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A mural of Martin Luther King Jr., as seen on the wall of Sam’s BBQ in East Austin in January. Jay Janner / American-Statesman

African Americans once represented about 15 percent of Austin’s overall population, but over the past few decades, the city’s black population has decreased steadily as African Americans have moved outside Austin. Today, the African-American share of Austin’s population is 7 percent, according to city estimates.

Eric Tang, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, produced an attention-grabbing report two years ago which found that Austin, despite growing 20.4 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, was the country’s only large, fast-growing city to record a decline in its black population: 5.4 percent, from 64,259 in 2000 to 60,760 in 2010.

With the help of UT doctoral student Bisola Falola, Tang recently produced a new report asking African Americans who have moved to the suburbs why they left Austin. I won’t dwell on Tang and Falola’s results, which the American-Statesman’s Dan Zehr covered last week, other than to note that a majority of African Americans — 56 percent — said they left Austin because they no longer could afford to live in the city. Many said they would move back if they could.

For most of the respondents to Tang and Falola’s survey, leaving Austin “was not an act of social mobility” equivalent to the postwar “white flight” to the suburbs, “but one of social sacrifice,” Tang and Falola wrote. “They moved out, but not necessarily up.”

The significance of this “outmigration”? The report briefly goes over several noteworthy effects on those who have left Austin. Public amenities and services often are harder to access in the suburbs than they are in the city. People feel a loss of community and a sense of social disconnection as they move from neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. Economic segregation worsens, further crippling economic mobility.

These effects frequently are discussed and debated in stories about Austin’s declining African-American population. But there is one effect that often is overlooked. It is worth revisiting, for it will be much discussed in about five years when it becomes clear how the African-American migration from Austin to the suburbs potentially affects the makeup of the Austin City Council.

In November 2012, Austin voters ditched the old City Council, with its six members and the mayor elected at large, in favor of a council whose members are elected from 10 geographical districts, with the mayor still elected citywide. One of the main reasons the City Council has 10 district representatives is because 10 was the minimum number needed at the time to draw a district in which black voters would have an opportunity to elect an African-American council member.

Yet, even with 10 districts, creating an African-American opportunity district was barely possible given the movement of African Americans out of Austin, and the decreasing concentration of black Austinites in East Austin. The best the independent commission that drew the new districts could do was District 1 in East and Northeast Austin. District 1 is — or rather was at the time of the 2010 census — 28.2 percent African American.

If drawing an African-American opportunity district was barely possible for the current council, it might be impossible when new district boundaries are drawn after the 2020 census.

Sure, an African American can be elected in any district; he or she does not have run in District 1. And after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the need to create an African American opportunity district may no longer be felt.

But if the city wants to maintain council diversity and continue to give its remaining African Americans a chance to elect one of their own, it will face some tough choices. Either voters will have to be asked to increase the number of council districts to make it possible to draw an African-American opportunity district, or they will have to be asked to add a couple of at-large seats to the council. Either way, it’s conceivable a version of the so-called gentlemen’s agreement that designated one seat on the old at-large council for an African-American member will have to be revived for the district-based council.

Or, it’s also conceivable Austin’s African-American population will have shrunk so much the city will have to consider a different question: At what low percentage point does a group’s numbers no longer justify gerrymandering a district to give them an opportunity to elect their own council representative?

And deciding the answer to this question will have to occur against a different group’s rapid growth: Asian Americans were 6.8 percent of the city’s population in 2014, according to city estimates. This was just below African Americans’ 7 percent. Given current trends, Austin’s Asian population will be greater than its black population after the 2020 census.

Asians are widely dispersed throughout the city, but they made up 13.3 percent of District 6, in Northwest Austin, in 2010. When new districts are drawn after 2020, shouldn’t the next opportunity first be theirs?

Austin isn’t the only city with an Uber debate

In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, an Uber decal is displayed in the their window of the car owned by Steve Linnes, a music teacher in State College, Pa., who is also a part-time Uber driver. Gov. Tom Wolf and Pittsburgh-area officials said Tuesday, May 3, 2016, they want Pennsylvania regulators to greatly reduce their record-setting $11.4 million fine against ride-sharing company Uber. The Public Utility Commission fined Uber last month for operating six months in 2014 without the required approval. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT
(Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP)

The Editorial Board weighed in against the May 7 ballot that calls for the repeal of existing regulations of Transporation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. We also hosted a good number of op-eds both in favor and against the ordinance.

Those weren’t the only  voices who had something to say. Here are a few others:

“Uber and Lyft want a playing field heavily tilted to their advantage, so they can eliminate the local competition and monopolize the ride-hailing market – after which they will resume squeezing drivers and riders as they have persistently done elsewhere.”  — Austin Chronicle editorial board: Endorsement against Prop. 1: 

“With Proposition 1, Uber and Lyft have tried to turn a regulatory debate into an argument over ride-hailing itself, knowing that these services are both popular and necessary in Austin. If voters accept that frame, they are being played as unsophisticated. Proposition 1 is Uber and Lyft’s effort to fight back against regulation by undermining local government.” —Kriston Capps, City Lab: From the Atlantic: Austin’s Uber War is dumb

“I voted in favor of Proposition 1 yesterday with no hesitation for the simple reason that if Austin City Council wanted to cast itself as a responsible steward of the ride-hailing market, it shouldn’t have completely failed to do so for decades.” —Erica Grieder, Texas Monthly: A vote for Prop. 1

“Politics in the time of social media and atrophied attention spans depends on narratives, and opponents of Proposition 1 are peddling a doozy, with the able assistance of the Austin American-Statesman editorial board.”– Mark Lisheron, Watchdog.org: An Uber narrative runs amok

Other Texas cities may not have an election but are grappling with an Uber debate:

In Houston, where Uber has made threats to leave if Houston won’t change existing regulation:

“Don’t let them take you on a ride, (Houston) Mayor Turner. Don’t give in to their threats. In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city.” — Houston Chronicle editorial board: Another Uber threat

In Dallas, where Uber plans to expand in an underserved part of the city:

“The new collaboration between Uber and the city should allow more southern Dallas residents to take advantage of a handy option to get around. And putting money in the pockets of more Uber “driver-partners,” who can basically become their own bosses, is nothing but good news all around. That’s especially important in some areas of southern Dallas where people struggle to make ends meet.” — Dallas Morning News editorial board: Expanding Uber makes sense

Opinions on Uber  (and fellow ride-hailing company Lyft) are just about everywhere. In fact, elsewhere across the country, and the world for that matter, cities are at different stages of dealing with the presence of Uber. For example:

In Miami, where Uber has illegally forced its way into the market:

“These ride-hailing services not only should be made legal in Miami-Dade, county officials should consider them a vital component in expanding the transportation options beyond what satisfied customers already have taken advantage of.” — Miami Herald editorial board

In New Jersey, where regulating Uber is still a challenge:

“Regulate Uber, yes — but uniformly. Not by treating it like local taxis.” — Miami Herald Editorial Board wrote:

In Toronto, where the focus is still on creating a level playing field for taxis:

“Some additional tinkering may be required, but on the whole the new rules before council represent the best way forward. The question now is whether politicians will have the fortitude to serve the interests of consumers or bow to the taxi industry.” — Toronto Star editorial board

Black city employees say council dissing black execs

Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the fallout continues over Austin City Manager Marc Ott’s rebuke of Police Chief Art Acevedo, another potential controversy is brewing at City Hall: African American city employees are accusing the City Council of repeatedly disrespecting black executives from the dais.

And if that is not enough, they are pointing out other troubling trends regarding African American employees who work for the city, such as a lack of African Americans in certain city jobs and departments, council members’ insensitivity to diversity initiatives and pay disparities.

To that point, the group says African American men are the lowest paid of all city employees according to data it collected for median salaries of each racial and ethnic group. The 2015 data show the median salary for black men was $21.26 per hour, compared with the median for white men at $37.28, Hispanic men were the next lowest with a median salary of $21.91 per hour. Asian men had the highest median pay, $37.92.

Those allegations were outlined by the African American Heritage Network in an April 13 letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council. The heritage group is one of several so-called city affinity groups organized to support employees who work for the city. Each is organized differently, but they include support groups for Hispanics, Asians, LGBT and women.

“During your tenure as elected officials, we have observed a clear level of disdain in your treatment of African American executives. We have witnessed African American executives being criticized, reprimanded and insulted from the dais,” The group stated in the letter to Council.

“While we understand that this behavior is often demonstrated by the minority of Council, the majority does not speak out against it. To observers, it suggests the behavior is tolerated. We are concerned about the message this sends to the general public.”

It’s telling, says Candice Cooper, vice president of the organization, that the group has received no response from the mayor or other council members. Ott did respond, she said, telling the group he wants to meet with them to better understand complaints and data regarding pay and job disparities.

One example of what the group described as a personal attack on a black executive has to do with a post by Council Member Don Zimmerman to the Facebook page of Dale Flatt, a Zimmerman supporter. Flatt has organized a May 13 protest of the city’s Code department headed by Carl Smart, who is African American. But the protest, at City Hall, also targeted Smart, Cooper’s boss.

DF Protest Post comments - Copy - CopyCooper provided a screen grab capturing Zimmerman’s response to Flatt’s Facebook post: “Friday the 13th, perfect! In case some code compliance inspectors come hoping to write citations, who’s bringing the hockey masks?”

Cooper said flyers for the protests have been prepared that say, “GET SMART FIRE CARL” referring to Smart.

Zimmerman’s post, referring to the Friday the 13th movie character Jason Voorhees, a psycho killer, was seen by some black employees as whipping up anger and by others as a veiled threat against a department headed by an African American.

“I have not seen the Council Member treat any other top city executive that way,” Cooper said.

Recently, the Code department has come under fire for failing to hire staffers with the required certifications, complete investigations in a timely fashion or prioritize the response to violations that pose a danger to the public, the city auditor concluded in a draft report.

In her role with the group, Cooper said she interviewed five African American executives who said they have been singled out and publicly upbraided by some council members in what felt like personal attacks as opposed to professional disagreements. They didn’t want their names revealed, she said, because they feared retaliation.

Along with that, the group has faced a series of internal investigations triggered by anonymous complaints, alleging that the group was conducting professional development training solely for African American city employees, among other race-based claims. The group was cleared on all complaints, she said.

Collectively, those episodes have had a chilling effect on African American employees, she said. It didn’t help matters that no city council members attended the 2016 Black History Month Program in February. Morale has been further eroded, Cooper said, by the city and council’s rapid response in dealing with issues of equal treatment, pay and training regarding women, versus a lack of response to concerns regarding black employees. She noted the City Council’s response to a stereotype-riddled training session in March that led to the forced departure of assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes.

To be fair, there might well be explanations for the aforementioned circumstances. But absent any justification — or even response from the mayor or Council, African American employees are left to fill in the blanks. That is not ideal, as it leaves people to make sense of certain actions through the lens of their own experiences, including cultural perspectives.

And by investigating the group based on anonymous complaints the city undermines a key democratic principle — the right to face one’s accuser.

Neither the mayor nor Zimmerman could be reached for comment Wednesday.

In a city as diverse as Austin, city officials should know their words, actions — and silence — have consequences. At the very least, they owe black employees an explanation.

 

Wheeler’s Grove Elementary: Restoring an Austin past purposely erased

Juneteenth Wheeler's Grove
A Juneteenth celebration in Wheeler’s Grove (today Eastwoods Park) in 1900.

Nancy Mims is a talented artist, photographer and fabric designer who also happens to be a former neighbor of mine who now lives in Hyde Park. With that disclosure out of the way, the reason I’m writing about Nancy is she had a role in persuading the Austin school board to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School last month. Friday afternoon, she reminded her Facebook friends that the school district’s deadline for nominating a new name for the school was rapidly approaching. She then shared the name she was nominating.

There are strong cases to be made for renaming Lee Elementary after Elisabet Ney, the sculptor who built her studio in Austin in the 1890s and whose statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin stand in the Texas Capitol, and for famed Depression-era photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee (which would allow the district to keep the Lee Elementary name), but Nancy made a compelling case for her suggestion. So I asked her if I could share her Facebook post with our Viewpoints readers; she agreed. Here it is:

I’m nominating Wheeler’s Grove, the former name of Eastwoods Park, the lush, green, tree-filled City of Austin park just a few blocks southwest of the school.

From the late 1860s through the 1910s, Wheeler’s Grove was the first public space in Austin where the city’s African-American community gathered for Emancipation Day, known in Texas as Juneteenth. Citizens from nearby freedom colonies* Wheatville and Horst’s Pasture (both in what is now the greater UT area) began the celebrations. According to news articles from the time, eventually hundreds and even thousands of people celebrated Juneteenth each year with great fanfare: festivities included the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, pageants, parades, contests, music, and speeches from local politicians and church leaders. According to records, it was the only large public space where Austin’s African-American community held Juneteenth for many years and it was also host to the African-American community’s meeting place for Fourth of July celebrations (as they were not welcome to join the “official” whites-only celebrations).

As Jim Crow laws restricted freedoms, cruel intimidation tactics (eliminating utilities, using black-owned properties for dumping city garbage) harshly rendered private properties unlivable, and the fully segregated 1928 City Plan map drew a line through the city, African American access to Wheeler’s Grove was ultimately prohibited. The land — in what had been declared by city plan and by deed a whites-only neighborhood — was developed by the city’s parks department starting in 1929, with the addition of new amenities like tennis courts, for whites only. From then on, a major part of African American history in this city was virtually erased, for only the beautiful old trees that remain in the park to stand as witness.

The people who celebrated and built community in their once-sacred space deserve to be recognized, remembered, honored and celebrated. Those of us fortunate to live in this area now have a responsibility to recognize and remember those who came before us, and we need to continue finding ways to bring justice to those who were unfairly banished from the spaces we continue to inhabit and enjoy. Bringing back the name Wheeler’s Grove as the school name would be a small but important gesture toward reconnecting and honoring a forgotten past in this community. And in doing so, we’d share responsibility for recognizing and restoring histories that had been purposely erased in a larger system of sustaining discrimination. Black ownership and history — marginalized or completely erased in this part of the city — should be recognized as part of a greater mission of closing the gap between black and white memory, with the ultimate goal of reaching true equality and equity.

What’s next, now that the nomination period has ended? As I understand the renaming plan, Austin school district officials are vetting the nominations (“to eliminate the Schooly McSchoolfaces,” as Nancy put it) before sending the list to Lee’s campus advisory committee, which will vet the school district’s vetted list. After gathering some community input, the advisory committee and district will narrow the list to three finalists and present them to the school board on May 23. It’s a process.

We continue to hear the charge that the school district engaged in a Soviet-style scrubbing of history by voting to rename Lee Elementary. As Nancy’s post reminds us, the history that was scrubbed was the history of Wheeler’s Grove, which is why it’s a perfect nomination for renaming Lee Elementary. And as I wrote in a previous blog entry, changing the name of Lee Elementary doesn’t change anything other than the name of a school. The history of the Civil War remains. It easily can be found myriad elsewheres.

Meanwhile, the art deco typography that spells out “Robert E. Lee” above the school’s entrance should be preserved. The same style lettering should be used for the school’s new name to keep it compatible with the building’s original design.

Once Lee Elementary is renamed, a plaque is in order not only to commemorate the school’s New Deal origins — something a current plaque already does — but to note how the school’s original name was part of the decades-long effort throughout the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth, and how in 2016 the community no longer wanted to honor a man central to that myth. If Wheeler’s Grove becomes the school’s new name, perhaps the plaque also will say that the community chose instead to restore a past that myth helped displace.

__________________

* Check out “Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow,” by Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad (UT Press, 2005), for a history of “freedmen’s settlements” in Texas.

Denying Rosewood historic zoning belittles its value in black history

Residents and others look on during a presentation at the Texas Historical Commission hearing on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The meeting was to discuss on the nomination of the Rosewood Courts which is the oldest black housing projects in the country according to the national registry of historic places (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN- STATESMAN)
Residents and others look on during a presentation at the Texas Historical Commission hearing on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The meeting was to discuss on the nomination of the Rosewood Courts which is the oldest black housing projects in the country according to the national registry of historic places (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN- STATESMAN)

Celebrating Black History Month is more than just participating in feel-good events, where people hold hands and sing, “We Shall Overcome.”

It’s about educating people about the contributions as well as the struggles of African Americans during times when people and their local governments relegated black people to second-class citizenship — if that. It’s a dreadful, but beautiful, history of a people who have overcome, but not yet arrived, it seems, considering the unequal treatment and decisions by city of Austin officials in too many matters.

Among the things at the top of that list is the city’s disparate treatment of Rosewood Courts in denying it historic landmark status. Rosewood Courts in East Austin clearly meets the city’s criteria for such, but was rejected by Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission based on a negative recommendation by the city’s Preservation Office. Those organizations have a long history of granting historic landmark status to properties of dubious historic value, but not to the Rosewood Courts housing project, which meets and exceeds city criteria for historic zoning.

Austin was a segregated city when Rosewood Courts opened in 1939 as the nation’s first federally funded housing project for African-Americans. Along with nearby Santa Rita Courts, initially for Hispanics, it is among the country’s oldest public housing projects constructed under the 1937 Housing Act, research shows.

City preservation officials have looked the other way to accommodate the local Housing Authority, which has its eye on Rosewood for redevelopment, which would increase gentrification in an area already suffering from massive displacement of black and Latino families. The housing authority is using its political influence in Austin and in Washington with the federal Housing and Urban Development Department to have its way, and in the process, run over many Austin elected officials, community leaders and clergy who represent African Americans.

The Austin City Council has an opportunity to right that wrong on Thursday by approving City Council Member Ora Houston’s resolution to initiate historic zoning for Rosewood Courts. It is co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Leslie Pool. This would be a fine time, during Black History Month, to finally acknowledge and affirm Rosewood Courts’ historical relevance.

I wrote about Rosewood’s rich history and the case for its historic preservation. You can read a counter view from my colleague Ken Herman.

Local Austin resident Bob Ozer, a leader in the fight to preserve the Lion’s Municipal Golf Course in West Austin, detailed equally important reasons to grant historic status to the Rosewood Courts in a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the Council:

Dear Mayor Adler and Council Members Houston, Tovo, Pool, Renteria, Zimmerman, Kitchen, Troxclair, Garza, and Casar:

I am writing in support of Agenda Item 48, the resolution supporting the nomination of the Rosewood Courts housing site to the National Register.

For me, of particular interest in reading the nomination for the National Register listing was the role Rosewood Courts played in bringing modernist housing design for workers originating in the Bauhaus in Germany to the segregated black community of Austin in the late 1930s. The Bauhaus, of course, was closed in Germany under pressure from the Nazi regime shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. The modernist style exemplified by Bauhaus was considered “degenerate” and many members of its faculty were exhibited in the “Degenerate Art Exhibit” held by the Nazis in Munich in 1937. In contrast, in this country the style was being adopted by an important New Deal agency of our federal government, the United States Housing Authority (USHA), to promote affordable housing for African Americans who had been displaced from West Austin largely through the power of local real estate interests as implemented in the 1928 Austin Master Plan. Aside from Lyndon Johnson, one of the principals in this process was Nathan Strauss (the son of a German Jewish immigrant and co-owner of Macy’s department store empire) who was the administrator of the USHA.

Hence, in Rosewood Courts you see in microcosm the marshaling of our national will to respond to the destitution of the depression and racism as a precursor to the national will and might we marshaled to defeat Hitler’s racism and fascism in Europe. This history represents a past we should be reluctant to forget and eager to embrace today: That of a nation resolved to forge a path of decency, fairness and equality for all our citizens now just as we tried to do over 75 years ago with Rosewood Courts.

Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully,

Bob Ozer