by Brittani Sonnenberg
Portraits by Dwayne Hills and Tyeschea West
When was the last time you felt truly seen? Not just noticed, or stared down, or coolly regarded, but seen. When it happens, your body knows it: everything relaxes inside. All the posturing, the explaining, the impressing, melts to a still pool of being beheld. It’s rare, even from our closest friends, family members, lovers.
Seeing takes energy and emotion. And perhaps the most challenging aspect of seeing, which is essential for community, is summoning the courage to really take in one another: who we are, where we’ve come from, what sorrows we bear, what hopes we stubbornly claim.
What do you see when you see Central East Austin? The construction sites are obvious, but the history of the former houses, and the families that lived in them, is not. To see a neighborhood, or a person, requires another sense: hearing. And before we can truly see East Austin, we need to listen to its story.
In 1928, the City of Austin set in motion a Master Housing Plan that forced its black residents into a six-square mile area just east of what is now I-35. If this happened to you today, you might get an email announcing the policy, then a series of eviction letters in the mail. If you stayed put, your services would get shut off: electricity, trash, water. You might come home from work to find your house in flames.
The city’s policy formalized a system of terror that African Americans in the South had been subject to since the end of the Civil War: a punishment for their freedom. Hyde Park, built about ten years after Reconstruction, was advertised as a neighborhood that was “free from nuisances and an objectionable class of people.” In other words, where white residents wouldn’t have to see fellow Austinites of color.
The forced relocation of Austin’s black community to the east side of the city, through intimidation and official policy, took about two generations to achieve. In those six square miles, despite the city’s persistent wide-spread economic, social, and political prejudice, a neighborhood grew and flourished, built from residents supporting one another against incredible odds. In the churches and schools, in the beauty and barbershops of the Six Square district, you were seen by your community Fast-forward to the last decade.
As Austin’s housing costs have skyrocketed, persistent income inequalities along racial lines have forced many of its black residents out of the city. This is due, in part, to discriminatory midcentury mortgage policies, which excluded loans on houses in “redlined” areas, such as the Six Square district, making it impossible for black families living there to accumulate wealth the way most Americans could. Meanwhile, the massive reshaping of a neighborhood, which took the 1928 Master Plan two generations to achieve, has taken gentrification just one generation. The legacy of Austin’s African-American cultural heritage district is in danger of disappearing: one family, one store, one unrecognized historical monument at a time.
BUT NOT UNDER SIX SQUARE’S WATCH.
Six Square, a nonprofit formed in late 2013, is an attempt to help heal Austin’s “atmosphere of racial acrimony,” as former city manager Toby Futrell put it in 2005. That year, the City of Austin asked the African-American community to help brainstorm solutions. (Seventy-seven years after the city government told the same community it could no longer choose where to live.) Today, Six Square’s offices are housed in a charming yellow house on San Bernard Street.
“WHEN I WAS A BOY, IF YOU LIVED ON SAN BERNARD IT WAS A SIGN THAT YOU HAD ARRIVED.”
“When I was a boy, if you lived on San Bernard it was a sign that you had arrived,” Harrison Eppright, a Six Square tour docent, tells me, on a recent afternoon tour. Eppright, born and raised in East Austin, is the kind of guy you want on your weeknight trivia team, or if the Internet crashes and we lose Wikipedia. Eppright knows everything. He favors wide-brimmed straw hats and fuschia polo shirts (but not boaters or white attire after Labor Day). He can rattle off facts about the Constitution, Reconstruction, and midcentury city politics. And, thankfully, he’s open to sharing his memories of what Six Square once was.
“That was the home of S.C. Marshall,” he says, pointing to a gracious residence across the street. “He was prominent in the Masons. Beautiful, temple-style building. Today Hazel Coffmann and her son Grant Coffmann live there.” He pauses before a boarded-up house, with an unkempt yard.“We hope this house will be restored. Back when Heman Sweatt sued the University of Texas for not letting him register for law school, the NAACP sent a lawyer down to hear his case, and the lawyer stayed in this house. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1950 the Court ruled that UT’s law school had to admit black students. This was the beginning of the desegregation of major colleges and universities throughout the South. And guess who that lawyer was? Thurgood Marshall.”
Eppright is open about racial tensions that existed within the black community, too: “My father was a light-skinned black man. Kind of a golden brown. My mom is dark-skinned. My dad’s older brother had dark skin, but he had, as we used to say, “that good hair”: wavy. He had some animosity towards Dad because of it. Dad was light-skinned but had hair like mine. My uncle married a light-skinned woman. Dad married a darker skinned woman, and Uncle Bill said, in front of Dad and my mother, ‘Sam, I thought we both agreed that we wouldn’t marry dark-skinned women.’ Terrible. That was in 1951 or 1952.”
We wind up the tour at the Carver Museum, where Eppright reflects on the rapid changes in the neighborhood. “I have mixed feelings about gentrification,” he says. “On the one hand, I’m glad that attention is being paid to East Austin, but on the other hand at what price? Figuratively, literally, and racially – at what price?”
A few days later, I meet Donald King, Six Square’s program director. King is warm and loquacious, with a strong East Coast accent: he moved from Providence, Rhode Island, last year. “Our fight is not necessarily combating gentrification,” he tells me. “We’re not waving that banner. East Austin has changed. Our job is to look at what it once was and to tell that story. And hopefully be a voice in shaping what East Austin will become in the future.”
These days, King says, a lot of his work happens in kitchens. “I go and sit in people’s kitchens. I do my best to make them a part of the work we are doing. We’re not saviors. We believe in many voices: community members, leaders of organizations, artists. Stakeholders and academics. People who have history in East Austin. We are doing our best every day to convene that community. That’s the work that no one sees, and that’s the work in my career that I have found to be the most effective and worthwhile.”
It all comes back to trust, King says. And trauma. Austin lost the trust of its black community in the wake of the apartheid-like conditions it created: “The trauma of the 1928 Master Plan, when services were shut off and black families were told they had to move, is so deep that it can’t be repaired by just talk. The extreme brutality of that action needs to be reversed by some extreme economic policy.”
The best American cities derive their energy from diversity, argues King. “The [health of Austin’s African American community] is important for the quality of life of all Austinites. If you look at all the great port cities like New Orleans and New York, with all their challenges, it’s the diversity, and the inclusion of all the voices that reside there, [that make them great]. It needs to happen in terms of commerce and politics and institutions of power. So that the thrust of your city is reflective of all the different voices and cultures.”
“All neighborhoods and communities go through cyclical change,” Shuronda Robinson, Six Square’s former interim director, explains over the phone. “The question is: when do you start the clock?” Robinson, who arrived in Austin in the late eighties, says that she sees Six Square as an opportunity to “pass on to her sons a piece of who they are, through art, through culture. We need to claim what we have offered, and continue to speak to what we offer. What we remember, we repeat.”
Where you from / Who you know / How you know ’em / Where you goin’ What’s life [like] coming from / the bottom of the root? Tryin’ to rise up and grow to something from my truth.
These lyrics to “The Root,” a song by one of Austin’s emerging hip hop bands, Magna Carda, speak directly to Six Square’s mission: to honor the city’s deep and widespread roots. Last September, less than a mile from the Six Square district, during the University of Texas’ first international black studies conference, the celebrated activist and academic Angela Davis gave a keynote speech. “Freedom is not a thing,” she told a packed auditorium. “Not an object. Not a commodity. If it’s anything at all, it’s a constant collective yearning.” And yearning to see, as Six Square teaches us, is the beautiful, bracing beginning of vision.
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2017