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Our Austin Story

We explore the surprisingly historic places you might be walking past everyday

Our Austin Story

Feature Article: Austin Neighborhoods

With a mere three cabins situated on the Colorado River at the mouth of Shoal Creek in an area possessing few advantages and all the disadvantages one could imagine, Austin’s hardscrabble beginnings hardly forecast its future. In fact, according to interpretive planner and longtime Austinite Ted Eubanks, in the early 19th century, no city was less probable for greatness than Austin.

Were he here today, Mirabeau B. Lamar, one of Texas’ more colorful characters, would likely argue otherwise. On a scouting trip in the fall of 1838 in a ravine we now call Congress Avenue, Lamar, vice president of the Republic of Texas, shot one of the biggest buffalo bulls he and his traveling companions had ever seen. Such great fortune captured his lively imagination and that very day, Lamar decided that “this would be the seat of a great empire!”

“Several months later when Edwin Waller shows up in May of 1839 to lay out a city plan, what he finds is a handful of ne’er-do-wells, opportunistic land schemers, survivors of Indian raids, despots, and some seriously independent thinkers living among rocks and cedar trees,” Eubanks explains. “By their nature, the people then living at Waterloo, as the small settlement was known, really weren’t suited to live anywhere but on the edge of something.”

Independent thinking and an affinity for pushing boundaries are among contemporary Austin’s most attractive qualities, drawing people and businesses in numbers Waller couldn’t conceive. But qualities strong enough to propel a place from a tiny dot on an unpopulated map to an admired and highly desirable city don’t materialize overnight.

The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), in partnership with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and some of Austin’s longtime preservation organizations, thinks it’s time Austinites learned more about how we came to be who we are. That, in turn, says the DAA’s Melissa Barry, can help us think about where we’re going. As is always the case, learning happens naturally through stories. And if any place has a few good tales to tell, it’s Austin, Texas.

The initial task of the Our Austin Stories project, Barry explains, is to gather the public’s passed down stories as well as first-person accounts about Austin’s original public spaces—the three remaining designated squares from Waller’s original 14-block by 14-block city plan. Once stories have been collected and research into every possible source reveals themes about the significance of the squares, then things like signage, online guides and cultural event planning will be designed and put in place later this year to bring the stories to life. Ultimately, people will get to experience Austin’s rich and colorful history instead of simply walking past it.

We sat down with Barry, Eubanks and Charles Peveto, co-chair of Friends of Wooldridge Square, to hear a sampling of stories from two of the most frequented squares today, Wooldridge and Republic, and to learn how Austin’s past turned into Austin present.

Eubanks, who has led similar efforts in other cities, describes Austin as a truly unique American story. “Absolutely fascinating, but mostly unknown, events happened in places many of us pass on a daily basis. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see the line from Austin’s past to its present, but in many of Austin’s historically important places you have no way of knowing the history you might be standing right in front of,” Eubanks says.

Regarding those connections, Eubanks adds, “We hear a lot about keeping Austin weird and how different Austin is from the rest of Texas, but I’m here to tell you it’s pretty much been that way from the start.”

Evidence supporting that statement spans the political and cultural spectrum. A map illustrating the 1861 referendum on secession shows Travis County as one of the few in Texas whose residents voted to remain in the Union. And on September 29, 1968, a now-ubiquitous Austin cultural reference shows up for the first time when local artist Jim Franklin introduces the armadillo in a poster advertising a free concert held at downtown’s Wooldridge Square. That idiosyncratic mascot would find a permanent place in Austin’s music and hippie culture. (Think Eddie Wilson’s famed Armadillo World Headquarters founded in 1970, and the t-shirts and coffee mugs available at BookPeople, Austin’s homegrown and very independent bookstore.)

wooldridge square park tribeza austin story

Peveto says as soon as Mayor A. P. Wooldridge cleaned up what had simply been an empty space several blocks southwest of the Capitol, dedicated the space as a park, and constructed the Classical Revival bandstand there in 1910, Wooldridge Square become the cornerstone of a progressive downtown community.

“Even back then, and partly due to Mayor Wooldridge’s keen interest in education and the civic development of the young city, Austin was considered more liberal than other places in the state,” Peveto says. “The fact that Wooldridge Square’s sloping ground creates a natural amphitheater made it possible for large crowds to gather and hear someone speak from the bandstand. Mayor Wooldridge made it known that all were welcome to use the square—that was unusual in Texas at that time.”

And use it they did; if someone had something of importance to say or an issue needed to be debated, Wooldridge Square is where it happened. From the bandstand, political and civil rights history was made.

In 1928, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, a leader in the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (which often held rallies at the square) announced her campaign and became the first woman from Texas to run for the U.S. Senate. Cunningham’s announcement foreshadowed a similar one made 20 years later by the U.S. Representative from Texas’ 10th District, Lyndon Baines Johnson. That campaign would prove successful, taking the candidate from the square’s bandstand all the way to the White House where he would sign into law two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation.

But, as Eubanks relates, it was years before Cunningham and LBJ that another speaker—one for whom freedom and equality were poignantly urgent—drew crowds of a size and racial mix not seen before. It was September of 1911 and Booker T. Washington was touring the country speaking on civil rights. As Washington was denied the opportunity to speak at the State Capitol building by legislation passed specifically to bar his presence, Mayor Wooldridge invited the slave-born political figure to share his ideas from the bandstand. In a city with less than 25,000 residents, 5,000 showed up to Wooldridge Square to hear the powerful orator.

While the bandstand has always commanded attention, Washington’s appearance there was not the only significant connection between Austin’s early African American community and the historic square. Immediately south, Block 101, designated for churches in Waller’s plan, was where, following emancipation from 57 years of slavery, Reverend Jacob Fontaine founded the First (Colored) Baptist Church of Austin. Fontaine had moved to Austin with his master who was Lamar’s personal secretary; he is thought to have been in Lamar’s party on that fateful scouting trip to Waterloo.

tribeza reverend jacob fontaine austin history

A prolific civic leader, Jacob Fontaine became active in politics during Reconstruction. Even though his own descendants and all other African Americans would not be allowed by law to attend the University of Texas until 1956 (58 years after his death), Fontaine played a key role in getting out the black vote to support the university being located in Austin. In the course of his long life, Fontaine went on to found five more churches, worked as a janitor, operated a grocery and laundry service, owned a book and medicine store, and in 1876 established one of the first black weekly newspapers in the South. The Gold Dollar served the freed-slave community in critical ways: it promoted literacy, kept the newly-freed citizens current on events and, for ten cents, placed ads that helped family members separated by slavery locate relatives after emancipation.

Several blocks south of Wooldridge Square is Republic Square, so named for one of the most important events to take place under its live oaks, now called the Auction Oaks. Here, only four months after creating his city plan, Judge Waller held the first auction of lots in order to fund the construction of government buildings for the Republic’s new capital.

Today’s shoppers who frequent the square’s Saturday farmers market are likely unaware of their own participation in one of the city’s most important and longest-running stories. In the town’s earliest days, present-day Republic Square and the blocks immediately surrounding it become the epicenter of the city’s Mexican and Mexican American community. Food was a key element for these residents, sustaining their culture and everyday way of life. In time, food in particular would prove to be enormously influential in the everyday life of the future Austin as well.

According to a recent exhibit at the Austin History Center curated by the Mexic-Arte Museum, in 1875 close to 300 Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans lived west of downtown Congress Avenue to the banks of Shoal Creek. Most settled in the area around the square and in time the cluster of neighborhoods became known simply as “Mexico.” While the square would be dubbed “Mexican Park” by newspapers and Anglos, most of those living in the area called it “Guadalupe Park” for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, built across the road in 1907.

The canopy of live oaks which had served as Waller’s auction site played host to the traditional goings on of a typical Mexican village zócalo: street vendors sold candy, tamales, and pan dulces, and families strolled through the square on their way home from Sunday mass.

Daily life in Austin’s “Mexico” was hard, even for the time, with inadequate housing and a lack of city services. However, a level of commerce prospered there. The area was home to one of Austin’s largest businesses in the first half of the 20th century. Possessing the world’s only automated tamale-making machine, Walker’s Austex Chili Factory was located just off Republic Square. At a time when many businesses would not hire Mexicans or Mexican Americans, the chili factory employed 15 percent of Austin’s entire Mexican population.

Austin’s “Mexico” neighborhood encompassing the Republic’s historic oaks endured for more than 50 years before the City Plan of 1928 codified segregation and people of color (mostly African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans) were forced to move east of East Avenue, today’s IH-35.

In reflecting on the importance of the Our Austin Stories project, historian Eubanks refers to a quote from George Santayana which he says may be over-used but is right and even prescient for Austin today:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

A thoroughly explored understanding of our diverse history, from multiple perspectives, is the only way we can move wisely and united into the future.

The Our Austin Stories project is slated to continue through the fall, although talk of expanding its scope has grown as community interest increases.

Photographs courtesy of Austin History Center, Mexic-Arte Museum, Leonid Furmansky, and Ted Lee Eubanks
Illustration by Jim Franklin

Read more from the Neighborhoods Issue | June 2017