Wheatsville Food Co-op Honors Austin’s Black History
Named after Wheatville, the first Black freedom colony in Austin post-Civil War, the grocery store and community hub is on a mission to empower
A familiar name to longtime Austinites, Wheatsville Food Co-op has been a loyal contributor to the community since 1976. Boasting more than 26,000 members and known for its assortment of all-natural, organic and local products, Wheatsville stands for more than just supplying locals with ethically-sourced and environmentally-friendly food.
“Our purpose is to serve the people of Austin,” says Bill Bickford, Wheatsville’s general manager. “I was initially drawn to the Co-op because of its emphasis on giving back, self-ownership and community empowerment.”
Bickford was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when he first stepped foot into Wheatsville Co-op in 1999. He left that day as a lifetime member and soon returned for a job application.
Wheatsville’s goal is to promote a transformation of society toward cooperation, justice and non-exploitation. Named after Wheatville, the first Black freedom colony associated with Austin post-Civil War, the Co-op is passionate about preserving Austin’s Black history.
James Wheat, a former slave from Arkansas, founded Wheatville in 1867 where present-day West Campus, Shoal Creek and Pease Park lie.
“Our name was an effort to honor the legacy of historic Wheatville and Austin’s Black history that unfortunately does not have enough visibility today,” says Bickford.
Many of the residents of Wheatville worked primarily as merchants in the community, domestic workers in white households and laborers assisting with the city’s construction. The Austin Gold Dollar, one of the first Black newspapers west of the Mississippi River, and the Franzetti Store and House, a historic site located on San Gabriel Street that served as housing, a grocery store and other businesses, were both established in Wheatville.
The Wheatville School, located on the corner of 25th and Leon, saw a drop in enrollment from 177 students in 1914 to 44 students by 1924 as the city of Austin continued to pass building restrictions designed to affect Wheatville residents. In 1928, the city of Austin adopted a plan to relocate all Black public facilities, including schools, clinics and recreation centers, to East Austin. The Wheatville School subsequently closed in 1932, and the community that once had more than 300 residents practically vanished by the mid-1930s.
Today, Wheatsville Co-op has maintained its commitment to honor its namesake and make equity and inclusion a priority.
“Increasing diversity at the Co-op has been an important part of what I have worked to do here over the last few years,” says Bickford. “I am proud to say that we are much closer to the demographic averages of Austin mirroring our staff composition, which is our goal. The changes that I’ve seen in our staff I have also seen in our customer base. I believe that the more that you represent your community, the better you can serve your community.”
The same reasons that Wheatsville’s founders wanted to honor the community in their name have continued to persist throughout its history in various other ways.
Cesar Chavez visited the Guadalupe location in the 90’s, as Wheatsville was one of the only retailers participating in the United Farm Workers grape boycott. The Co-op continues to prioritize fair trade and even partnered with Fairtrade America and artist J Muzacz to highlight three incredible cocoa farmers in a stunning mural at Wheatsville’s Guadalupe spot. However, these commitments to justice have not come without hardship.
“The first few weeks of COVID-19 were incredibly challenging,” says Bickford. “We were having to make major changes to the operation that we probably never would have considered prior to that point.”
The financial struggles and decrease in sales harbored hard times for the grocer, but their resolution to serve the people of Austin never wavered.
“There are times when doing what is in the community’s best interest and what is in our best interest as a financial business are not always perfectly aligned,” explains Bickford. “However, we will always choose to help people over what might be more financially motivated.”
During the Texas freeze of 2021, Wheatsville was able to serve thousands of people who were without food and water, leaving every shelf bare by the end of the day. The Co-op has been a place of support and togetherness for residents in difficult times.
“I actually worked in the store as a cashier on 9/11,” says Bickford. “It was surprisingly a really busy day. People came, I think not just for groceries, but for a sense of unity and comfort. Wheatsville has become a kind of heart of the community that, in trying times, people will seek out.”
It is true that Wheatsville is one of the few icons of old Austin that still remains. The core culture of Keep Austin Weird, live music and laid-back people are what made Bickford, and so many of us, fall in love with this city.
“Supporting Wheatsville is one way to keep that old Austin sense of community alive and thriving,” says Bickford.
Wheatsville Food Co-op is now hiring at both their Guadalupe and South Lamar locations. To join over 26,000 members and become an owner, visit their website and follow their Instagram to stay up to date on new products and upcoming events.