an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
In June 2018, Austin’s Chief Equity Officer released a report calling for the renaming of certain place names, or toponyms, in Austin, especially those that commemorate the Confederacy. The report quickly gained national attention, in part because it noted the tainted legacy of the city’s namesake, Stephen F. Austin, particularly his involvement in promoting racial slavery, and therefore left open the possibility of renaming the city. The events of 2020, and the wave of protests that emerged in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and more locally Mike Ramos and Javier Ambler, reinforce the idea that racial injustice continues to plague the United States and Austin and that honoring racist practices must be questioned. While renaming Austin should be considered, we believe this is also a time when Austin must come to terms with other complex and shameful legacies of black slavery and Jim Crow. To that end, we want to propose an effort to rename and recontextualize the meanings of existing urban landscapes in order to bring them into accord with our current values. We recommend a renaming and recontextualization effort directed at one particular place mentioned in the Equity Officer’s report, Barton Springs, and the park that houses it, Zilker Park.
Toponyms are a defining feature of our urban cultural geography. Historically, buildings, streets, even whole cities have been named and renamed many times over. Today, we are much more aware of the power that toponyms have as an essential part of our memorial landscape. Certainly, public place-naming is meant to honor, especially when the names are those of a cherished person, ideal, or event. However, for a commemorative toponym to really have enduring significance, it must not just help a community learn its history but beckon it toward a future ideal. The issue that confronts us today is that many urban toponyms simply do not reflect our current ideals and the people we want to be.
Toponyms also help us imagine and define our communities through building collective memories. Through such social memory, individuals in large communities, like nation-states, city-regions, even sports teams’ fan bases, forge bonds with people they don’t know and a sense of belonging to an “imagined community.” By illuminating and celebrating certain aspects of culture and the past while downplaying or even denying others, toponyms help establish a notion of shared heritage through which leaders shape a narrative about what that community is and is not. The names of places like Barton Springs, and the stories we tell about them, help shape our collective memories, and therefore tell us about ourselves and our values.
There are two related stories that dominate Barton Springs’ mythology. The first is that Barton Springs is a gift from nature that Austinites get to enjoy as a public good. Most anyone who has lounged there on a weekend afternoon or jumped in just after 9pm on a sweltering July evening can identify with this narrative. It is a narrative that stretches back in time, as the statue of Texas literary and intellectual giants J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb enjoying the pool suggests. The second story may be less well-known to some in Austin today, but it is equally important. Barton Springs is the centerpiece of Austin’s anti-development environmental history and a symbol of the city’s collective will to “Keep Austin Weird” in the face of mounting development and corporate pressure. Barton Springs makes Austin unique, not just because of its natural beauty but because it represents the history of people who cared about the city enough to save it from overdevelopment. These two stories shine a positive light on Barton Springs and make it seem like it has always been this way: “Barton Springs Eternal,” as the writer James Michener suggested. And yet the Springs’ history reveals some troubling narratives that align the space and its name with less positive attributes.
We want to focus on why renaming a beloved spot like Barton Springs is important. Several years ago, when Eliot was teaching a course at the University of Texas at Austin titled Race, Ethnicity, and Place, a student commented during class that the course’s contents were making her upset and that she wanted to focus on cheerier aspects of Austin’s urban life, such as the city’s most beloved symbol, Barton Springs. By chance, on the same day the student made this comment, Eliot read John Mason Brewer’s An Historical Outline of the Negro in Travis County (1940). The book was researched by Brewer and his students at what is now called Huston-Tillotson University. It is one of the first written records of African American life in Austin by a black Austinite. For this reason, it is a work of extraordinary importance.
Brewer had a lengthy career in higher education, holding several appointments at HBCUs throughout the South, but the majority of his teaching was done at what is now Huston-Tillotson University, then two colleges known as Tillotson and Samuel Huston colleges. He was famous as a “nationally acclaimed folklorist” and his work extended beyond Texas themes (Glasrud 157-159). Shortly before in death, Byrd (1967) noted that Brewer was:
the most distinguished living Negro folklorist; that is, he is a folklorist, he is a Negro, and he collects and publishes the folklore of the Negro—preacher tales, trickster tales, anecdotes, proverbs, and ghost stories. A prolific writer, he also produces poems, essays, reviews, and anthologies. His work received the praise of his most learned contemporaries, exemplified by the ‘Texas Triumvirate of Letters’— J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb.
Of the three, Brewer’s long-term relationship with Dobie, also a folklorist, seems to have been the most important, at least professionally. Dobie supported Brewer’s first major publication in 1932, an essay in Proceedings of Texas Folklore Society called “Juneteeth,” and in 1934, he backed Brewer’s membership in the Texas Folklore Society (Davis 95-97). It was “Juneteenth,” about African American life in Texas, that launched Brewer’s long and distinguished career (Elvin Holt 2013). In fact, Dobie, even wrote the foreward to An Historical Outline of the Negro in Travis County, which was one of Brewer’s minor works, generally referenced only in passing as one of a number of works he wrote in the 1930s and 40s on African Americans in Texas (Glasrud 170).
An Historical Outline opens with a discussion about the arrival of African Americans in Austin and Travis County, which, Brewer observes, coincided “practically with that of the white man.” The primary topic of this discussion is Mahala Murchison (Strain), the first African American, or at least one of the first African Americans, to reside in Austin. She arrived in Austin as a young enslaved girl with her owner Alexander Murchison, who settled at some point on Congress Avenue, just north of the Colorado River. Brewer tell us that “The father of Mahala’s children was … a white man [Isaac Strain] He wanted to buy her and marry her and asked permission of her master to do so. Mr. Murchison agreed but Mahala chose to remain with her owners. She was the mother to six children … one of whom was Frank Strain …. Frank lived in an exclusive neighborhood near the University of Texas. Frank’s children and Mahala’s other grandchildren were all cultured, upright, and progressive. Some of them were teachers, some were in government service, and others property owners and successes in various other fields of endeavors.”
Mahala continues to be a well-known and venerated figure among many people in Austin. There has even been a recent effort to honor her with the naming of a bus stop.
Brewer’s final remarks about slavery in Austin in this section of the book are the ones that speak to the concerns of the student who lamented the somberness, at least from the students point of view, of Tretter’s course. According to Brewer, Mahala “remained the only Negro in Austin until the coming to Austin of the Barton family, which settled on what is known as Barton’s Creek. Mr. Barton brought with him twenty-five or thirty slaves and settled where the present swimming pool is located at Barton Springs.” What this statement makes clear is that one of Austin’s most “scared places,” a place of fun and relaxation and even spiritual meaning for many in Austin, is ensnared in the complex social legacies of slavery and racial injustice. The Springs were one of the first, if not the first, significant slave estates within the city’s boundaries, and certainly would have been the home of a significant number of Austin’s first African Americans. Brewer’s reference to the presence of enslaved African Americans from the earliest colonialization of the lands around Barton Spring is even more powerful in light of the fact that after Barton Spring became a public swimming pool, Jim Crow rules eliminated the presence of African-Americans from the surrounding landscape.
That Barton Springs and Zilker Park, the latter a large tract that contains the Springs, was essentially given to the city by businessperson Andrew Zilker in 1917 establishes an even deeper connection to the Confederacy and to a legacy of racial exclusion in Austin. The Springs became an important component of Austin’s early tourist industry in the 1920s, especially after the city used bond revenue to dam the pool. Federal New Deal programs invested more money into Zilker Park than any other park in Texas, paying for roads, landscaping, and the Hillside Auditorium, among other things. The Springs hosted important cultural events including an annual Christmas show, a weekly gospel sing-along, and a swimsuit competition. Yet this investment and these cultural activities were intended to benefit only “white people.” While Austin did a reasonable job of providing public accommodations for non-white minorities (relative to other cities), African Americans were excluded from Barton Springs. For African Americans it was a forbidden place, a symbol not of natural and cultural value but of segregation and inequity. In 1928 the park’s donor, Zilker, called the Springs a “sacred spot” that should be owned and enjoyed collectively. However, for Zilker the place wasn’t sacred just because of its natural beauty. It was sacred because he had dedicated it to the memory of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, who he believed had “camped on the banks of Barton creek” (The Austin American Aug 30, 1917).
Like Tretter’s student, thousands of Austinites and others enjoy the Springs annually with little to no knowledge of this history. There are no public markers to Zilker’s intentions and none to Barton’s unnamed enslaved. To address this, we propose that a historical marker be placed at or near the Springs. Moreover, we believe an additional effort is required to move beyond recognition towards reconciliation. For that reason, we recommend that Barton Springs, or even just its famed historic “bathhouse,” be renamed to honor J. Mason Brewer. This may seem like an odd request given that Brewer had no recognized connection to the Springs. Nevertheless, it should be recalled that this may be because he was not even able to go the Springs. During his time, he was recognized as the African American literary counterpart to the three philosophers sculpted into the Barton Springs landscape since 1994.
Yet during much of his life, he literally could not have participated in any of these men’s conversations at Barton Springs. It is for this reason a posthumous monument would be an excellent tribute to him. It would also serve to address the fact that, despite his national fame, Brewer’s legacy remains neglected. He is not commemorated publicly anywhere in the city other than at his grave. Moreover, recognizing Brewer in this manner would serve as a reminder of all those who could not enjoy the Springs and of the viciousness of Jim Crow laws. It would also serve to rectify the disregard shown to the unnamed enslaved and the misplaced veneration of their owners. The renaming of the Springs, or some part of it, will not erase Austin’s history, as some opposed to the idea have argued. People will still learn about the Texas triumvirate and their intellectual contributions, and about William Barton and his leading role as a settler colonist in Austin. But renaming part of Barton Springs after Brewer will present us with an opportunity to engage and reconcile with our city’s troubled racial legacy and make a statement about who we are now and what we believe.
In 2018, an Austin Equity report identified and recommended the removal or renaming of city-owned monuments and memorials to the Confederacy located on city-owned property. Austin should continue to be a leader in national re-commemorative efforts, especially the recent and long-awaited renaming, removal, or recontextualization of Confederate and white supremacist memorial sites. Such efforts will not only create a more inclusive memorial landscape. They are a way of acknowledging that who we choose to honor from the past shapes who we will be in the future.
Living Springs: A Reflecting Pool
“A Reflecting Pool” recounts Barton from 1912-1962 through the memories of those who lived the history. The short film includes wonderful archive photos, film and original historic re-creations. This piece looks into the little known social history of the Springs, including the segregation and eventual integration of the Springs in 1962.
Goin’ On (1981) Directed by William McRae with funding from Humanities Texas, this 1980 documentary chronicles the life and legacy of black folklorist J. Mason Brewer. Folklorist John Henry Faulk narrates the program. The film features audio of Brewer reading his own work, as well as interviews with his former students and colleagues, including Texas Representative Zan Holmes Jr. and famed muralist John Biggers.
Eliot Tretter is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Undergraduate Advisor of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary. He received his Doctorate from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and before coming to UofC, he was a Lecturer for many years in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.He is author of Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin, published by University of Georgia Press in 2016. His latest book project, tentatively titled Petrocity, explores the complex and contradictory effects of Canada’s hydrocarbon extraction on Calgary’s urbanization. He currently resides in Calgary and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland.
Andrew M. Busch is an Assistant Professor of interdisciplinary Studies and Honors at Coastal Carolina University. He is the author of City in a Garden: Environmental Transformations and Racial Justice in Twentieth Century Austin, Texas (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and was a resident of Austin from 2004 to 2012.
Edmund T. Gordon lives with his people in Austin and is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bercowich, Henry. “Barton Springs Water Soon to Be Supplied to City: Property Given by A. J. Zilker to Austin Public Schools Is Bought for $100,000.” The Austin American. August 30, 1917.
Brewer, John Mason, and The Class of Negro History of Samuel Huston College. An Historical Outline of The Negro in Travis County. Austin: Samuel Huston College, 1940. https://www.traviscountytx.gov/images/historical_commission/Doc/historicaloutlinethenegrointraviscounty.pdf
Byrd, James W. J. Mason Brewer, Negro Folklorist. Southwest Writers Series, No. 12, pgs. 1–44. Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1967.
Davis, Steven L. J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
Glasrud, Bruce A. “African Americans and Texas Folklore.” In Celebrating 100 Years of the Texas Folklore Society, 1909–2009, edited by Kenneth L. Untiedt, 157–75. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2009.
Holt, Elvin. “Brewer, John Mason.” In African American National Biography. Oxford University Press: https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-36260, 2013.
Pipkin, Turk, and Marshall Frech, eds. Barton Springs Eternal: The Soul of a City. Austin: Softshoe, 1993.