an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
As the gentrification of East Austin and the displacement of its longtime African-American and Latinx communities become increasingly more evident, widely known, and contentious, a similar story is unfolding just down Interstate-35 in the booming college town of San Marcos. Blocks from the city’s downtown square and less than a mile from Texas State University sits the neighborhood once known as “Colored Town.” Now referred to as Dunbar, this area has been home to San Marcos’ African-American community for over a century. While many of Dunbar’s original residents have long since moved out, many black and Latinx households remain and are now facing gentrification pressures as the neighborhood finds itself in the shadow of a wave of development that has transformed the city in recent years. In this short piece, we briefly lay out the history of Dunbar and describe a community-engaged research project currently underway, a collaboration between community members and faculty and students at Texas State University.
Brief Historical Sketch of the Dunbar Neighborhood
The origins of the Dunbar neighborhood are linked to slavery and its aftermath in Texas. Following the Civil War, newly freed African-Americans, or “freedmen,” rapidly dispersed around the state forming settlements or neighborhoods in existing towns and cities [3, 4]. Sometimes known as “freedmen communities” or “freedom colonies,” these “were racially segregated spaces that allowed Black residents to assert agency over their socio-political environment” .
Though Dunbar is not considered by locals a freedom colony per se, many freedmen after the Civil War lived in such enclaves, and our interviews indicate the earliest Dunbar residents were a mix of formerly enslaved people and families of tenant farmers. Many such black families settled in San Marcos and scores of other areas in East and Central Texas in the mid- to late-19th century, often co-migrating from other areas of the south alongside Anglo-American landowners. The communal bonds formed in communities such as Dunbar were a vital part of African-American life both before and after slavery.
The creation of the freedmen’s school in 1863 and later the first African Methodist Episcopal church in 1876 helped solidify African-Americans’ presence in what would later become known as the “Dunbar neighborhood,” and established places where people could come together for social, educational, and religious activities [10, 11]. The old 1873 Calaboose jail in Dunbar would later be used for black USO and fraternal lodge meetings for community members as well. As time passed, new structures, businesses, and residents began to fill the streets of Dunbar, or “colored town” as it was colloquially called, creating a thriving African-American community despite its struggles with racial injustice. The first half of the 20th century saw the growth of a thriving commercial strip, with African-American-owned restaurants, barbershops, grocery stores, and even a skating rink, along what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive .
The Dunbar neighborhood, though small, provided much of the critical labor that helped spur San Marcos’ growth into a fledgling city . The Dunbar neighborhood is perhaps most famous as the former home of Ulysses Cephas, a skilled African-American blacksmith and community leader, as well as Eddie Durham, a renowned jazz musician acclaimed as an early pioneer of the electric guitar.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, African-Americans gradually moved out of the Dunbar community. Through our research, we hope to learn more about residents’ reasons for departing. Some African-Americans utilized the G.I Bill (though a far smaller number were eligible than their white veteran counterparts) and other federal programs to access educational and occupational opportunities; this may have been a factor drawing many out of the community . The Civil Rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s also allowed for greater integration in community life and increased freedom of movement. In 2003, the Dunbar community was designated a historic district in the hopes of preserving much of its cultural legacy while a handful of black families remained in the area .
Counter-life Histories/Herstories Research
From the 1950s until now, the population of African-Americans in San Marcos has drastically declined, from 50% to 5.5% , raising concerns about the eradication of the community’s history [2, 11]. To reclaim this history, our team of interdisciplinary researchers at Texas State University is conducting a community-based participatory research project to understand the lived experiences of African-Americans in the historic Dunbar neighborhood.
Utilizing the equity and participatory design-based research approach [6, 8], our research team is collaborating with faith-based leaders and community members in Dunbar on several interrelated research streams. As a cornerstone of the project, we are conducting counter-life history/herstory interviews of current residents, former residents, and church congregants. Counter-life histories/herstories are powerful tools to reveal hidden truths about the lived experiences of historically marginalized ethnic groups . These narratives will help us write a more detailed historical account of the neighborhood and will inform the development of an asset-based community action plan.
Historical Census Mapping Research
To gain a better understanding of demographical changes in the community over time, we are also transcribing historical census data from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, and conducting spatial analysis of this data using geographical information systems (GIS). While early censuses of the area contain only sparse information, early- to mid-20th-century census data provides a relatively rich level of detail about each household, including residents’ professions, places of origin, race, and other information. Through analysis of this data, we hope to better grasp the historical development of some basic features of race, class, and gender dynamics in the neighborhood. This will provide a quantitative backdrop to the more fine-grained, ethnographic perspectives shared with us by residents who are participating as interviewees in our counter-life history/herstory research.
As an example of the kind of insights we expect this line of inquiry to produce, while respondents often mention that before the 1970s there were many dwellings in the neighborhood that were more ephemeral constructions, we have found little evidence of where these homes were located or information about who lived in them. Historical census data contains information about households that we may be able to link to some of these more transient structures. Such insights will enable us to analyze the intersections of race, class, gender, and other axes of difference in the neighborhood.
Finally, we have been convening monthly open meetings with community members to provide space for public discussions of concerns about Dunbar and visions for the future of this rapidly changing neighborhood. Beginning in the spring of 2019, these “community conversations” have been anchored and animated primarily by representatives of several long-term resident African-American families who have dedicated their time, passion, and ideas to confronting Dunbar’s challenges. Each month, elected officials, personnel of city agencies, activists, and other concerned citizens also participate. These conversations have been immensely valuable in helping us to see the array of issues facing Dunbar, and to work collectively with community members in building the next phases of our research agenda.
In terms of its history and present challenges, from segregation and discrimination to gentrification, the Dunbar neighborhood shares much in common with other historic African-American and nonwhite areas. As we begin to draw together the threads of research sketched above, we plan to produce scholarly publications reporting our findings as well as additional research outputs, which may be useful in the struggle to defend the residents of Dunbar from the negative impacts of rapid urban growth and change.
Shetay Ashford-Hanserd (@drshetay) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organization, Workforce, and Leadership Studies at Texas State University. Her research agenda focuses on broadening the participation of women of color and historically underrepresented minorities in the U.S. P-20 STEM and Computing workforce ecosystem. The foundational strand of her research explores cultural, community, and historical contexts by illuminating counter-life stories, which reveal untold stories of historically marginalized groups to inform innovative solutions that drive community revitalization. She shares her passion for reclaiming lost voices and spaces in historic communities of color in her recent TED talk: https://youtu.be/dtoFVWjGOPs.
Mary-Pat Hayton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, Cultures, English, and World Languages at Texas Lutheran University. Her research focuses on minimized feminist voices and disability studies, while her work as a nonfiction writer also explores lessons in empathy and representation. She is a recent graduate of Texas State University’s Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing program.
Colleen C. Myles is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. She has a PhD in Geography and an MS in Community Development from the University of California, Davis. She is a rural geographer and political ecologist with specialties in land and environmental management; (ex)urbanization; (rural) sustainability and tourism; wine, beer, and cider geographies (aka “fermented landscapes”); and agriculture (urban, peri-urban, and sustainable).
Christopher Pierce graduated from UNI in 2018 and is currently a PhD student at Texas State University. His current research focus is examining the relationship between undocumented adoptees and immigration, family, and international adoption systems. Additionally, Christopher is a member of the Latin American Mobility Project (LAMP), a multidisciplinary research group that aims to document and map the lived histories at the Brownsville and Matamoros border of asylum seekers.
Eric Sarmiento is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Texas State University. His research examines the politics of urban development, focusing on the intersections of culture and economy.
Steven W Rayburn is Associate Professor in Marketing, at Texas State University. After 15 years as a manager and trainer in several service and retail organizations, he moved to academe to focus on research and teaching with the goal to improve human well-being through marketing and services.
Chad Williams has recently finished an MS in geography from Texas State University where he wrote his thesis on neoliberal housing policy and its impacts on student housing cooperatives in Austin, Texas. Currently, he finds himself working for AmeriCorps in the Pacific Region.
Edward Ybarra earned his B.A in history at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. He is a first-generation college student and the first in his family to attended graduate school. Edward is currently pursuing his master’s degree in international Studies. Edward has previously worked for Del Mar College in corpus Christi, Texas providing outreach services for the Corpus Christi Independent School District. Edward currently works as a Graduate Assistant for the PACE Peer Mentoring Program at Texas State university.
Link to fuller article on this:
Ashford-Hanserd, S.; Sarmiento, E.; Myles, C.C.; Rayburn, S.W.; Roundtree, A.K.; Hayton, M.-P.; Ybarra, E.; Benitez, S.; Clifford, T.M.; Pierce, C.; Williams, C.D.; Maleki, S. African American Experiences in the Historic Dunbar Neighborhood in San Marcos, Texas: A Case Study of Counter-Life Stories. Soc. Sci. 2020, 9, 177.