an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Stand at the southeast corner of 24th Street and San Gabriel in the West Campus neighborhood of Austin, Texas, and look across the street. The four buildings in front of you demonstrate that the places we instill with significance and the historical moments we connect them to create powerful contemporary meanings and/or erasures that are a basis of social memory. Directly across the street is the imposing brick façade of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs Headquarters (TFWC Headquarters). As the plaque in front proudly proclaims, it was designed by “prominent Dallas architect Henry Coke” in the 1930s and “is one of the best examples of Georgian Revival architecture in Texas.” This and another plaque certify that the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Recorded Texas Historical Commission Landmark.
To the left (south) of the TFWC Headquarters is the Neill-Cochran House (N-C House)—a building with an illustrious pedigree. In 1855 prominent master builder Abner Cook, who designed and built The Governor’s Mansion and Woodlawn (the Pease Mansion) among other important works in Austin, constructed the N-C House (Cook 1992). As an authentic antebellum example of Georgian Revival architecture, the House is also on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Recorded Texas Historical Commission Landmark. It now houses a museum owned and operated by The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA).
Both the N-C House and the TFWC Headquarters are historically well-documented, prominently displayed, and saturated with meaning. Though the buildings speak for themselves, texts associated with them further clarify what they and their preservation and self-assured presentation are meant to convey. The NSCDA website states, “The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America promotes appreciation for the people, places and events that led to the formation and development of our country” (https://nscda.org 2020). The House museum website declares, “The Neill-Cochran House offers its visitors an intimate view of the fabric of the lives of prominent Austinites and some of those who lived among them from the mid-19th through early 20th centuries” (www.nchmuseum.org/about-us/ 2020). Text on one of the large plaques out in front of the TFWC Headquarters dedicates the building to Clara Driscoll, who, among other listed accomplishments, “saved” the Alamo “by buying it to give to the state of Texas time to redeem and preserve it.” The plaques also state that Driscoll, the commemorationist, paid off the debts incurred by the TFWC in building the headquarters.
Both buildings are operating within the genre of commemoration. In this genre of building and/or restoration, narratives of historical moments deploying dates and events as evidence are articulated to concrete physical objects or structures. This provides the commemorative meanings they are meant to convey with truth value. The historical moments that the N-C House explicitly preserves and commemorates are from antebellum and post-Reconstruction Texas while the TFWC Headquarters genuflects to these moments with its proud “Lost Cause” reproduction of the Greek Revival architectural style and its investment in the heroic pasts of women from these moments. These buildings, and their proprietors, are about the commemoration of an idealized Southern heritage as a model for collective values and comportment in the present. While both are attempts to make this past more inclusive, the persons, heroic agency, and values that are central to their imaginings of that past are economically elite and racially white. In other words, these buildings and the narratives that accompany them strive to make visible, legible, and salient collective identities, values, and ideologies clustered around southern Euro-American culture, elite whiteness, and collective white agency as models for contemporary solidarity and comportment as Austinites, Texans, Americans.
Looking to the right (north) across both streets to the southwest corner of San Gabriel and 24th, there is a massive eight-story construction site, one of many in West Campus for new student housing. The online brochure raves that “HillTop is truly one of a kind” and “[t]he pinnacle of luxury living.” It goes on to reference the fourth building that we can just make out, almost completely obscured by the new construction:
Experience our resort-style amenities, live in stylish apartments, take part in a vibrant resident culture, and build a life you love living. While you do so, you’ll be part of a one-of-a-kind community neighboring the historic Freedmen’s BBQ building, which was once home to one of the first black-owned newspapers in the US. We couldn’t be more grateful to be part of this area’s story, and we can’t wait to see our residents write their own next chapters at HillTop starting Fall 2020. (www.hilltopatx.com 2020)
What is “this area’s story” that the advertisement cryptically refers to? If you look closely, engulfed by the construction and fronted by a bank of portable toilets, there is a rundown limestone building with a weathered wooden porch jutting out from its second floor. This is the Gold Dollar Building, also known as the Franzetti Building, and most recently home to Freedmen’s barbeque restaurant.[i] The building is of limestone rubble construction, like that of the Neill-Cochran House, but decidedly not Greek Revival. Similar to the other two historic buildings, it is a Recorded Texas Historical Commission Landmark. A web search turns up newspaper articles and web pages about the building and its history. All quote similar facts that come from the same three or four sources. Most accounts agree that it was built by George Franklin, a freedman and carpenter in 1869, and that it was occupied by Jacob Fontaine, who used it to hold church services and, publish his newspaper the Gold Dollar, and as a grocery store and/or a laundry. All agree that the building is the last remaining structure of a mostly forgotten freed-persons’ community, Wheatville. (e.g. Thompson 2020). However, there is currently no access to the Gold Dollar building and it is unclear whether, as part of HillTop, there will be an attempt to make it a commemorative structure in the future.
Before us then are four buildings that together tell us something obvious but at the same time profound about Austin’s racial history, present, and probably future: One of the basic logics of Austin’s growth and transformation is the erasure of blackness.
Over the last decade it has become a well-known truism that Austin’s black population is disappearing (Tang and Ren 2014). The fact that this is a long-term demographic trend is less well understood. The 2400 block of San Gabriel Street is an excellent example. Using the 1880 U.S. Census, I have identified 26 households and 125 persons on that street and its immediate vicinity, which was the main thoroughfare of the Wheatville freedom community. Today the area is an enclave of UT student housing understood to be empathetically non-black. A glance at the gallery in HillTop’s promotional brochure and the lack of a black face in it makes clear its promotors’ racial imaginary for the area’s future. The erasure of Wheatville’s black community, completed by the 1950s (Thompson 2020), had a number of causes, not the least of which was the infamous Austin 1928 Master Plan, elaborated to move all blacks to the eastern area of Austin. What happened to Wheatville is emblematic of what has taken place in the city since the 1870s. In the late 19th century, Austin was among the Texas cities with the highest percentages of black inhabitants, reaching as high as 36% in 1870 (Gibson and Kay 2005). Today Austin is around 8% black (U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts 2020). (see table)
However, the juxtaposition of these four buildings tells us something deeper about blackness in Austin. It tells us about racial agency and collectivity, factors central to the commemorative meanings of the TFWC Headquarters and the N-C House. The eclipse of the Gold Dollar building is an indicator that as black life ebbs in Austin, the modicum of social memory that exists of black agency and collectivity in our city also slips away.
In 1869 Freedman James Wheat and his family founded Wheatville on the edge of the Shoal Creek flood plain in Austin’s northwestern hinterland (Delta Sigma Theta 1970). It was a semi-autonomous community, one among a number of black communities scattered around the outskirts of the city (Mears 2009). Previously-enslaved people created Wheatville as a collective refuge during Reconstruction, the brief period of racial democracy after the Civil War. Amazingly, it brought together persons and families from all over the south (Mississippi, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas) (US Census 1870). It attracted visionary leaders like Jacob Fontaine to create self-directed community on America’s frontier.
Communities like Wheatville allowed newly freed black people to escape the near-slavery of debt indenture on rural plantations and farms, the fate of most at the time. Black people in communities like Wheatville united their families, took control of their family relations, and built institutions like churches and schools. Residents created their community in direct opposition to those who were actively attempting to maintain a white supremacist social order, exhibiting a collective agency not possible in rural areas or in the centers of white urban settlements. In fact, in 1866, black Austinites and others from around the state rallied in the capital for their voting and other rights. In 1876, Jacob Fontaine began publishing the Gold Dollar, one of the early black newspapers in the south, from his house at 2400 San Gabriel (Gold Dollar 1876).
Still, there were limits on black agency posed by the dominant power of whites in the nearby Austin community and their willingness to use any means necessary, including violence, to enforce it. For example, in 1879 unknown persons torched the house where Fontaine published his paper. It burned to the ground while fire companies watched (Austin Democratic Statesman 1879).
As Reconstruction ended, an expanding Austin began to encroach on Wheatville, particularly after the 1883 opening of nearby UT. As the forces of anti-blackness consolidated in the city the Anti-Colored Movement succeeded in pushing the last black city council member out in 1885. As Jim Crow segregation consolidated in early 20th-century Austin, 24th Street and Rio Grande Street became color lines separating this black enclave from the white city. Within its boundaries black people continued to make community at least somewhat independent of white Austin, maintaining their institutions and sustaining modes of sociality. Wheatville remained a partial refuge from Austin’s increasingly virulent anti-blackness. As just one example of the perilous racial tenor of the times, in 1921, a large contingent of hooded KKK members, organized by Austin’s own Capital City Klan #81, marched down Congress Avenue. The march attracted 30,000 spectators, “equivalent to more than three-fourths of the of the native-born white population of Travis county” (McDonald 2012, 261)
The continued expansion of Austin and growth of the UT community squeezed black Wheatville in one of the earlier processes of anti-black gentrification in the city. With the implementation of the 1928 Master Plan, erasure was all but assured. The city had previously placed one of the two city dumps in Wheatville but denied the area garbage collection and other essential services (Hamilton 1913). Sanitary conditions were problematic. The city closed the elementary school in 1932 (Delta Sigma Theta 1970). The federal government, insurance companies, and banks redlined the community (Tretter 2012). Black folks moved out. Meanwhile white people, most in one way or another associated with the university, moved in, encroaching at first on its outskirts before occupying the whole area.
By the 1950s and 1960s, fraternities, sororities, and student housing were built where the buildings of Wheatville had once stood, leaving not a trace of the lives and endeavors of the people and institutions that had once thrived there. Where the Wheatville Elementary School stood at 2500 Leon now stands the Whitestone Apartments.
Where the Pilgrim Home Baptist Church stood at 1014 25th Street there is now a basketball court in front of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. Hope Baptist Church, originally organized by Jacob Fontaine in his home, opened at 1000 24th Street in 1909. It is now the 24 Longview Apartments. The site of James Wheat’s homestead at 2409 San Gabriel is occupied by the massive Regents West at 24th apartments and the Fresh Plus Grocery. One of the oldest white fraternities on UT’s campus, Kappa Alpha Order, constructed a grand house just behind the old site of the Pilgrim Home Church and on the same block as the site of the elementary school in the center of Wheatville. Kappa Alpha Order is a southern fraternity established in Virginia in 1865.
According to its archived website, “Kappa Alpha Order seeks to create a lifetime experience which centers on reverence to God, duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct as inspired by Robert E. Lee, our spiritual founder” (Kappa Alpha Order 2007). Planted in the center of a black community that has been erased, the building’s Greek Revival architecture brands the site with the same notes of white solidarity and agency as the similarly designed antebellum N-C House and the Lost Cause TFWC Headquarters.
The commemoration of black presence, collectivity, agency, and hence our social memory of blackness in Austin is left to the uncertain symbolism of the Gold Dollar Building at 2402 San Gabriel. Physically it is a “nail house” engulfed and obscured by the behemoth new HillTop building, which takes up the entire block. Though still standing while no other Wheatville buildings have survived, it has never been effectively staged as a commemorative place, except through the valiant but feeble efforts of the barbeque restaurant owner. When the city granted the building landmark status, little historical research was done to establish its importance as a valuable site for the city’s black heritage or its collective social historical memory.
More archival work is needed to substantiate, fortify, and reanimate the history of this building and the surrounding freed-person community. Unfortunately, for its black commemorative potential, indications are that the building was actually built by a white grocer, Isaac Claypool. It is possible that it was always a white business in a black community up until the time the community itself died. The building’s association with the illustrious Jacob Fontaine, minister, teacher, grocer, laundryman, and publisher, is most probably exaggerated. He may have operated out of it as a laundryman for a short time and held some church services there. However, according to my reading of U.S. Census records and Austin city directories, the bulk of his over 20 years as an eminent Wheatville citizen were spent in a house at 2400 San Gabriel, next door to the Gold Dollar building. In all probability the real Gold Dollar building was erased long ago—its blackness gentrified out of existence. That site is now occupied by the HillTop lobby under construction. Such is the teetering status of one of the important physical bases for black social memory in Austin.
–Bluefields, Nicaraga, April 2020
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.
The Racial Geography Tour is an interactive guided exploration of the historic origins of the University of Texas at Austin’s buildings, landmarks, and spaces. Through 360º videos learn about how ideas of race and gender are sedimented in the architecture, landscape, and layout of the campus. Supplementary materials explore such social and historical themes as commemorative memorialization, the Lost Cause, Confederate flags, patriotic white nationalism, student protest, desegregation, women and the University, blackface, and minstrelsy. This project is designed to create an educational experience and provide a teaching tool. The tour invites users to come to grips with the historical and present realities of UT and the city of Austin.
[i] Known for years as the Franzetti Store the Austin City Council approved the renaming of the building as the “The Reverend Jacob Fontaine Gold Dollar Building” in 2018. The change was made to “recognize the African-American history of it as being very significant” (Diamante 2020)
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