By Mia Taylor
In the 1960s, the University of Texas at Austin became motivated by a desire to contend alongside the nation’s most reputable universities. In order to do so, it was deemed in a 1957 internal that UT would have to expand its research facilities through a redevelopment of its campus. As a result, it went into partnership with the Austin Urban Renewal Agency (AURA). UT used AURA to acquire federal funding to pay for two-thirds of the net costs of taking the blackland (the area to the east of its campus) and AURA was relieved of the burden of seeking out several re developers as the university would monopolise the process. Therefore, UT was involved not only in a project directly to the east of its campus – it also became complicit in several other ‘urban renewal’ projects in the city including, Kealing (June 1964) Glen Oaks (June 1967) Brackenbridge (November 1968) and Blackshear (unfinished).
What was urban renewal?
The Housing Act of 1949 provided federal funds to cities to acquire slum areas and redevelop them, a process which became known as ‘urban renewal.’ In Austin, a referendum was called so the citizens of the city could elect whether or not they supported this process. AURA advertised urban renewal to white citizens (few minorities were able to vote in the 1959 referendum) on the basis that it would cleanse their city and remove districts of slum and blight. In theory, this sounded like a community project which would have positive effects for all of the community.
However, these sources are laced with racist undertones which highlighted the use of urban renewal as a vehicle by which historically African American areas could be cleansed of what was perceived to be their negative influences – certainly the statistics about the east side (55% juvenile delinquency, 67% of T.B deaths and 88% of home fires) may have been true. But it was the deep irony of urban renewal that white institutions who had created the ghetto now condoned it. In Austin, the 1928 Master Plan had divided the city along east and west lines, with social services and housing being reserved for only those African Americans who elected to live to the east of the city. The result was a distinct racial segregation in which the east side was neglected by municipal authorities. Even having created this cityscape, Austin and UT could no longer tolerate it by the 1960s, pushed by a desire to economically modernize the city through the use of the university as a linchpin of a knowledge economy. It was hoped that this would propel Austin’s status as a cognitive-capitalist southern city. And African Americans did not belong in this vision…
Unlike AURA, UT was not motivated by the ethos of urban renewal. Rather, it wanted to expand its facilities in order to facilitate its growth as a university. However, by choosing the historically African American east side as a location for this expansion, it exhibited the same racist tendencies and disregard for black and brown lives and bodies as the urban renewal agency. What begun was a veritable process of ‘n–ro removal,’ supported by universities such as UT, as well as the federal government who financed it (as noted below by James Baldwin).
1000 African Americans were removed from their homes as UT bulldozers came and tore down their lots. In replacement, UT expanded their football stadium – not building ‘research facilities’ as they had proposed that they would- in an immensely disrespectful gesture to the people whose homes and communities which they had erased. What’s more, UT and AURA failed to provide alternative homes for these people, despite this facet being an essential part of the urban renewal ideology. In fact, the common circumstance was that displaced families were put on waiting lists for public housing units. However, given the fact that southern cities still had technically segregated public housing (up until 1968) and AURA had only managed to build 429 African American designated public housing units, those displaced were left in incredibly precarious positions. Sometimes, families were awarded money in order to buy new homes, but the funds allocated were never sufficient for a purchase of a new home in the area of their choosing. Rather, they were forced to move even further out of the city center. This resulted in an era of even greater racial segregation than when Austin was officially desegregated – in 1990, the poverty rate in African American areas in Austin was a staggering 52%, over 500% greater than the total percentage for the city…
African American push back
In spite of these processes, there were occasions in which African Americans, galvanized by the Civil Rights Era and their steadily increasing political enfranchisement, fought back. This could lead to some compromise or outright victories against the city of Austin. For example, the Blackshears Residents Organization (BRO) who in 1969 filed a petition against the housing authority of the City of Austin. BRO wagered that the constitution required pubic housing be administered in a manner untainted by an intent to concentrate African Americans or Mexican Americans in some projects as to the exclusion of others. The resolution of this conflict was that the Blackshear Urban Renewal Project was abandoned by AURA, a remarkable success for African American communities which lay the foundation for similar community organizations to take back their autonomy from the city of Austin
Inspiration for future movements
In 1982, UT begun another land expansion, though this time not under the guise of urban renewal. From 1982-1990, at least half of the residents in the blackland area were forced to sell their land to UT. However, once UT had quietly begun the systematic destruction of the blackland neighborhood, a Blackland Neighborhood Center formed. Their website is pasted below.
The organization built homes for low income families, the elderly and the homeless. When UT’s programs tore down homes and left lots vacant for decades, the community took direct responsibility for rebuilding the community in the image of their choosing.
As the website states, ‘Blackland’s accumulation and retention of affordable housing in the past 29 years has moved the nonprofit toward its original goal of fostering an inclusive community that hosts people of all races, religions, means and personal preferences. That goal, based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream, remains dynamic and realizes the Blackland CDC’s lived and enduring motto: “The Dream starts here.”’ Thus, in spite of systematic methods of racial segregation propagated by UT and AURA in an era of nominal civil rights, African Americans galvanized themselves to build organizations which reversed those trends. That these organizations still live on, is a testament to their power.
About Mia Taylor
Mia is at UT Austin this year on an exchange program from the UK. She is a history major at University College London (UCL) in the UK and will return in May to complete her final two semesters in London.