Austin Looks To Expand The Carver Museum, A Project 20 Years In The Making
Gentrification has altered the face of East Austin over the years, new businesses and housing developments pricing out many of the area’s longtime residents of color. But the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center off Angelina Street and Rosewood Avenue has been a mainstay – a keeper of Austin’s Black history and a gathering space for the community.
“It’s a second home to a lot of people,” said Carre Adams, the museum’s lead curator. “It’s also a place that welcomes folks that are just getting to the city to learn about the ground that they’re standing on.”
Now, city staff and residents are looking to expand the center, an endeavor that’s been more than 20 years in the making.
The city is collecting input from the community on what residents hope an expansion will include. The project could triple the now-36,000-square-foot museum, adding additional galleries, classrooms and outdoor performance space.
“Places for the exhibition of Black history and art are at a premium in this city, and we need more space so that we can support and exhibit more artists that are based here and also artists that are outside of the city,” Adams said.
A Historic Beginning
The story of what is now the Carver Museum begins in 1926 with the city’s first public library. The 1,896-square-foot building stood at the corner of Ninth and Guadalupe. The city quickly outgrew the space, and at the same time, Black residents were appealing to the city to establish a library on the East Side.
“This is after the 1928 Master Plan,” Adams said. “So, 85% of African Americans that lived in Austin lived on the East Side at this point. Part of the city’s pitch to get Black people to move to the East Side was that they would receive access to parks, schools and public libraries.”
The residents felt like it was time to collect on that library, Adams said, so they began advocating for one. After Austin built a larger central library in 1933, the city agreed to move the original one to its current location on Angelina Street, where it became the first branch of the Austin Public Library system and was known as the “Colored Branch.” It was later renamed after famed inventor and scientist George Washington Carver in 1947.
“We’re talking about a community having nothing in terms of formal, physical spaces supported by the city to gather in,” Adams said. “And so a group of people convinced the city to give them an 1,800-square-foot facility that would be their first library.”
As the community grew over the years, the residents found themselves in need of a larger space, so they formed the Central-East Austin Citizens for a New Carver Branch and began advocating. It worked: A new library was completed next door in 1979, and the original building became the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the first African-American neighborhood museum in Texas, according to the city.
In 1998, Austin residents approved a bond that funded a further expansion of the Carver Center and library. Phase one of the project resulted in the space that exists today. The building holds galleries featuring exhibits on things like Juneteenth and influential African-American families throughout Austin’s history; classrooms; a dance studio; a darkroom; and a theater. The original museum became a genealogy center, storing the history of Black East Austinites and their families.
“We went from that 1,800-square-foot facility, a small museum with big ideas, to the ... facility that you see today, and that was because there was a concerted effort of people that really cared about preserving this history and this culture and wanting to make sure that Black people had a space that was theirs,” Adams said.
Reviving The Expansion
But, as the city began developing other cultural centers, phases two and three of the project fell by the wayside and weren't revisited until now.
“We were the first cultural center and museum, and now we have so many sister sites,” Adams said. “It’s like having siblings and it’s time for dinner: You’ve got to get in line and wait your turn.”
The City Council approved including funding to start up the planning process again in its 2019 budget. In March, city staff began assessing the property and talking with local organizations that utilize the museum to determine needs. The coronavirus pandemic forced much of that process to go virtual.
Over the summer, project leaders with the Parks and Recreation Department started hosting online community meetings where people can learn about and provide input on the project. The last one is Saturday at 1 p.m.
Once complete, the final expansion plan has to get approval from the city’s Parks and Recreation Board and the City Council, a process that will likely conclude next spring, according to the planning project manager, Greg Montes. The city usually pays for capital improvement projects like this through bonds. In recent history, the city has put bond funding for cultural projects in front of voters every six years or so, Montes said. The last one was in 2018.
“City management will decide when it’s appropriate to do that again in the future,” he said. “But definitely the next bond would hopefully ensure that some form of funding significant enough could be put before the voters to help build out a portion of the expansion for this museum.”
The city’s African American Resource Advisory Commission has been an advocate for improvements and repairs at the Carver Museum over the years. Chair Daryl Horton said when the commission discovered there were more phases to the Carver expansion a few years ago, members began pushing for the city to pick up the project again.
“With East Austin changing and with legacy and heritage appearing to disappear almost on a daily basis, we thought this was really important,” Horton said. “But we also want to do it for those who helped to put that original plan in place back when the original drawings were done. We recognize that there were people who fought for that to be done, there were people who were part of the planning, and we just thought it was a good thing for us to pick up that mantle and continue to carry it.”
Gatherings On Hold
A native Austinite, Horton said he's had a lot of fond memories at the Carver over the years, from visiting the library as a student to watching young people from his church today perform plays in the summer. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has put performances like these on hold.
The Carver has been closed to the public most of the year. It opened briefly in June, but was quickly closed again as COVID-19 cases spiked in Austin. Adams said the museum is still trying to be there for the community during this difficult year through virtual programming and discussions. The museum’s annual Juneteenth celebration became an online event, as did its 40th anniversary party in October.
“We’ve figured out how to show up for the community and do things that people needed, whether that was a space to talk about what was happening in the world – the pandemic, the killing of Black people by police,” Adams said. “Or like actually just needing a space for joy.”
And when the world is ready to gather again, the Carver will be there, preserving memories and serving as a space where new ones can be made. The expansion, Horton said, will only amplify that role.
“As the Carver project moves toward completion and it’s built, I just think that whole area will be a shining light here in East Austin that people will be drawn to,” he said, “to learn more, to become more familiar with African-American culture. A place where all residents of Austin can come to grow and learn.”
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