Two paragraphs forced Black residents to East Austin. Exploding real estate prices forced them out.
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The house on Loreto Drive is a meeting spot of sorts. One story. Green roof. Tan stone exterior.
On a Tuesday night, the screen door squeaks open and shut as about a dozen people walk in and out. A grandmother, aunts, uncles and young nieces and nephews spread out on a couch in the living room and at the kitchen table. They catch up, poke fun at each other and share memories of a neighborhood that’s becoming harder and harder to recognize.
The East Austin house has been in Donald Dallas’ family since the 1960s. It used to be his great-grandmother’s, and when she died, her children took it over. Members of the family come and go as they please.
“It’s almost like a gathering or a family reunion every day over there,” Dallas said.
The house has always been a welcoming place. His great-grandma, whom everyone in the neighborhood called “Granny,” had an open-door policy. If you needed a place to stay or something to eat, you could walk on in.
Growing up in the ’90s, Dallas would play with the other neighborhood kids well into the evenings. There was just one rule: Be home by the time the streetlights come on.
“You could go across the street, and it’d feel like you were at your aunt’s house,” he said. “As a kid, you had a lot of free range outside.”
Back then, Dallas says, only Black families lived on the street of about two dozen homes. Everyone knew each other. Now, only a few of those families remain. As white people have moved in, old homes have been replaced with modern, two-story ones.
Black families make up about 30% of the Central East Austin neighborhood, but just four decades ago, that number was 90%.
Sion Tasby, one of Dallas’ aunts, remembers when most of the businesses in East Austin were owned by Black people, including doctor’s offices and pharmacies. But about a decade ago, she noticed a lot of people started moving to East Austin, changing the demographics — and the cost of housing.
Tasby remembers a conversation with a stranger at a bank in 2010.
“I don’t know how we got on the subject of the housing market, but he was like, ‘Don’t ever sell your house if you live in East Austin, because East Austin’s housing market is going to be crazy like California,’” she said. “‘Give it about 10 years. You’ll see.’”
The man was right.
In recent years, Austin has experienced a real estate boom. In the decade between 2011 and 2021, the median sales price of a home in Austin climbed from $234,000 to $565,000. And perhaps no other area of the city has undergone as drastic a change as East Austin. Home prices in historically Black neighborhoods east of I-35 have increased tenfold in the last two decades as more development and wealthier, white people have moved in. Many longtime residents who can no longer afford to live there have left Austin altogether.
Now 31, Dallas can’t afford a home in the place where he grew up, so he lives 30 minutes north in Round Rock. This isn’t the first time Black Austinites like Dallas have had to relocate. While today most of Austin’s Black history is associated with the East Side, many Black people can trace their roots back to other parts of the city. Dallas’ family can trace theirs back to a small community in Southwest Austin called Kincheonville.
To understand this pattern of displacement — how families like Dallas’ went from Southwest Austin to East Austin and eventually away from Austin — we have to go back nearly a century to 1928.
Austin’s freedom colonies
After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people in Texas began leaving plantations and moving to towns seeking work. They settled with each other in neighborhoods that became known as freedom colonies, or freedmen communities.
About a dozen of these communities rose up in and around Austin. By 1870, 37% of the city was Black (today, 7% is). Some freedom colonies had names that still adorn neighborhoods and businesses today, like Wheatville and Clarksville. They often had their own schools, churches and stores.
“I would imagine that people were very closely tied to their communities,” said Tara Dudley, an architectural history professor at UT Austin who studies freedom colonies. “[There was] that sense of home, of safety, of agency, of ownership, of people just being able to really pursue life on their own terms and safely have families that you wouldn’t be separated from.”
Austin was still a young city at the turn of the century, with a population of just over 22,000 people. But it was growing. The state Capitol brought government officials, the University of Texas attracted students and faculty, and the railroad drew industrial workers. The city started expanding geographically, too. City leaders wanted better infrastructure to keep up with all this growth.
The Austin City Council hired a firm out of Dallas to develop a plan that would bring Austin into a modern era. The firm put together a document that outlined everything from where schools and parks should be built to what bridges were necessary and what streets should be paved for automobiles.
But the planners and the elected officials who hired them also had another motive in mind.
“Really one of the primary goals was segregation and the separation of people of color from white Austin,” Dudley said.
The city couldn’t just section off what parts of the city Black people could live in and what parts white people could live in; Supreme Court justices deemed racial zoning unconstitutional in 1917. But the city could still segregate races by creating separate facilities for Black and white people.
Instead of having to create schools and parks for Black people in all of the freedom colonies throughout the city, the planners recommended the city exclusively build them in one part of town: East Austin. They figured this would force Black residents to move away from the western part of the city, which was desirable to white people, and move to one area east of a road called East Avenue, which would later become I-35. This 6-square-mile section of the city was dubbed the “Negro District.”
All of this was spelled out in just two paragraphs of the 70-page document that began: “There has been considerable talk in Austin, as well as other cities, in regard to the race segregation problem.”
An all-white City Council adopted the plan in March 1928.
“It was very successful,” Dudley said. “It wasn’t a one day they’re here and one day they’re gone kind of thing, but, ultimately, as we’ve seen, the plan did work.”
While the city didn’t, on paper, force Black people to move, it made it really hard for them to stay. In the years following the plan’s passage, the city refused services, like street paving and trash collection, to Black neighborhoods outside East Austin. Schools for Black students in West Austin, like the Wheatville School, shut down, forcing Black West Austin residents to trek across the city to access education. Black people were often denied mortgages, and they weren’t sold homes in neighborhoods on the West Side, such as Hyde Park, which advertisements claimed was “exclusively for white people.”
“They made it to where you had to go. They could say, well, you have a choice,” said Gary Bledsoe, a civil rights lawyer and the head of the Texas NAACP. “But I think that when it was all said and done, it was really a force.”
Though the 1928 plan didn’t directly mention Hispanic people, it ultimately impacted them, too. Low-income Hispanic residents would eventually move east as well, as neighborhoods they lived in west of East Avenue were condemned for redevelopment and property on the East Side remained cheap.
Some freedom colony residents held out for decades, not wanting to leave their homes. Regardless of when they left, Bledsoe says, it would have been a traumatic experience.
“Your support network is gone,” he said. “Your family network is destroyed. You have to go to different schools, and the property that you may actually love and cherish is no longer going to be yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The rise and fall of East Austin
Decades after the 1928 plan, nearly all of the city’s Black residents lived in East Austin. The rest of the city wasn’t a welcoming place for them. Black people couldn’t attend the University of Texas or swim at Barton Springs. They couldn’t even try on clothes at the department stores downtown.
So, living east of what is now I-35, Black Austinites built their own world.
“Black people did what Black people do, and they always figure out a way,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a current City Council member who grew up in East Austin. “We figured out commerce, we figured out clergy and church, we figured out colleges, we figured out art and access and education and community.”
The city built Rosewood Park as one of the only green spaces in the city for Black residents. There, they held family gatherings, baseball tournaments and Juneteenth celebrations.
Ada Harden, a lifelong East Austinite, remembers swimming at Rosewood Park in the 1940s.
“It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” she said. “I was a ballplayer and swimmer, and I’d go there and swim, and we created a [baseball] team called the Barbettes because my two brothers were barbers.”
East 11th and 12th streets became a hub of Black-owned businesses. People hung out at a nightclub called Charlie’s Playhouse or went to movies at the Harlem Theater. If they wanted to hear blues music, they headed to The Victory Grill, where B.B. King and Bobby Bland played.
“This was a neighborhood that people were proud of, even as they knew that they were living under unequal conditions relative to the rest of the city,” said Eric Tang, a professor of African and African diaspora studies at UT Austin.
But in the early ’70s, things started to change.
Anderson High School, which was for Black students, shut down in 1971 because of a desegregation order from a federal judge. People started spending money outside the neighborhood, and Black-owned businesses began to close. The buildings stayed vacant.
Harper-Madison said she remembers a lot of crime in the area while she was growing up there in the ’80s.
“I remember gangs in old East Austin,” she said. “I remember drive-bys. I remember our house got shot up. I remember, when crack hit communities across this country, it hit historic East Austin, too.”
Families started moving out. Between 1970 and 1990, about half the area’s Black residents left.
Then, in the ’90s, the city started a campaign to bring more development to East Austin. Land had been undervalued for decades, so it was cheap. Around the same time, Austin was experiencing an economic boom. More companies opened downtown, and more workers needed places to live. East Austin was convenient. Whiter, wealthier people started moving in. Property values and taxes rose. People who had lived there for decades found it harder and harder to afford to stay.
‘We’re living the history of the present’
Between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the third fastest growing major city in the U.S. The city’s population grew by about 20%.
According to Tang, when a city grows this fast, it normally doesn’t see a decline in any one racial group; as a city’s population grows, so should the number of white, Black, Hispanic and Asian-American residents.
But that didn’t happen in Austin. The Black population shrank by nearly 4,000 people. Among the 10 fastest growing major cities in the U.S., Austin was the only one that had a net loss of Black residents.
“Cities that grow that fast, what does that suggest? It suggests that the city is still a place of opportunity for a number of different people, of different class backgrounds, not just the high-income earners,” Tang said. “So, that's why we shouldn't see these losses. And yet we did.”
Tang says the movement of Black people out of the city can be traced to the 1928 plan — back to when the city pushed Black residents to move to one area.
“If there were Black communities in different parts of Austin, as there are, say, in Houston or Dallas, that it's not just concentrated in one area, would you have seen then the Black population so singularly impacted by gentrification?” Tang said. “Probably not.”
As East Austin became less affordable, Black residents moved to suburbs outside the city: north to Pflugerville and Round Rock and east to Del Valle and Manor.
“They're looking at their housing options and they're saying, I can get, you know, more square footage and more equity in that home than trying to buy something here in Austin,” Tang said. “Plus, there's not a cultural kind of political draw to being here in a city where historically I've felt like a second-class citizen. Why not try another area?”
Twenty years ago, people could buy homes in East Austin for around $60,000. Now, homes there sell for upwards of $600,000.
“Austin's growth, its population boom, its real estate boom — this is all not just, you know, recent,” Tang said. “It is brand new. I think we're living the history of the present. This is the moment in which things turn with rapid speed. But they're staged through decades of inequality promulgated by things like the 1928 master plan.”
The legacy of the 1928 plan
When looking for a place to live after college, Dallas landed on Round Rock, where he works as a teacher. He says he wishes he could have moved back to where he grew up.
“There was no means of affordability for me to stay on the East Side,” he said. “So I haven’t had a place on the East Side by myself.”
Leaving Austin wasn’t easy for Dallas, who comes from a long line of Austinites. His great-great-great-grandfather is Thomas Kincheon, who founded the freedom colony Kincheonville — a farming community in Southwest Austin — in the 1860s. Dallas said his family relocated to East Austin as a result of the 1928 plan.
“What my dad and my uncle had told me was they [the city] turned off all city resources,” he said. “They would never come and pave our roads. They would never come and upgrade that area, which caused us and our family and the community in whole to move.”
Dallas learned about this part of his family’s history only recently. A few years ago, he got involved with an organization called the Black Austin Coalition. The group has been pushing the city to address what the 1928 plan and other racist policies have done to the Black community. Doing this work made Dallas curious about where he came from.
“I have a sense of fight, like to fight for this town,” he said. “I didn’t know where that urge was coming from. It’s so powerful. And my dad was like, ‘Yeah, you’re deeply rooted here.’”
Dallas still remembers East Austin in the ’90s and early 2000s as a self-sustaining Black community. When he talks about his childhood, he gets a big grin on his face.
“I always say like we were the last of the dying breed because around my age and my era, we still had that organic East Austin feel, like the 1970s and the 1980s,” he said.
His family members owned several small businesses, and they worked as city employees, bus drivers and nurses. He said everyone had each other’s backs.
“We could start youth organizations and it’d be supported,” he said. “We could start small businesses and that’d be supported with no problem. … The businesses were thriving. The gatherings and get-togethers were amazing.”
Dallas said this all started to change for him in the early 2000s. He noticed more development, like new roads cutting through his walk to school. Then families he’d grown up with began selling their homes. Their houses were torn down and replaced with modern ones.
“Homes that we never imagined seeing,” he said. “It started to look wild.”
In November 2020, the Black Austin Coalition held a press conference urging city leaders to recognize Austin’s history of racism and promise to invest in the Black community. They brought up the 1928 plan.
“As we look at historical programs and policy that the city implemented, you will see the underlying mistreatment and why Black districts no longer exist in this city,” Dallas said that day to a crowd gathered at one of the remaining Black-owned businesses in East Austin. “Systematic racism in official plans like the Negro District of 1928 … has played a role in the removal of Black success.”
A few months later, the Austin City Council responded. Council members promised to study the issue and hired researchers to quantify how much money Black Austinites have lost because of racist policies like the 1928 plan.
Last year, researchers at UT released their first report on the topic. They found that when Black landowners living throughout the city were coerced to sell and move to East Austin, their descendants lost out on more than $290 million.
The city isn’t planning to pay back descendants of people impacted by the 1928 plan. But it is planning to invest in Austin’s current Black residents. The city said it wants to build something called the Black Embassy in East Austin. This would be a resource center that supports Black-led businesses and organizations.
But it’s been more than two years since the project was announced, and there’s still no Black Embassy. A city official said the COVID-19 pandemic and leadership changes at City Hall have slowed things down.
Dallas says he’s prepared to play the long game.
“We are still fighting for that,” he said.
The $290 million figure just scratches the surface. Researchers have yet to figure out how to quantify the social fallout of displacement — the loss of traditions and landmarks, the breaking apart of communities.
Dallas says he misses the East Austin he grew up in. He still visits family who live there, but it’s different. He longs for a place he can’t return to.
“When that old feel is gone, it feels kind of funny,” he said. “It’s just like when you miss your boyfriend or your girlfriend, or you miss one of your loved ones. That aspect of your life is gone, and you can’t get back to it.”