Ambres Kearney’s muscle memory flares up every time he drives back to his East Austin alma mater, Anderson High School. As he pulls into the U-shaped parking lot, he instinctively tries to park his car in the same spot where he parked his 1963 burnt orange Chevrolet 45 years ago as a high school senior.
“My wife said ‘Where are you going?’ But it was so natural to drive up,” Kearney says. Instead, he parks in the street and sits on the stoop at the front entrance. Parts of the concrete steps underneath him are crumbling.
“Even sitting here I get sad,” Kearney says. “We walked up here to see the doors with whatever’s behind here. That is sad!” Kearney motions to the glass doors behind him. They are white washed and poorly hiding that the entrance area is now mainly used as storage.
Students haven’t attended Anderson High School on Thompson Street* since 1971, the year Kearney graduated.
His old parking spot is now adjacent to the part of the school currently housing the Boys & Girls Club.
Austin ISD closed the school the summer after Kearney graduated to comply with a federal judge’s desegregation order, a decision that Kearney compares to a death. He grew up dreaming of attending Anderson High School, where he played drums in the marching band. He remembers the crowded streets around the school for Friday night football games.
He points out the large trees across the street from the entrance where students who were suspended would hang out, afraid of what their parents would say if they came home from school early. His family attended the same church as his teachers. The principal went to school with his father.
“The high school here was the catalyst,” Kearney says, who used to work in the chemical field. “Now, a catalyst was a bonding agent when you put all the chemicals together. One chemical that bonds molecules. That’s what this school was. It was a bonding agent for the community. You don’t have a catalyst, everything just doesn’t work.”
The Path to Integration
Austin ISD started integrating its high schools in 1955, when 13 black students enrolled in three predominantly white high schools (seven at Austin High School, five at Travis High School and one at McCallum High School). The Austin School Board continued to integrate junior and elementary grades through 1963, when the entire district was integrated.
On May 10, 1966 Austin ISD Superintendent Irby B. Carruth sent a letter to parents that said Austin ISD would “no longer have schools for children of different races.” Students could choose where they wanted to attend school and students at Anderson High School could attend any high school in the district.
But progress was slow and it became clear many people weren’t going to integrate by choice. According to an Austin American Statesman article from July 8, 1971, Anderson High School had a diverse faculty, but “mixing the student body, however, was a different matter. It was tried by court order in 1970, but the order was rescinded in four days after only 56 of the 385 Anglos rezoned for the school, actually enrolled. Families began moving to other areas of the city, placing their homes for sale and renting apartments, to avoid the transfer.”
According to the another Statesman article from the same time period, all of the 180 black students who left Anderson for other district high schools returned.
In 1970, the U.S. Department of Education filed a suit against Austin ISD for failing to properly integrate schools. Eventually, the school board adopted a desegregation plan that called for the closing of Anderson High School. School officials said the school was “impossible to desegregate.” The district said the size of the school and its location made it a difficult task. Plus, it was less expensive to close one school and bus those students elsewhere, rather than busing students from across the city to one high school. Students and East Austin residents protested the change. In a statement, Anderson High school students questioned if the board really tried to integrate the school:
The federal government said to integrate black schools, not to close them down. You said Anderson can’t be integrated, have you tried? Have you told white and Mexican students that they would have to go to Anderson? Why is it every time you have a problem you throw it on the blacks?
The summer before the 1971-72 school year, U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts agreed with the Austin School Board that Anderson was the best school to close. He ordered the plan to be implemented immediately. Anderson High School was closed and students were rezoned for other high schools across the city.
“My Way or the Highway”
The Austin School Board scattered Anderson High School students across various schools in the district, including Austin, Crockett, McCallum, Reagan and Travis High Schools. The district provided buses to take those students to school. On the first day of class, 75 former Anderson students boycotted the change and staged a protest on the steps of Anderson High School for a few weeks before they finally started attending their new high schools.
“It’s not fair to make us go to school at white schools,” said 17-year-old Mary Hudson, according to a Statesman article about the protest. “All that happens at a white high school is that you go to the principal’s office and get sent home anyway.”
“They were pretty determined,” Kearney remembers. “They were more hurt than anything.”
Many students and community members then, and now, think the closing of Anderson High School and the larger push for integration negatively affected the East Austin community into the 1970s and 1980s.
Kearney says around the time Anderson closed, he noticed businesses begin to close along the once bustling 10th, 11th and 12th streets. Many of the buildings remained vacant, taxes went up and people stopped building. The community wasn’t gathering together the way it used to because students and families were scattered at schools across the city. That catalyst was gone.
“The schools were the foundation of the community,” says Brenda Mims Malik, who grew up in the neighborhood. “The schools and churches. And when we lost the ability to go to our neighborhood high school…we lost a lot of communal activity because of that closing.”
In 1973, Austin ISD opened a new high school in Northwest Hills neighborhood and called it L.C. Anderson High school, but the district changed the school’s mascot and colors, rubbing salt in a still-fresh wound.
“The feeling was, ‘Yes segregation is wrong,’ but you shut down what we got and brought us to you, to the other side of town,” says Kearney. “Well you really haven’t helped. You really made the situation worse because…I got to learn your culture and do it your way or no way. My way or the highway. And then you would not take my mascot, my school name, my tradition and bring it over here. You didn’t desegregate, you actually increased segregation because now I’m put on your plantation, I got to play by your rules.”
Meanwhile, Austin Community College offered its first classes at the old Anderson school in 1973, renaming the school the Ridgeview campus. Kearney took a variety of classes there. Sometimes, he says, he’d park his car near the old football field and hear the band, the football team and the drill team practicing.
“It took a while to get that where it wasn’t an everyday thing,” Kearney says “I had a class in the band room. It was jazz appreciation. Sometimes, I’m sitting there thinking about when we were playing jazz pieces, when I’m supposed to be focused on what’s going on. That’s how it’s embedded in your heart. I wouldn’t want to have to go through that again.”
‘Black Autonomy for Non-Existent Racial Equality’
Ted Gordon is the chair of the Department of African and African Diaspora studies at UT Austin and has represented Northeast and East Austin on the Austin School Board for two years. Gordon says many of his constituents are still upset about how the closing of Anderson affected their neighborhood.
“Racial segregation, as it was practiced in Texas, was an evil in many ways,” says Gordon. “But once established it wasn’t felt on a day-to-day basis as an evil, at least in part because it provided space for black autonomy. And with integration, which offered equal opportunities for black folks, but with reality that equal opportunity hasn’t been achieved as yet. The trading off of black autonomy for non-existent racial equality is a bitter pill and people feel it.”
Five decades after racial integration in Austin’s schools, large economic and ethnic divides remain between students who attend East and West Austin schools. Since he was elected, Gordon has pushed the Austin School Board to conduct an equity self-assessment to create more equity between campuses.
“The promises of integration have not been realized in terms of equity and that loss has been autonomy, community and people have mixed feelings about it,” Gordon says.
Today, the school houses the district’s Alternative Learning Center, a specialized school to help students with disciplinary problems.
The only remnants of the old Anderson High School is the field house, which is painted bright yellow with a large Anderson Yellow jacket on the side. The track and field were renovated sixteen years ago after Anderson alumnus and former Dallas Cowboy football player Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson donated money to build the new track.
“If Anderson was open today, it would just be really nice to look forward to Friday night football. Being an alumnus I would be coming to Anderson’s game, following them, supporting them. The neighborhoods would be totally different,” Kearney muses as he stands up outside the school. “I’m just glad the class of ’71 made it through.”
This week, we're launching a project called On My Block: Voices from 12th and Chicon. We're looking at the changes happening in the neighborhood around 12th and Chicon streets in East Austin. It was once a thriving black neighborhood, but it fell into decline. As part of our series, we're occasionally going to look at the history of the area, to better understand its present and future.
*Correction: This article initially stated Anderson High School was on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was on Thompson Street. This article also stated that, of the 13 black students who initially transferred to majority-white schools in AISD, three students went to Travis High School. Five students transferred to Travis High School.