Berl Handcox, Austin’s first elected African American City Council member since Reconstruction, has died at the age of 88. Handcox was elected as part of the seven-member Council on May 1, 1971, and reelected on April 7, 1973. He received about 62 percent of the vote for both elections. He resigned from his seat in the spring of 1975 to serve as the head of the Texas Equal Employment Opportunity Office, part of the governor’s office.
Prior to 1971, City Council had just two Black Council members. The first, Henry Green Madison, was appointed by Gov. E.J. Davis in 1871. According to the Austin History Center, “The first elected black city council member was William G. Wilson, from Ward 10, who served as alderman from 1883 to 1884.”
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said via email, “Berl Handcox kicked down a door that had been sealed to African Americans in Austin for nearly a century. I would not be where I am today without him. His overdue achievement is one of those major milestones that mark the protracted but progressive march towards justice and equality here in our city. We owe it to him to carry on that march with his memory firmly in our minds and tenderly in our hearts.”
Nelson Linder, the head of the Austin NAACP, told the Austin Monitor Monday, “Not only was he the first African American City Council person, he was also a huge figure in the Austin Black community and the community in general. He actively participated in the (NAACP) and of course in politics and he was very well-respected and known.”
Linder added that Handcox did many things for people in a quiet and kind way and “always had something positive to say.” Linder met Handcox during the 1980s, at which time Handcox was still very active. “He has a legacy here of doing great things and his work will stand. He will be sorely missed in our community,” Linder concluded.
State Rep. Sheryl Cole, who served in the Place 6 seat from 2006-2014, said, “He was the first African American in Place 6 and he was a trusted, well-renowned public servant. He had a reputation for representing the entire city, especially the African American community. … He was a member of many organizations and clubs and brotherhoods in the African American community and beyond. … He will be missed.”
Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin Monitor via text, “Mourning the sad passing of Berl Handcox Sr., at a moment in time that does him honor – the first African American Council member elected in Austin under the Manager-Council form of government. Council Member Handcox famously initiated an equal employment opportunity plan for the city of Austin, a community improvement program to revitalize East Austin and eventually all of Austin, and the ‘Handcox Paving Policy’ which curbed and paved roads throughout our city. As members of the Council, we stand on the shoulders of his legacy. My heart and prayers are with the Handcox family today.”
Council voted unanimously on May 24, 2018, to name the plant formerly known as Water Treatment Plant 4 after Handcox. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan sponsored the resolution.
Flannigan said Monday, “One of my greatest honors as a City Council member was to get to know and work with Berl Handcox on the project to honor him and his legacy as Austin’s first Black Council member. For all of the social justice implications of his service, Berl turned out to be quite an infrastructure wonk, focusing a lot of effort and heart toward making East Austin a better place to live through his initiating street paving projects and equitable distribution of water systems throughout Austin.”
He added, “I was thrilled to learn that he lived in what’s now District 6 for over 40 years and that he wished for his name to grace what used to be known as Water Treatment Plant 4, an innovative plant that was the result of much forethought and pragmatism – two qualities that defined Berl Handcox. Our office sends our most heartfelt condolences to his loved ones. We will miss him dearly.”
Handcox will indeed be remembered as a staunch promoter of equal opportunity. According to a proclamation issued when the water treatment plant was named in his honor, Handcox “championed the passage of an equal employment opportunity plan for the city of Austin. He was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on June 20, 1974, saying, ‘Equal opportunity for all citizens is still not a fact as evidenced by surveys which indicate that women and minorities have not received equal opportunity under the law in city employment.'”
Handcox is survived by two sons, Gary and Ricky Handcox, as well as a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services are pending at the Cook-Walden Funeral Home on North Lamar.