In 1911, Booker T. Washington drew 5,000 to Austin park

On Sept. 29, 1911, the celebrated orator, author, educator and presidential advisor Booker T. Washington spoke to a very large crowd in Austin at Wooldridge Square. The founder of the Tuskegee Institute came at the invitation of the Rev. L.L. Campbell of St. John Orphanage and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

This 1894 file photo shows Booker T. Washington. AP Photo/Library of Congress

“He started his day at the St. John Orphanage,” said Ted Eubanks, an Austin certified interpretive planner and heritage interpreter. “There is a photo of him having breakfast there. He then visited both Huston and Tillotson colleges before speaking at Wooldridge Square in the evening. The Texas legislature had denied him permission to speak in the Capitol, so Mayor A.P. Wooldridge invited him to speak at the new park in Wooldridge Square instead.”

Newspaper reports put the size of the crowd of mostly African-Americans at 5,000, this at a time when the area’s population hovered around 35,000. To make a not too far-fetched comparison, that would be like attracting 286,000 citizens from our metro population of 2 million to hear a speech today. That would require a hall three times the size of Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium.

Introduced by the mayor, Washington, a proponent of racial conciliation, argued against the Great Migration of rural African-Americans to northern cities and urged blacks to remain in the South and especially on farms.

More problematic from an historical perspective, Washington had, in 1895, struck the unwritten “Atlanta Compromise” with white Southern leaders. In exchange for education and due process in law, blacks in the South would continue to work and bend to white political control and abjure social justice activism.

Washington’s ideas influenced Mayor Wooldridge and some Austin black leaders, Eubanks said, and, subsequently, helped shape the 1928 urban plan that led to a separate Negro District in East Austin, along with promised civic amenities, not always delivered. It of course also led to stricter segregation for decades and lingering inequities today.

On the 29th of this month, a smaller crowd is expected at Wooldridge Square for a 107th anniversary celebration of the big speech. Spectrum Theatre Company will recreate Washington’s speech and today’s leaders will add their thoughts before Eubanks gives a tour of the area around the square, including the site of the First (Colored) Baptist Church where the Austin History Center now sits. The event is backed by Downtown Austin Alliance, Friends of Wooldridge Square, Travis County Historical Commission and the Austin History Center.

“We will be not only talking about Washington the man, but we will also delve into the lost histories of Wooldridge Square, especially African-American histories,” said Eubanks, who has been working on a collaborative project about downtown history called Our Austin Story. “I could make the argument that Washington’s visit in 1911 represents one of the seminal events in Austin history. No only did the city respond in overwhelming numbers … Washington’s influence on city leaders, especially A.P. Wooldridge, can still be seen today.”

Austin Answered: Why all those names on dedication plaques?

A reader asks our Austin Answered project: “Why do politicians and construction companies place their names on public property? These places are for people. They are not billboards.”

We asked for a clarification: “Do you mean the cornerstones and dedication plaques that go onto structures honoring the folks who authorized them, or paid for them, or built them? Or are you talking about sidewalks, curbs, manhole covers, etc., that usually indicate the company that constructed them?”

The reader sent a prompt and thoughtful response.

Dedication plaque attached to the Pfluger Bridge Extension. Contributed
“See the plaque attached,” he writes about the 2010 dedication plaque attached to the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge Extension. “This is the one that makes me question why all those names on this plaque. Architect, I understand. Even builder or one or two people who played a key role in the project.”
The reader put his finger on an old practice. Dedication plaques and cornerstones with similar extensive credits go back to the ancient world. Memorial or historical markers survive in the thousands from the medieval period.
“It would have been much more meaningful to say that this bridge was built for the people to keep them safe from the traffic on Lamar Boulevard,” he continues. “Followed by a simple thanks to those involved for designing a wonderful bridge. I’ve been in Austin 20 years and heard there was a guy that was even killed in traffic on Lamar. I believe his name has been painted on the pillar under the train bridge to memorialize him, but I doubt many people know that.”
Indeed, the narrow sidewalk on the Lamar Boulevard Bridge, completed in 1942, was — and remains —  extraordinarily dangerous. A pedestrian was killed when a car jumped the curb in 200o. A drunken driver struck and killed a cyclist on the sidewalk in 1991.
The James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, named for a notable architect who helped design the city’s trail system, was completed in 2001, but was avoided by many until the extension spanned West Cesar Chavez Street and linked cyclists, walkers and joggers to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and North Lamar, completed in 2011.
UPDATE: The reader who made this Austin Answered request did not want his name published with the response.

AUSTIN ANSWERED: Hobgoblin consistency helped name Austin’s ‘half’ streets

Recently for our Austin Answered project, we responded to reader Sue Fawcett‘s question: “Whose idea was it to create ‘½’ streets, such as 38th ½ Street, instead of creating a different street name?”

City archivist Mike Miller at the Austin History Center told us: “Nothing in old city codes. In looking at old maps and comparing to today, it looks like ½ numbers were used when a block or blocks bounded by numbered streets was resubdivided and a new street was made.” 

That made sense.

After the story about fractional streets ran in print, reader Frank De Groot contacted us to suggest that city planners, at least in the postwar period, had something else in mind — a sort of hobgoblin consistency. After all, if street names follow a rigid pattern, it’s easier to approximate distances, find addresses and estimate travel time. But it might have gone too far.

“I can tell you with certainty that West 49 ½ St. was designated in the original platting,” De Groot writes. “I started working for Grey & Becker, the builder/developer of the neighborhood (west of Shoal Creek, sometimes called Allandale South) in early ’50s, while a fifth-year student in the University of Texas studying architecture. My pay: $1.25 an hour. I think that the city encouraged, maybe required, that street nomenclature show continuity when there was separation created by the river, creeks, railroads, ravines, etc.”

This street map from 1974 shows that when the new subdivision west of Shoal Creek in Allandale South was built in the 1950s, developers tried to echo the name of West 49th Street, even though interrupted by the creek. Then they created West 49th 1/2 just to the north for more consistency’s sake.

That would also explain why a name such as “Gibson Street” is applied to five stretches of road in South Austin, separated by two dog legs as well as by a creek, a railroad and the Texas School for the Deaf. (We’ll leave widely separated “Barton Skyway” for another column.

In the case of Allandale South, the developers picked up West 49th from the older neighborhood to the east, then created West 50th and West 49 ½ to augment the pattern.