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.”

Pinpointing a 1940s Bluff Springs baptism

Reader Craig Scott contacted our Austin Answered project:  “I recently saw a photo of people getting baptized in the springs at Bluff Springs dated back in the 1940s,” he writes. “It had a concrete enclosure. Can you run a story on where the actual springs were or are?”

“Preparing for their baptism by Brother Cole, members of the Manchaca Baptist Church joined hands at Bluff Springs and had this great picture taken.” Contributed by Joy Simmons/Manchaca-Onion Creek Historical Association.

The compelling image, shared on the Facebook page of the Manchaca-Onion Creek Historical Association by Joy Simmons, shows congregants from the Manchaca Baptist Church dressed nicely but up to their waists in water.

For his part, Scott’s family history stretches across South Austin from Creedmoor to Pleasant Hill to the area now most associated with the name that history advocates would like spelled “Menchaca” after its real namesake.

We turned to our regular, selfless group of Austin history advocates for answers. One of them, Bobby Cervantes, grew up on Bluff Springs Road in Southeast Austin and has been active in preserving cemeteries and old structures in that area.

“There is also a property just over Onion Creek headed towards Slaughter on the right hand side,” he guessed about the possible site. “There are old cabins and wagons on the property. It is a big property.”

That area on Onion Creek was once home to a freedman’s community and at least one country school by that name.

Lanny Ottosen, who is writing a book about southeastern Travis County, was much more specific. He attached contemporary digital maps that show a very likely location just west of Bluff Springs Road and just south of Onion Creek; a 1937 excerpt from a Travis County listing of springs with a map that reads: “Bank of creek. Flow 5 gallons a minute from sandy gravel. Supplies water for swimming pool. Known as Bluff Springs. Temperature 74 degrees F”; as well as a 1954 aerial shot of the property that shows a similar concrete structure.

Then he hit pay dirt: A text exchange with the current owner not only confirms three springs on the property, but also included a picture of the owner’s husband swimming in a concrete enclosure that looks almost exactly like the one in the baptismal photo.

 

Austin Answered: When Billy Graham preached at the Texas Capitol

Reader Joan Johnson Culver writes to our Austin Answered project: “I have exhausted research looking for the visit that Billy Graham paid to Austin in the late ’40s or very early ’50s. He preached on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds across from the governor’s mansion and what was then the old Cook Funeral Home. I was a very young teenager and attended the service and would love to read about it.”

Billy Graham preaching in Washington D.C. in 1952, the same year he held a revival on the state Capitol grounds. Contributed by the Billy Graham Library

It was not hard to track down reports about the April 27, 1952 revival led by Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99. We employed the searchable pre-1978 American-Statesman archives, available on ProQuest for free with an Austin Public Library card.

Answers to the Austin questions you have asked.

It appears that the invitation for the event came in Washington D.C. from Texas Attorney General Price Daniel, who was strongly supported by Texas Gov. Allan Shivers. In Austin, these leaders appeared on the platform with Graham along with other dignitaries.

It was a big show. Carpenters set up a choir loft for 500 voices. City electricians ran power lines to Capital grounds at West 11th and Colorado streets. Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio and TV show was broadcast from that spot. Officials expected a crowd of 50,000, but no post-revival estimate could be found.

Celebrities, politicians react to Billy Graham’s death.

One Statesman reporter was impressed by Graham’s advance team.

“Religion to the team is not mournful, but a challenge,” reads the report. “Their talk is full of zip and their clothes are bright. They win people with their enthusiasm and sparkle as well as by their cause which they know can’t be beaten.”

Culver was ecstatic to receive the digital clippings. Back in 1952, she had been a senior at Austin High School and attended West Austin Baptist Church at West 12th and Elm streets. It later moved to West Lake Hills as Park Hills Baptist Church.

“Our youth group was a tight bunch doing everything together and having a wonderful time (even if we didn’t drink or dance),” Culver writes. “So we went as a group to that glorious service on the Capitol grounds to hear the young Rev. Billy Graham preach.  I just remember sitting on the grass totally mesmerized by the music, hearing George Beverly Shea sing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ and experiencing the power of Graham’s message.  In all the years since then — 66 years now — just hearing his voice or seeing his face would take me back to that 17 year old impacted by his message.”