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.”

1940-2018: Joe Lung of longtime Austin eatery family is dead at 77

Joe Lung, whose family operated popular Austin eateries for three generations, died of complications from a stroke at Hospice Austin’s Christopher House on Wednesday evening. He was 77.

Joe Lung’s family came to Austin in the 1880s. They owned a series of diners, restaurants and sandwich shops. Late in life, Lung welcomed visitors from around the world at the State Capitol gift shop. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

This is a developing story. Check back for details.

New life for a 1939 Austin gem of an apartment building

Reader Elayne Lansford invited us to an unusual party, which turned into a time machine to the a personal past.

“It is about an old building at 1105 Nueces St., built in 1939, one of many examples of little apartment buildings in that time, offering ‘modern’ places for people to live rather than boarding houses,” Lansford wrote us. “These apartments were once all around the center of town, but now only a tiny handful survive in Austin.”

Elayne Lansford inherited the four-unit 1939 apartment building in downtown Austin from her uncle. She fixed it up. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

She had me at “1939.”

By the time I had arrived on a steamy Friday afternoon, a crowd had gathered outside the recently renovated four-unit brick apartment house. Lansford, dressed period attire, addressed a crowed that included Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, neighborhood organizer Ted Siff and project historian Terri Meyers.

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“I call them the missing middle,” Meyers told me later about the 1930s and ’40s housing options in the downtown area for professional women. “They were not boarding houses or Victorians broken up into apartments. They were modern but with homey touches in a residential scale with revival styles. There were schools and jobs nearby and each unit probably went for $100 a month.”

A small crowd cheered the city and federal historic designations for the building on Nueces Street. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Lansford and Meyers worked with designer Tere O’Connell to bring it back to life. The city and federal governments have recognized the historic value of these once ordinary homes.

“My grandmother, a Jewish immigrant and widow who made her living as a landlady after the death of her husband, bought it in 1945 when she moved to Austin for my mother and uncle to attend the University of Texas,” Lansford says. “It was the height of modernity at that time, fully furnished, with full kitchens, wood floors, faux fireplaces, attic fans for cooling, and a shower and tub both in each apartment. It was largely untouched for 70 years, until I inherited it from my late uncle and decided to do a historical renovation of it.”

This four-unit apartment house on Nueces Street was built in 1939 for professional women. It has been restored and honored by the city and federal government. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Why did it serve as a time machine for me? My first grown-up apartments in the early 1970s were created in almost the same mold — same fixtures, same tiles, etc. — during the same period in Houston.

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.

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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.

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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.”