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.”

Don’t let the historic house at Boggy Creek Farm crumble

The best historical evidence indicates that the house at Boggy Creek Farm is, along with the French Legation, one of the two oldest homes in Austin. Unlike the residence on Robertson Hill that was intended for ambassadorial usage and now owned by the state of Texas, the farmhouse on the creek remains in private hands and so private funds must keep it in one piece.

To that end, owners Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle, who have been farming the last five acres organically, are holding a benefit to fix its windows. The event is 1 p.m.-4 p.m. June 24 at 3414 Lyons Road. Expect food, drink, tours and auctions.

Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle at Boggy Creek Farm. American-Statesman

RELATED: Happy 175th to two Austin homes.

“A community benefits when its history is known and preserved,” Sayle says. “Not just by story telling but also by the actual survival of buildings and homes. At Boggy Creek Farm, in the fertile bottom land of East Austin, the farmstead, dating to 1839-1841 still exists. Still ‘standing’ are the remaining five acres of farmland and the modified Greek Revival farmhouse, where the first President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston, dined in 1841.”

Sayle reports that the house is in good condition, except for the windows.

“They are fragile and beyond band-aid glazing,” she says. “They need to be taken out of their walls for professional restoration. The experts at Red River Restoration will clean the windows of aged glazing materials and remove all of the paint. Then they can assess what wood needs repair or duplication. The process takes two months, and the restoration is scheduled for fall. The estimate for the 14 windows is $30,000.”

As stewards of this homestead, Sayle and Butler have been growing good food, resisting development, keeping the house in good repair, and sharing it through many house tours over the last 26 years.

“With the generosity of our community,  and with newly sound windows, this important example of history can weather the next generations and beyond,” Sayle says. “We love this community and we are honored by your help!”

I’m from Oatmeal or Nameless or Radiance or Mud City, Texas

The Lone Star Library has released a second edition in paperback of “Texas Towns: From Abner to Zipperlandville,” revised by Paris Parmenter and John Bigley from the late Don Blevins‘ nifty thematic guide to name origins, settlement dates and driving directions for hamlets, villages and towns all over the state.

Here are some choice, out-of-the-way spots in the greater Austin area. Although the authors have researched their entries assiduously, their versions of civic origin myths might differ from what locals claim.

Remains of a windmill in Oatmeal, Texas. Helen Anders/American-Statesman

Nameless (Travis County) off FM 1431, five miles northeast of Lago Vista. “Settlers were on the grounds by 1869. When residents of the new established community applied for a post office, officials rejected every name the proposed for the facility. After half a dozen names were turned back, somebody it on him- or herself to write the Post Office Department, “Let the post office be nameless and be damned!” Apparently, taking the writer at his words, Nameless became official in 1880.

Oatmeal (Burnet County) on FM 243 eight miles southeast of Burnet. “This is the second oldest community in Burnet County. A German family, reportedly named Habermill, came into the region in 1849 and settled on what is now Oatmeal Creek (near the headwaters of the San Gabriel River). Some believe the name of the stream and ultimately the settlement, came from that of Othneil, a mill owner, or a supposed translation of the name Habermill (haber is a German dialect word for hafer, “oats”).”

Mud City (Travis County) on FM 969 four miles southeast of Austin. “The settlement date is unknown. Little is left of this hamlet, whose claim to fame is that FBI agents once hid out here waiting for 1920s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (they didn’t show). The hamlet acquired its designation becaus when Cottonwood Creek flooded, the roads became so muddy that walking on them was virtually impossible.”

Radiance (Travis County) on FM 1826 south of Oak Hill. “Developed in the 1970s as a commune for practitioners of transcendental meditation. The name Radiance comes from Super Radiance Effect, the theory that communal meditation brings peace and understanding and will ultimately serve to cure many social ills.”

 

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.