When Irene Hill Thompson was just 4 years old, her brother Doxey Hill refused to go to school unless his little sister went along with him.
“We attended Gregory School in Gregorytown,” says Thompson, referring to the old freedmen’s community that was beneath the hill near what is now Huston-Tillotson University. “I passed (that grade) at 4 years old and he didn’t at 6. My favorite subject was music. Everybody in the family played an instrument but me. I sang. I’d say that I played the radio.”
After a precocious childhood and further education, Thompson served as secretary and registrar for Anderson High School from 1948 to 1971. During that time, it was a segregated institution in the Rosewood area, the only such school for African-Americans in Austin. So just about every black teen in East Austin had some contact with Thompson during those decades.
As is often the case with someone serving in that kind of job, she understood most of what was going on, even behind closed doors.
Including the time — in her telling, a very funny story — when the wife of a school leader who was reportedly sleeping with one of the teachers came down to Anderson to confront the adulterers.
She has spent almost every one of her 94 years in Austin. During that time, she was the confidant of — and advocate for — some of the city’s leading civil rights activists.
“She knows everybody in East Austin,” her niece, Marilyn Poole, a lawyer, says. “She has been the wind beneath the wings of so many people and institutions.”
The Hill family
Born in the St. John’s Community in eastern Travis County, Thompson moved into the city with her family as a very young child. After the Gregorytown School, she attended Blackshear Elementary School, Kealing Junior High School, Anderson High School and Samuel Huston College on East Avenue, before it was merged with Tillotson College.
She later received special secretarial certification in New York City.
Thompson’s parents, Jerome Hill and Ida Bell Doxie (or Doxey) Hill, traced their ancestors to whites and African-Americans — sharecroppers and shareholders — as well as Native Americans in rural Central Texas communities such as St. Mary’s Colony, Hornsby Bend and Littig.
Jerome “Daddy” Hill’s full name was “Daniel Webster King of Texas Ulysses Grant Harrison Jerome Hill.” He became “Big Daddy” when another generation came along.
Jerome had courted a woman from the Littig area.
“She got angry and broke off the engagement,” Thompson says. “Big Daddy cried, tore up her letters and threw them in the creek. They flowed against current. He that took as a sign: Better not let that woman get away from him.”
Thompson’s parents waited until the crops were gathered before they got married in 1915. That’s when he married Ida Belle Doxie.
“A shareholder made a move on Mother,” Thompson says. “She said, ‘You take another step and I’ll blow your brains out.’ They kept guns around for snakes in those days.”
The shareholder violently threw the family off the land after yelling racial slurs.
“That’s how they got to Austin,” Thompson says. “My father’s father let him have money to move.”
In town, Jerome Hill worked as a railroad boilermaker, his wife as a seamstress. Later, Mayor Tom Miller helped him get a job with the city, cleaning an alley between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street at East 11th Street.
They raised seven children, born over the course of 20 years.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see my mother pregnant,” Thompson recalls. “That’s the truth. She didn’t go into a hospital for the births. White doctors would go out and deliver the babies. I was the baby for six years. My older siblings always said my birth brought on the Depression.”
Once organized education had opened doors for them, the Hill siblings became high achievers. The late James L. Hill, for instance, was salutatorian at Anderson High School and became the first African-American vice president at the University of Texas. One sister, Waldron Wray Plicque, reached high levels as an administrator in the Austin school district; another, LaVerne Holland, married a teacher after whom the business school building at Tennessee State University is named.
The late Doxey Hill — the one who wanted his sister by his side at Gregorytown — taught band in Midland.
A life in education
A few words about Anderson High School, Thompson’s post for decades: The first black high school in Austin was founded in 1889 near the corner of East 11th and San Marcos streets. It shared the same facilities as the school for the lower grades, Robertson Hill School, established in 1884.
In 1879, it was named for E.H. Anderson, one of two brothers, both educators. In 1907, it moved three blocks northeast to Olive and Curve streets, and in 1913 it moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, now the site of Kealing Middle School.
In 1938, it was renamed for the other brother, L.C. Anderson, who served as school principal from 1896 to 1929. In 1953, it moved atop a ridge on Thompson Street, a campus now home to the Alternative Learning Center and a Boys and Girls Club.
In the 1970s, as Austin schools continued to desegregate, white students refused to attend black schools, so the high school on Thompson Street was closed, and the name was transferred to an integrated school in the Northwest Hills. Charles Akins, namesake of Akins High School in Far South Austin, was its first principal.
“I actually knew L.C., not E.H.,” Thompson says of the Anderson brothers. “L.C. lived at Navasota and Hackberry streets over by Wesley United Methodist Church.”
Austin’s black community was divided over the mechanics of school desegregation, which started in the 1950s. Some resented the closing of the Thompson Street school, which had won many awards and generated much pride.
“Early on, I can recall when they tried to integrate the schools, on senior day, when white kids had a day off to go swimming, the black students were told that they didn’t have to come to school,” Thompson recalls. “(Prominent activist) Willie Mae Kirk told her children, ‘You are going to school — and you are going swimming!’”
During that time, Austin’s swimming pools were still segregated.
Thompson graduated from Anderson in 1939 and from Samuel Huston in 1942, majoring in biology and physical education. She also sang in the choir.
For a while, she worked for an appellate court judge.
“His wife taught freshman English at UT,” Thompson says. “I graded all her freshman English papers.”
She married Oscar Leonard Thompson, the first black person to earn a degree from UT, and typed up his thesis in 1951. Hailing from Rosebud, near Waco, he majored in zoology, with an emphasis on genetics. He became a research scientist helping C.P. Oliver at UT’s Human Genetic Foundation, where he worked on sickle cell anemia.
According to an article in the Alcalde magazine, when he died in July 1962 — he was working on his Ph.D. while teaching at Tillotson — the university flew its flags at half-staff.
Their daughter, Ida Dawn Thompson, was born in 1953.
At one point, the elder Thompson held a job with the USO, the group that entertained military personnel in Central Texas at Camp Swift. At another time, she went to New York to be certified as an educational secretary.
“I was the only certified school secretary in Austin,” Thompson says. “When integration came, I couldn’t get the same position, so I was sent to the administration building. They didn’t want me making more money than other administrators, so I was hired on a teacher’s salary and ended up supervisor of child accounting.”
A changing land
For more than 50 years, Thompson, who attends historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, located very near where the original Robertson Hill School stood, has lived in a strikingly modern home in the Holy Cross neighborhood.
“My history is more or less Texas history,” Thompson says. “I grew up in Austin. I was only out of Austin a brief time. John Chase, the first African-American architect in Texas — my house was his first house.”
After her husband’s untimely death, Thompson fell into a sort of depression. Chase, who created several modernist masterpieces, asked: “Are you ready for a house? Let me get you ready.”
He designed her a multilevel home with a stone facade on the garage level and simple, lined panels on the upper floor. The interiors are open and cool. Thompson has kept them uncluttered, though decorated with generous reminders of her family.
Although many Austinites view the demographic changes in East Austin as a recent phenomenon, black middle-class flight had begun as early as the 1970s, after the enactment of fair housing laws and ordinances in the late 1960s. Gradually, Thompson’s part of East Austin saw more Latino residents during the 1980s, when Anglos, too, began filtering in.
“I couldn’t afford to leave,” she says. “Because I wouldn’t have protection. I’ve got great neighbors.”
UPDATE: The community of Littig was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.