In the late 1960s, Austin leaders started getting serious about integration.
“They wanted to hire minority-owned businesses,” Tommie Wyatt recalls. “But they’d say, ‘We don’t know where to find them.’ ”
That led Wyatt, in 1970, to publish the Black Registry, an annual directory for the city’s African-American community. Soon, however, those same attorneys, bookkeepers and contractors wanted a place to advertise more frequently.
Thus was born, in 1973, the Villager, the weekly “good news” newspaper that will pay tribute to its 40th anniversary with a party at the Sheraton Hotel at the Capitol on Saturday.
“We thought we’d try it and see what would happen,” Wyatt, 75, says. “The community took to it. Eventually, I closed
my insurance agency and devoted myself full time to the newspaper.”
The free weekly started with a circulation of 3,000 and stabilized at 6,000. It became an essential entree into the East Austin political scene, which Wyatt could have used during his two unsuccessful bids for Travis County commissioner. (He made the runoff in 1970.)
From the beginning, Wyatt — whose first name is often spelled “Tommy” — focused on education, weddings, anniversaries, philanthropy and church news, always avoiding the sensational.
“We made a conscious effort not to cover Saturday night shootings and domestic violence,” he says. “Those made the front page of the daily newspaper. That meant most of what was covered of our community was negative.”
Born in San Jacinto County, Wyatt never knew his father, a farmer. “I knew where he was and who he was,” he says. “But we never met.”
His mother, Ardalia Standifer, helped raise three boys while serving as a domestic worker in West Texas cotton country. One brother, since deceased, lived with Wyatt and his mother.
“We spent a lot of time outdoors,” he says with a smile. “My older brother was kind of an entrepreneur type. He liked to find things to sell — garden seeds or Cloverine brand salve. It helped with the aches and pain.”
At 14, Wyatt’s family moved to Lubbock, where he excelled in classes and played tackle on the Dunbar High School football team.
“I had a very engaging history teacher,” he says. “In the 1950s, she was already teaching black history. She took it on her own. She felt strongly about it.”
A social studies teacher got him interested in a community garden, and he joined the New Farmers of America, the black version of Future Farmers of America.
“I knew I wouldn’t be a farmer. Farming was something I had to do,” he says. “I turned down a scholarship at Prairie View A&M University because there was no point in going to college if I was going to be a farmer when I came out.”
Instead, he accepted a football scholarship and studied business at Bishop College, a historically African-American school then located in Marshall. After school, he took a job with the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. district office in Lubbock, the first of several posts with black-owned insurance businesses that eventually led, after two years in the Army, to Austin.
His first office was at 1211 E. 11th St. in the heart of the African-American business district. The twice-married Wyatt — a quiet, burly man who oversees a thickly papered desk at his newspaper offices on East 12th Street — dropped out of the insurance game in 1973 when the Villager turned into a family effort.
His son, Thomas Lionel Wyatt, still works at the paper, as does his granddaughter, Angela Wyatt. Another granddaughter, Raven Wyatt, is a high school student in Pflugerville.
Early on, Wyatt faced little competition in his East Austin territory. The Capital City Argus was published irregularly, and the progressive-minded Nokoa The Observer didn’t arrive until 1987.
Wyatt has seen his fair share of changes in his business and his market area. While he supports the Villager website, fiercely loyal customers keep the hard-copy version in circulation.
“We haven’t been hit hard yet,” he says. “We also haven’t gotten overexposed in the digital world. People say they like to have it in their hands. Now, the younger generation is totally absorbed in their iPads and so forth. The next 10 years will tell how things will turn out.”
He likes to fire the minds of young people by describing the progress from a manual typewriter to an IBM Selectric and a Xerox device with a whole six pages of memory. Parallel to many newspapers, he now caters as much to state, regional and national advertisers as to the mom-and-pop businesses that formerly lined East 11th.
The rapid changes in East Austin mean that the Villager, put together at 1223 Rosewood Ave. offices for 25 of its years, provides some social stability, like the area’s many churches.
“The community just dispersed,” he says without rancor. “This was solid black. After 1968 or ’70, they were able to buy properties all over town, so they started selling here. Much of the black community moved east of Airport Boulevard. The other side of East Austin is now really a part of the downtown business district.”
Austin being a city, that sometimes painful evolution is far from over.
“We are coming on the big one with the 10-1 election process,” Wyatt says of the Austin City Council’s single-member district plan. He can’t predict which way Central East Austin — now with blacks, Latinos and Anglos in roughly equal numbers — will come out. “Some of our biggest changes are yet to come.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin.