Even Austin newcomers will recognize the name Wheatville, if only because of Wheatsville, the food market that bears the ever-so-proximate name.
Others can quickly tell you, too, that Clarksville is a mostly residential area west of downtown, although long-timers often argue about its exact boundaries.
Some locals can explain that Wheatville and Clarksville were once freedmen’s communities, established by former slaves after the Civil War.
How many, though, can name and locate the 13 other freedmen’s communities now within Austin’s city limits? Or know which of them faded away after a 1928 city plan encouraged blacks to move to a single section of town?
To understand these settlements — some rural, some urban — the essential text is archivist Michelle Mears’ impeccable 2009 book, “And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928.”
In general, she writes, these communities consisted of small, substandard houses on unpaved streets that lacked transportation, streetlights, electricity, indoor plumbing and garbage pickup. Often situated along creeks, they were anchored by self-help organizations, schools and, especially, churches. A dozen or so of those congregations still exist today.
After emancipation, many rural slaves in Texas moved to urban areas, especially frontier towns like Austin and San Antonio, which were less oppressive than parts of the state like East Texas.
“Austin was a refuge for many freedmen who had suffered at the hands of lawless whites,” Mears notes.
Which is not to say that the city was a racial paradise. White supremacy and Jim Crow laws ruled social culture all across the South, Austin included.
“Whites killed blacks for imagined impertinences,” Mears writes. “Such as refusing to remove their hats when whites passed, refusing to be whipped, and improperly addressing a white man.”
Still, Austin was demonstrably different. For a place that recorded only 973 slaves in the 1860 census, an unusually high number of freedmen’s communities flourished here after the war. In fact, records show that African-Americans at this time lived all over the city. Also, whites and Mexican-Americans lived in the freedmen’s communities.
Why would Austin’s circumstances differ from those of other cities at the time? Perhaps because it was a generally poor and informal place. Dilapidated from wartime neglect, it suffered from negligible city services, loose animals and, before the railroads arrived in the 1870s, difficulty in moving goods.
African-Americans, nonetheless, remained at the bottom of the economic ladder. While education was a top priority — after safety — for freedmen’s communities, the 1872 city directory shows the leading lines of work for freedmen were blacksmith (16), porter (15), barber (14) and teamster (14). By the 1910 census, the top jobs were laundress (142), private servant (70) or cook in a private home (100).
In two extremely valuable appendices, Mears lays out the basics for the 15 Austin freedmen communities. (Populations are estimated.)
Pleasant Hill. Established in 1865, this settlement took the highlands above Waller Creek just beyond East Avenue (now Interstate 35) between Seventh and 11th streets. With a population of 180, it included houses and tents. Mears: “Pleasant Hill could not have been very pleasant when the creek flooded, which it often did.”
Kincheonville. Also founded in 1865, this hamlet was home to 80 freedmen. Far outside Austin at the time, it was in the area now defined by Paisano Trail, Davis Lane, Brodie Lane and Longview Road near southwestern Austin’s Longview Park.
Barton Springs. A third community grew up in 1865, southeast of the famous springs, settled by former slaves from the Goodrich Plantation. School was held at Barton Springs Baptist Church, established in 1870.
Reyna Branch. Started in 1866, this town, probably near Bluff Springs on Onion Creek, developed around the Reyna Branch School.
Masontown. In 1867, the flats beyond East Avenue from Third to Sixth streets were settled around what would become the Mason Town School. Eventually, it was split by massive railyards, now slated for redevelopment.
Wheatville. Located in 1869 above Shoal Creek between 24th, 26th streets and Rio Grande streets, this community of 250 worshipped at New Hope Baptist Church (1887) and studied at Wheatville School (1881). Its newspaper offices now house Freedmen’s Bar.
Robertson Hill. Arguably the center of black culture at one time, these uplands rise north of Pleasant Hill, between 11th and 14th streets. Started in 1869, it has been home to Ebenezer Third Baptist Church (1875) and Robertson Hill School (1897), among other institutions.
Belle Hill. In 1870, a few black families lived here off Bee Cave Road. The only known reminder is Jackson Cemetery at 700 Las Lomas Drive.
Clarksville. Gov. E.M. Pease granted lots from his plantation to former slaves. Charles Griffin Clark was an outsider who bought up land and organized the community in 1871. Sweet Home Baptist Church (1896) remains the cultural center of this protected neighborhood, bounded by West Lynn Street, Waterston Avenue, West 10th Street and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).
Burditt’s Prairie. In what is now Montopolis near Felix Avenue, the Burditt Plantation produced this town in 1875. Its St. Edwards Baptist Church (1863) predated emancipation, and its population reached about 150.
Red River Street. Many ethnic groups got their residential and retail starts in Austin on Red River. For African-Americans, the story began in 1876 and included at least three schools and two churches.
West Side. Started in 1876, this area between West Avenue and Shoal Creek north of Sixth Street supported the West Austin School and a population of 575. Few remnants remain of this oft-flooded neighborhood.
Gregorytown. Once Austin’s most densely populated black community, with a population of 1,200, it ran from the Texas State Cemetery to the Tillotson Institute, now Huston-Tillotson University. It was served by the Gregorytown School, established in the 1890s.
South Side. Also known as Brackenridge, this community grew out of the Bouldin Plantation and the Swisher Farm. Mears says it was founded in 1895, but local memory — kept alive by three historically African-American churches there — suggests it dates to the 1870s. Today, the fast-changing area reaches from South Congress Avenue to Dawson Street, and from Elizabeth to Johanna streets.
Horst’s Pasture. Without much luck, Mears tries to pinpoint this informal settlement, which was probably on a hilltop near the current University of Texas football practice bubble.
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.