Charles Akins stood tall for dignity and calm during the scary days of Austin school desegregation


Almost every year, Charles Akins makes a special trip to Akins High School, in South Austin, on the first day of the new school year. He arrives before the first bell to greet the students, to meet the teachers, in the spirit of welcome — which is only fitting, since the 13-year-old public school is named in his honor.

Akins is long retired from a life in education. Still, this one day: He savors the rare chance to “meet” the morning buses. When the doors open before him, diversity spills out: brown kids, white kids, black kids.

“The kids don’t really know who I am, getting off the bus. It’s kind of mayhem out there,” Akins says with a chuckle. His voice is humble, grandfatherly. He speaks with a preacher’s diction. “But I like just seeing the kids come in, saying hello to them, helping them get off to class.”

Akins is 80 years old now. And he is largely unknown — not just to schoolchildren, but to so many 21st-century residents who never knew old Austin, segregated Austin, and the hard work of integrating Austin’s public schools in the 1960s and 1970s. But for those who do remember, Charles Akins is a hero.

Back in 1973, Akins — an African-American who grew up in segregated East Austin, a descendant of Austin sharecroppers — became the first principal of a brand-new L.C. Anderson High School in white, affluent, West Austin. It was a hard job, in a volatile time, for “new” Anderson High was the focal point of court-mandated integration.

Each morning, Akins would stand in front of Anderson and “meet the buses” — buses carrying African-American children from East Austin, as well as those occupied by Anglo children who lived closer to campus, in all-white neighborhoods, in West Austin. His intent: To project an air of dignity and authority and welcome, to stand tall for the ideal of integration, to push back against the tendency toward racism on both sides.

“I had some bleak days of course, for a time,” says Akins. “When the buses came in from the East Austin area, it looked like practically every day we’d have a big fight when the kids would get off the bus. You know how kids do, stick their chests out. And I said: ‘This is going to stop.’

“I wanted to make it work. I didn’t want to disappoint the school board. I didn’t want to disappoint the superintendent. And I believe in inclusion. I really do. I think that’s what being American is all about.”

Austin wasn’t Boston, where busing in the same era incited large-scale violence. But it was a tense time. During the first year, local ministers walked the halls to help “calm the waters.” Police arrived several times when fights broke out inside and outside the school. African-Americans were still mourning the closure of old L.C. Anderson High School, the pride of East Austin, in 1971. Meanwhile, white students — a 95 percent majority — were most aware that this new high school, a new L.C. Anderson, was named for a black man, an educator, a hero of Austin’s black community.

Akins was the man in the middle, an arbiter, an administrative Solomon, allegiant to no race and no community, beholden only to the idea of equal education for all. Akins knew he was being watched. He felt “failure” would reflect poorly on his race, his heritage. Yet he stayed on for nine years — and made Anderson work.

Akins’ legacy, however, is much larger than Anderson. He was very much a Jackie Robinson figure. As a football official, Akins was one of the first African-Americans in town to work integrated games. In 1964, he became the first African-American to teach at Johnston High School. Akins broke barriers in broadcasting, too, hosting a sports segment on public TV station KLRN for several years, starting in the mid-1960s, when there were no black faces on local network television.

“Charles is a lamp, a beacon, to Austin. Black Austin and white Austin,” says Alexander Porter, a former FBI agent and government official in the social services. He’s known Akins since 1938 and understands well the prejudice of those times. “We all carried the stigma of growing up second-rate citizens (in town), and we wanted to do everything we could to wash away that stigma.

“If this were psychological warfare, a lesser man would have been broken. Charles knew he was going to take some shots (as principal) at Anderson. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. But he had the temperament to work within that environment — and I admire and respect that.”

‘Be ready’

Akins’ character was forged in East Austin, first as a student at Blackshear Elementary School, later at “old” Anderson High School. He was drawn to an ethos there, a moral call. “I didn’t know what my aspirations really were, back then,” he says. “I was average, not a good student. But I wanted to be a good citizen.”

Akins believes in the virtue of being a good citizen. He repeats the phrase constantly, without realizing it. While he’s at a loss to define it, Akins knows it when he sees it. The Good Citizen is imbued with an aura that commands respect. He’s soft-spoken, reliable. He’s not concerned with fame or celebrity. The Good Citizen does not draw attention to himself. But he’s punctual, and his shoes are shined.

The Good Citizen is not so bold as to believe he, alone, can change the world. But he honors a larger good, through service. Good Citizens were his teachers, his mentors … whom he reveres, even now: Mister F.R. Rice, principal of Blackshear. Miss Onie B. Conley, a favorite teacher. Mister B.L. Joyce, bandmaster and disciplinarian. Coach Lonnie Jackson. Doctor John King.

Akins speaks with an air of cheerful, upbeat respect. He consciously structures sentences to avoid accents on “I.” He dresses in slacks, a dark sport coat. His demeanor is so gentle as to suggest timidity at times — until you realize the muscle of goodness at the heart of it.

As a boy, Akins was affected by posture, bearing. His teachers dressed well, emphasized pride. “You better pick yourself up, boy, you’re going to Anderson.” He was impressed that the principal of old Anderson, Mister W.B. Campbell, had been a captain in World War I. At a time when African-American men considered “elevator operator” or “deliveryman” a prime job description, Akins saw men in uniform — and teachers — as special.

“We had a chemistry teacher, Mr. M.L. Pickard,” recalls Akins, who graduated from Anderson High School in 1950. “We found him a little humorous, though he was smart, enthusiastic. He’d be writing a formula on the board, when all of a sudden, (in enthusiasm), when another thought reached him, he’d wipe the board with his sleeve. Even though the eraser was right there, in the bin.”

On occasion, Pickard would step away from the board and address the class directly. “It’s not always going to be like this,” he’d say, alluding to inequality of the day. “You gotta be ready for that day. And you’re not ready.”

Foundation

Akins’ father, Elmer Akins, was a Good Citizen — and quite the bridge-builder in his own right. Elmer Akins loved music, broke color lines with music. In 1947, he began hosting a Sunday morning gospel show on KVET-AM radio — a big deal in segregated Austin — called “The Gospel Train.” It ran 51 years.

“If you’re not really sincere in what you’re doing,” Elmer Akins once said, “you’re as well to walk on off (and let somebody else) do it.”

Elmer Akins had little more than an elementary school education. He made his living as a custodian at the Texas Supreme Court — a job he held so long they gave him the title of clerk. “My dad always wore a tie, all the time,” recalls Charles Akins. “He looked good. And I wanted to emulate that, later, when I became a principal.”

For years, Elmer Akins ran a shoeshine stand in front of the Varsity Theater on the Drag. He could never see a movie there, though, not in the heyday of segregation. He had to go to the Harlem Theater, on East 12th Street, for that.

“I must have been 10 years old, maybe 11 or 12, when my mother took me to Scarbrough’s the first time,” recalls Charles Akins. “We always went to the basement, of course, because that’s where we (blacks) felt welcome. It didn’t bother me that one water fountain (for whites) was over here, and the other fountain (for blacks) was over there.

“But my mother” — a domestic maid to white families, a custodian at Brackenridge Hospital — “was more sensitive to that. She would bristle; she was more strong-willed than my father. She’d grab me, ‘C’mon, boy, (let’s get out of here), when they wouldn’t let her try on hats there. Oh, how she’d bristle at that.”

The times

Looking back at his East Austin boyhood, Charles Akins recalls community. Friday night pool parties at Rosewood Park. Flag football, sometimes tackle football, shirts vs. skins, at Rosewood after church. He smiles, remembering gossamer moments. Those old days, they were great days in Austin.

Except: You couldn’t swim in Barton Springs. Or play in Zilker Park. Not if your skin was black.

Except: White funeral homes wouldn’t touch African-American bodies. As Porter recalls: Black citizens had restricted “blacks-only” visiting hours at the Governor’s Mansion. There were no black officials in state agencies, no black legislators in the Capitol. “A black person could walk into the Capitol — but you couldn’t just go wherever you wanted.” If you went to a Texas Longhorn football game, you sat in a segregated section – you would never think to visit the west side of the stadium — and there were no black athletes on the field.

Except: You couldn’t attend the University of Texas at all, not if you were black. Akins received his undergraduate degree at Huston-Tillotson College. The Blackshear principal that Akins admired so? The esteemed F.R. Rice? He received his master’s degree from Columbia. Options were limited in Texas.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Akins family would drive to Fort Worth to visit relatives — and never think to stop at a café along the way. It was a whites-only world.

“My mother would pack a sack dinner — fried chicken, sandwiches with pickle relish and pressed ham, plain cake — in the car, so we wouldn’t have to worry about that,” says Akins. “All we had to worry about was stopping at a restroom, a service station. But as far as stopping at a café? We were satisfied with our sack lunch.”

T-Shack

Akins got his first teaching job at 23, in 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education — the Supreme Court decision that declared the segregated “separate but equal” standard unconstitutional in public schools. All the same: Akins found himself teaching civics, government and history at a segregated school in rural Marlin. Booker T. Washington High School.

On weekends, Akins would wash football jerseys, hand-me-downs from the all-white team at Marlin High School. Akins couldn’t attend a movie in Marlin. He’d have to go to a blacks-only theater — in Waco.

But in 1959, Akins came home to Austin, home to the eastside Anderson High School. He was voted “Teacher of the Year” there. He was fit, athletic. Some students of the era thought he resembled Jim Brown, the famous football player.

Akins was so respected, in fact, the district asked him in 1964 to teach at Johnston High School — where he would become the first Anderson teacher to work at a high school in the desegregated Austin Independent School District.

“I was eager to accept the challenge,” recalls Akins. “I didn’t want to be an impediment to the movement. I wanted other African-American teachers to be able to teach at any school.

The Johnston principal, Gordon Bailey, was wearing overalls, riding a tractor behind the school, cutting the grass on the football field, when the two men met the first time. Akins was nervous. “Well, we’re going to get started,” said Bailey. “We’re going to give you this portable building.”

The first African-American teacher at Johnston, “outside,” in a portable building? What kind of message does that send, in 1964?

“I didn’t take offense to that,” says Akins, who was assigned to teach low-achievers at Johnston. “That was my classroom.”

So. How many portable buildings were there at Johnston in 1964? One?

“Two,” he says. “Another teacher came in with me, Rodney Brown. He’s Anglo. We became good friends. And I want to say this: I was received royally by the faculty. I had to win over the students, but that came, too. I was surprised that it went so smoothly. There was no conflict. I just kind of blended in. And the next year? They brought other black teachers in.”

The march

For years, Akins has participated in the Austin holiday march, from the UT campus to East Austin, that celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He walks with Akins High School students, often the ROTC group, behind an “Akins Eagles” banner.

Akins remembers well April 4, 1968 — the day of King’s assassination:

“Augustine Garza (a friend, and at that time an Austin school district employee), came to my house that evening. We had planned to attend a fish fry — it was probably a barbecue then — at the Villa Capri hotel, a special affair for coaches and officials who work the Texas Relays. It was from 6 to 8 … and all officials receive their hats and shirts at this event.

“We were feeling lowly, Augustine and I, after hearing of the assassination. Because it was such a horror. You know, I started not to go. But I went. There were one or two officials who came in, and something struck me that I won’t forget. One of them came to me and said, well you know, ‘the chickens always come home to roost.’ He was referring to the death of Dr. King. I didn’t know what to say. But it put kind of a dark cast on my feeling, toward the gentleman who said it.”

Akins speaks softly, in a tone of quiet sorrow, as he tells the story.

“Augustine and I, we lamented about it. What a great person, but to have to die like that. I felt so down about it. Excuse me: I know you can’t dictate how other people feel. But I wanted that other fella, that official who made that remark to me, to feel down, too. But he didn’t. There were probably several others who didn’t. But what that said to me was there was still a lot of prejudice in the world, prejudice so deep that you had to continue to work at it.”

“A year later, I would return to Anderson High School, as assistant principal. And I remember thinking: I want to respect the honorable life of Martin Luther King. If I’m going to be a part of integration, I want to be a model African-American worker. I wanted to be a model citizen, administrator, teacher … or right here at the Texas Relays. We must all be models to uphold his character … his honorableness … as a man of good citizenship.”

Credo

“I heard him say once that he wished we could achieve world peace through education. I liked that.” – Terry Stewart, Anderson High School, class of 1971.

Sisyphus

Throughout his landmark tenure at the new, westside Anderson High School in the 1970s, Akins would sometimes glance at a small sculpture of Sisyphus — a gift from a friend — that sat on an office desk. Sisyphus’ fate, through eternity, is to roll a huge boulder to the top of an incline and then see that boulder roll back down, starting the cycle anew.

The job felt like that, sometimes.

“I don’t want to fail. Because if I fail — and this is just my narrow thinking — the movement would fail here in Austin,” Akins would tell himself. “Look: We have to have some success here. We have to make this work. Because we’re thinking about the future. And if it works, then the whole movement, the acceptance of minority leadership would be evidence.”

But for it to work, Akins had to calm indignation in East Austin over the closure of “old” Anderson High — the school colors lost, the Yellowjacket mascot retired, the trophy case emptied. Why couldn’t the district have kept it open? At the same time, he had to win the trust of skeptical westside Anglos prone to think they wouldn’t get a fair shake from a black principal. Akins’ charge was to be fair, impartial. If a black student and white student got into a fight, he would administer punishment in equal measure. Even if one party was more to blame. For the sake of the larger mission, Akins couldn’t appear to be playing favorites.

And yet: there were racial impediments at play.

Concerned that blacks were underrepresented as cheerleaders or on the drill team, Akins was informed by some sponsors that certain prospective candidates were often late to school — a demerit that eliminated them from consideration.

But no, reasoned Akins. These eastside students are “late” because they ride the bus! Kids living in the Booker T. Washington projects can’t come early. Morning traffic is making their buses late. Don’t blame the students.

“This was a challenge for me,” says Akins. “I tried to overcome the challenge. I told my wife, ‘I’m going to get up in the morning, and I’m going to make sure that these ladies trying out for the drill team, trying out for cheerleader, make it to school on time.’ I had an old station wagon then. So I drove that station wagon and picked those girls up.

“I got there early, so they were on time. And now: It was up to them to be good citizens and go to class and make their grades and then to practice so they could perform.”

Something green

At 80, Akins uses a walker these days. Consequently, he wasn’t able to meet the buses at Akins High School this year — though he still visits the school and speaks at commencement.

Each year, Akins and his wife, Estella — whom he met at Tillotson College, six decades ago — bring green plants to the Akins High School library. In the spirit of life, and the mission of nourishment. They bring cut flowers for the staff, too. A fitting gesture, from the Good Citizen.

“I agree that maybe the entire promise of Dr. King has not been fulfilled,” says Akins. “But in order to get to the prize, we have to go through stages. Sacrifices have to be made, on both sides of the spectrum. But I believe we can get there, to the goal, if you have a mosaic of people, working together.

“You say: Wait a minute. We don’t need to wait that long. But when you think in terms of changing a culture, changing a mindset, it does take time.”

Alexander Porter, his friend from childhood, believes Akins has achieved something most men his generation cannot fathom: Working patiently, within a flawed system, to oversee slow yet fruitful change.

“My path was different. I wanted more than (segregated) Austin could offer,” says Porter, who worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at both the national and state levels. “I left Texas, took the road through the military and law school, decided to go into the federal government. I can see why Charles did what he did — and it worked, because of his tenacity, his concern for people, his patience… He could appease both sides.

“Charles Akins has education in his blood. He would never want to be seen as a black principal, or a white principal, but as a principal of a campus. And like his father — and our teachers — he’s encouraged us to move on, move on, steering us to better days ahead.”


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