- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Her textured floral dress almost overwhelms her. Nala Foster’s arms fall stiffly to her side, and her gaze is steady, serious. Someone has lovingly styled and decorated her hair. She’s the picture of “Sunday best.”
Foster is among the fifth generation in her family to live in East Austin and attend Vision of Hope AME Church. Her great-great-grandmother Odessa Jackson, pictured separately, died recently at the age of 105.
Vision of Hope, located on 4711 Delores St., is now up for sale. Unlike some other African-American churches in East Austin, however, its membership has grown, and the congregation needs to find a bigger place. They will stay in East Austin.
“East Austin is only East Austin for its history,” says Floyd Baker Jr., associate minister at Vision of Hope AME Church, “and churches tell its story.”
Foster and Jackson were photographed on black and white film by Liz Moskowitz as part of a series on East Austin congregations and their members that was exhibited not long ago at Six Square: Austin’s Black Cultural District on San Bernard Street. What began as an observational project when she first moved into the neighborhood in 2012 educated Moskowitz about the historical and cultural landscape that she had joined.
“After moving to East Austin and biking around my new neighborhood, I took notice of small, clapboarded churches, mainly because they were drastically different from the places of worship I had witnessed growing up in Brooklyn,” she says. “My curiosity drew me to try and better understand how these churches shaped community members’ lives.”
As a social documentary photographer, Moskowitz’s camera affords her the ability to explore the unfamiliar and shine a light on issues she finds meaningful.
“I began to attend church services on Sunday and befriended different congregations,” Moskowitz says. “Countless times I was given a warm welcome, as people shared their stories with me and allowed me to take their portraits with a twin-lens film camera.”
It didn’t take long before she realized that the churches represented a larger story — one of rapid development, displacement and cultural shifts.
“I began to share my project with others,” she says, “and it resonated with many people who recognized the significance of paying homage to havens that were traditionally a source of hope, support and guidance — and continue to be so today.”
In fact, Wesley United Methodist Church, located down the block from Six Square’s bungalow, which the church owns, has been in the forefront of a movement to document, preserve and stabilize cultural memory in the 6-square-mile area of Central East Austin that was once known as the Negro District after a 1928 urban plan attempted to segregate African-Americans who had lived in the 15 freedmen’s communities around Austin since Emancipation.
Others have taken notice of Moskowitz’s contributions. In 2015, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University acquired several of the photos from the project, and the following year she was awarded a grant from the Dallas Museum of Art to continue her work.
“As with most photo projects, there are many intricate layers, both seen and unseen,” she says, “and my hope is to respectfully document what came before and is today.”