Tucked behind a burgeoning commercial district off of West Sixth Street near Lamar Boulevard sits a little-known part of Austin history.
After the Civil War, a community of formerly enslaved African-Americans settled on the northern half of Wood Street near the west bank of Shoal Creek. Over the decades, the enclave experienced a cultural shift as a 1928 city master plan began pushing African-Americans into East Austin and Mexican and Mexican-American families began living in that area.
On Friday, the Texas Historical Commission ensured that the legacy of those minority families lives on when it designated a Texas historical marker for the Wood Street Settlement. The designation, part of the commission’s Undertold Markers Program, aims to address historical gaps and to document underrepresented people and untold stories.
“Many times when we think of these historic markers, we think of them commemorating large mansions, estates and places occupied by people of major historical significance,” said Joe Ramirez of the Travis County Historical Commission. “But we also have to think of the undertold stories of people from more humble means whose contributions have also had impacts on the development of local communities.”
As Austin continues to grow and develop rapidly, capturing the history of places such as the Wood Street Settlement has become more urgent than ever, officials said. According to Preservation Austin, much of the physical reminders of African-American and Mexican-American communities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have disappeared throughout Central Austin and have been replaced with modern development.
Historical maps show a contrast between the settlement’s cluster of houses versus a neater, standard pattern of nearby neighborhood houses owned by white families. The last two remaining Wood Street houses, which were built around 1908 and survived several powerful floods, were demolished in 2014 for future development despite community and city attempts to protect the houses and land.
According to the Untold Markers application submitted for the settlement, those houses were considered perfect examples “of board-and-batten vernacular working-class houses” that were typical of Austin’s minority neighborhoods.
Many rural Texan slaves moved to urban areas after Emancipation, establishing freedmen’s communities such as Wheatville and Clarksville in Austin. It’s unclear whether Wood Street was a fully established freedmen community like those, but early residents of the settlement included cooks, drivers, porters and laborers. Despite the era’s racial tensions and the Wood Street community’s proximity to wealthier, nonminority neighborhoods with larger houses, the settlement thrived into the 1920s.
At the time, much of Austin’s Mexican-American community had developed just east of Shoal Creek. According to the Texas Historical Commission, Mexican-Americans who moved into Wood Street were likely connected to the significant cultural hub around Republic Square, which was then dubbed “Mexico.” Residents who didn’t move east were likely working for wealthy employers who preferred them to live closer, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion said.
“We need to let (this history) inform the way we move forward, that we understand what happened in the 1928 plan and understand how there is still displacement and how we respond as a community,” Travillion said. The 1928 city plan helped segregate Austin by creating a “negro district” in East Austin.
After community members brought the Wood Street Settlement to the attention of the Shoal Creek Conservancy a few years ago, the nonprofit teamed up with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Travis County Historical Commission to submit a nomination for the marker.
“It can be difficult to find this history since information on minority communities wasn’t always well-documented,” said Kim McKnight, project coordinator for the parks department. “We have a lot of new people moving in who may not understand all the different cultures that influenced our city, so as we transform we need a deeper and layered understanding of our community.”
In an effort to “tell the history of Austin through Shoal Creek,” the conservancy plans to include interpretive signs about the Wood Street Settlement along the Shoal Creek trail. Adding a civil rights history walking tour starting at the new historical marker might also be a possibility, according to Joanna Wolaver, executive director of the Shoal Creek Conservancy.
Some of Austin’s other Undertold Markers include Downs Field and Parque Zaragoza in East Austin.
“These once vibrant communities all over Austin are disappearing from memory, and we want to stop that as much as we can,” said Bob Ward, chairman of the Travis County Historical Commission. “If we lose that history, we lose a lot, I think.”