By LaToya Devezin
As an archivist, I actively identify, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to records that have long-term enduring, or historical, value. Traditionally, mainstream archives failed to include the histories of underrepresented groups, like African Americans, leaving a largely one-dimensional historical narrative in the nation’s collective memory. Few recognize the power in deciding whose history we choose to tell, and how we can choose to convey or manipulate it. Ancient Romans enacted the practice of damnatio memoriae, or the “condemnation of memory,” to erase a person from the historical record, essentially, erasing them from existence. In collecting and preserving the history of underrepresented groups, we see the aftermath of a de facto damnatio memoriae in action, which is why preserving black history and celebrating the six square miles comprising Austin’s African American cultural heritage district, matter. As our demographics shrink, Austin’s collective memory of its African American community can diminish, which is one of the reasons why I take my job as a custodian for Travis County’s African American history so seriously.
By emphasizing the importance of the Six Square District, the legacy of East Austin’s African American community can be preserved, and most importantly, remembered. East Austin’s African American community comprises a number of trailblazers and historic firsts. Within the parameters of the Six Square District, we can see buildings such as, David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, built by John S. Chase, the first licensed African American architect in the state of Texas. In the 1944-45 season, Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league baseball player, served as a basketball coach for Sam Huston College, now part of Huston-Tillotson University. Dr. Connie Yerwood Connor was the first African American physician named to the Texas Public Health Service (now the Texas Department of Health), and Hattie Henson served as the first African American librarian for the Austin Public Library’s Colored Branch (now the Carver Genealogy Center). Celebrate Austin’s African American contributions and learn more about your history by taking a walking tour with the Six Square District, come to the Austin History Center and research our African American collections, and contribute to helping us tell our stories and preserve our histories. We cannot celebrate or collect Austin’s black history without you.
Preserving the rich history of a shrinking population creates a challenge in presenting a more inclusive historical narrative. Austin is one of America’s fastest growing cities, yet the African American community continues to diminish as intersectionality and gentrification meet. As a result of this paradigmatic shift, we run the risk of losing Austin’s African American cultural heritage and history in the midst of this “black flight.” Without the assistance of the community in recording and documenting their stories, our history might be lost. In the United States, more archival repositories, like the Austin History Center, are opening their doors to participatory archiving, which is a process that allows the community to take an active role in how we preserve and maintain their history. As you learn about Austin’s African American history and take in the history of your neighborhood surroundings, take the time to consider how you would like to be remembered, and the legacy that you would like to leave for future generations.
For more information on how we can preserve Travis County’s black history, please contact LaToya Devezin, the African American Community Archivist for the Austin History Center by phone (512) 974-7390 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.