An Austin Uppity Negro Speaks

Certain members of Austin’s black bourgeoisie are perturbed.  They are perturbed because the recent political fight over the future of the Montopolis Negro School has exposed some of their ruling class privileges and has also unveiled some of their neoliberal elitism.  More to the point, the 2015-2017 fight to preserve the Montopolis Negro School–much of which you can read about on this website–has publicly demonstrated some of the inner workings of how contemporary black elected officials deploy notions of “compromise” with real estate developers alongside identity politics in order to stifle neighborhood self-determination and further gentrification.  The Montopolis Negro School case may end up being remembered as the first true test of whether the move to single member districts will mark the start of the unraveling or significant modification of the HNIC (for the uninitiated:  Head Negro in Charge) politics that have characterized Austin and (especially) the South more generally for generations.

Consider the September 28, 2017 (the date the city council considered the Montopolis Negro School matter) remarks of Austin city council member Ora Houston, who vigorously and self-righteously fought for an all-districts based city council in 2012 and was elected to the council’s only African-American opportunity seat two years later.  Instead of fighting alongside the community against a haughty and bigoted Austin version of a young Donald Trump named Austin Stowell, the councilmember instead opted to publicly castigate members of the Montopolis community–myself in particular–at what should have been a moment of triumph and celebration.  It did not have to be this way; Houston’s remarks from the dais were petty and churlish, and she could have chosen to utter them in private.  That she chose the opposite course speaks to basic character flaws in her judgment that undermine the mostly positive public service she has rendered Austin over the years. 


Ora Houston represents Austin City Council District 1, a designated African-American Opportunity District (although its Hispanic population is greater).  The Montopolis School for Negro Children is located in city council district 3, a designated Hispanic opportunity district.

Certain traditions of Austin’s decades-long at large city council practices die hard; because this was a historic “Negro” school, and because of a political vacuum left by the District 3 city councilman, Ms. Houston stepped up to “negotiate” a political settlement on the Montopolis community’s behalf.  One rationale, among several, she used to legitimate her insertion into our community’s politics was this:  Austin Stowell, a resident of the 12 Waller project he developed since 2014, was one of her constituents.

Houston similarly “negotiated” a compromise at Rosewood Courts with the Austin Housing Authority that would have permitted demolition of over 70% of the complex–all while claiming that such an act constituted historic preservation.  For years Historic Tax Credits have subsidized public housing demolition, not preservation, a monumental and racist double standard.  So Ms. Houston’s track record of sticking it to the man is not good.  What she in fact usually does when the man flexes his muscles is to back down and fall in line; when communities attempt to stand up for themselves and resist, she, in true neoliberal fashion, works hard to slap such efforts down as “unreasonable” or “overreaching.”  Such accommodationist posturing has a long tradition in black politics.

At the Montopolis Negro School there was a problem:  Ms. Houston did these things without ever speaking to anyone in the Montopolis community.  Neither Houston nor any of her representatives contacted myself or Susana Almanza, our duly elected Contact Team chair.  After weeks of rumor, the first time we observed physical evidence of Houston’s meddling in our community affairs was in the fall of 2016, when she and her staff organized a tour of the historic school building for Kate Singleton of Preservation Austin and Donald King, then of Six Square.  The Montopolis community, which is tight-knit and had the site under neighborhood surveillance, noticed that a group of vehicles led by Mr. Stowell had congregated at the school and notified me immediately.  I showed up and expressed both my personal and the community’s displeasure at such a nakedly hypocritical display of discourtesy and pomposity. 

The substance of my conversation with Ms. Singleton shall remain private, but I was pleased that my fellow New Englander Don King understood a basic fact about neighborhood politics, even in cities such as Austin: if you are going to set foot on someone else’s turf you announce your presence and come correct.  You don’t parachute in.

Montopolis has a rather different history than the history embodied by Six Square, Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage District.  It was odd for Houston to involve the organization in discussions about the future of the Negro School, but understandable if you believe that Austin’s black history is mostly monolithic, or that it is the job of black neighborhood leaders to fall in line behind “their” black elected officials.

But history, black history included, doesn’t work like that.  For example although connected via many historical linkages, the black history of current Austin neighborhoods such as Montopolis and St. John is different.  It is also the case that the history of the Burditt’s Prairie Freedmen’s Community in Montopolis is older than that of other more well-known Austin Freedmen’s communities such as Clarksville or Wheatsville, as any reader of my book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood could have learned.

Ms. Houston is quick to remind people of her long tenure in Austin and the fact that she attended segregated Austin schools.  But she is not the only person who can make this claim.  Montopolis’s own Georgia Steen actually attended the Montopolis School for Negro Children in the early to mid 1950’s and still lives less than 500 feet away.  Ms. Steen was one of the most steadfast supporters of preserving the school–all of it, not just the building–and was a centerpiece of our community based, not community placed, preservation efforts.  Ms. Steen participated in numerous meetings of various Austin boards and commissions, as well as nearly a dozen community meetings.  Councilmember Houston did not reach out to Ms. Steen either.

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Consider also the July 11, 2017 remarks of newly elected Travis County Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion, who, in proper deference to the desires of Ms. Houston, puffingly had inserted himself into the debate about a Commissioners Court resolution regarding the school that the Montopolis community had been seeking at his very first meeting as a commissioner earlier in the year.  I don’t doubt that Mr. Travillion’s desire to broker a negotiated solution here was sincere, but like Ms. Houston he underestimated the depth of feeling concerning gentrification and loss of heritage in Austin and in Montopolis in particular.  It too is an indicator of the degree to which his political default mode is driven by routine meetings with developers and their lobbyists, not actual community members.  Like Ms. Houston, we know which direction his political compass points when push truly comes to shove.  The easy way pays better.

Some Lessons

In 2017 and 2018 it is important for Austinites to have moral clarity about what these elected officials actually mean when they oppose neighborhoods or shill for developers:  it isn’t uppity Negroes such as Fred McGhee who run this town, it is Negroes like us.  Disobliging rebels such as Dr. McGhee have to be taught a lesson.

It apparently did not concern them that young Mr. Stowell and his taxpayer funded buddy in the Austin Planning and Zoning department Jabba Jerry Rusthoven (as well as their “urbanist” chums) also wanted to teach me and my supporters a lesson; one whose racial overtones always were obvious.

After the Second World War the great Trinidad born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox summarized the role of African-American race leaders as follows.  His insights neatly encapsulate Austin’s racial politics, even in 2017. 

The black race leaders, he wrote,

must be specialists in the art of antagonistic cooperation. Their success rests finally in their ability to maintain peace and friendship with whites; yet they must seem aggressive and uncompromising in their struggle for the rights of Negroes. They dare not identify all whites as the enemy, for then they will themselves be driven together into a hostile camp.  This tentative nature of Negro solidarity presents a particularly baffling problem for the Negro leader.  He must be a friend of the enemy.  He must be a champion of the cause of Negroes, yet not so aggressive as to incur the consummate ill will of whites.  He knows that he cannot be a leader of his people if he is completely rejected by whites; hence no small part of his function is engaged in understanding the subtleties of reaction to the manipulation of the whites of his community.  No contemporary Negro leader of major significance, then, can be void of at least a modicum of the spirit of “Uncle Tom” ingratiation, compromise, and appeasement must be his specialties.

If Austin is to assume its place as a truly world level metropolis, our city’s Negro leaders must come to understand and fully appreciate the basic meaning of 10-1:  that the racist “Gentleman’s Agreement” that governed how Austin elected its city council members for over five decades is truly over. 

Bookerite theorizing of black leadership as consisting of black spokespeople brokering deals with developers on behalf of “the people” must be supplanted by a more plural and organic advocacy that respects the right of people to plan their own neighborhoods and to defend their communities and community heritage where necessary.

In closing, now that Austin has officially renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day, let me paraphrase the great Oglala leader Russell Means:  “We have had enough sympathy.  We don’t need any more of it.  What we want is respect.”

In this instance both Ms. Houston and Mr. Travillion failed this basic test.  And they should be held accountable at the ballot box for it.