This post is part of our blog series “Scholars Speak,” which features writing from our 2023 cohort of Preservation Scholars. Click the link to learn more about this donor-funded program that aims to increase the diversity of voices in the Texas historical narrative by placing students from underrepresented cultural and ethnic backgrounds in paid, 10-week long summer internship positions at the Texas Historical Commission.
Scholars Speak: A Revealing Look at a Historic Neighborhood
by Miriam Chen
Situated east of I-35, the Robertson Hill neighborhood’s multiethnic history that includes European immigrants, African American freedmen, and Mexican immigrants intrigued me. In conducting research for a walking tour of the neighborhood, I was surprised to learn about Austin’s “Master Plan of 1928,” which recommended that the city create a “negro district” in Austin east of the I-35 highway to save money and enforce racial segregation. Robertson Hill’s stratified neighborhood is evidence of that plan.
The neighborhood is unique because the preservation of many homes and stores creates a tangible retelling of the community’s racial history. From the Victory Grill on E. 11th Street at which African American blues musicians such as Tina Turner performed to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, all of which are still operating today, I learned that the reason for such diversity in such a small space was dictated by redlining and legislation. Despite being multiethnic on the surface, the neighborhood was highly divided and even as homes and businesses changed ownership between European settlers, African American freedmen, and Mexican Americans, each group remained divided into their own little communities. Hence, both legislation and social factors play important roles in defining a community’s composition and community life, as evidenced by Robertson Hill.
Discovering the story of the Robertson Hill neighborhood contributed to my interest in learning about community history, how communities change over the years due to policy and legislation, and social factors that may cause one group of migrants to live in a specific area because of a pre-existing support network. Having studied Chinatowns in the past, where the Chinese Exclusion Act forced Chinese Americans to create social networks for rapport, Robertson Hill reminded me of that, but with other historically discriminated groups. The legacy of Robertson Hill has made me more interested in civil rights law, and how communities are both evidence of systemic discrimination but also create their own institutions to resist it.