Exploring and learning in East Austin with Black Austin Tours

Native Austinite Javier Wallace is sharing his love for history and his community as the founder and guide of Black Austin Tours and Austin's Black History Walk.

The historic walking tour visits important sites and institutions as well as engaging people in dialogue about the changing nature of East Austin and the city's black community.

Wallace says, "I really wanted to share with people that our histories are more connected than we know and that this community is a strong community...because we (have) been working together for so long and been resilient for so long."

The idea for the Black History Walk came from a business Wallace had started, called AfroLatino Travel, in his time in Panama. Wallace's father is from Panama so Wallace moved there to finish his master's degree and lived in the Central American country for six years before coming back to Austin to pursue his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I've already had experience doing tours related to race and geography while in Panama and inviting a lot of people but when I came back home...it really struck me that I...would like to do something here in Austin," Wallace says. "Not just stop at what looks pretty and what looks nice but to give people a form of education."

It's a very personal endeavor for Wallace as his family has been in the Austin area for nearly 200 years.

"I'm a Texan. An Austin Texan through and through however way we want to think about that," Wallace says.

"My family on my mother's side (has) been in this state even before it was a state. We were trafficked here as enslaved persons from Georgia with a white family by the last name of Hill to a little town outside of Bastrop called Hills Prairie, Texas," Wallace says. "When enslavement was finished in 1865 we had moved on to Saint John's Colony in Caldwell County which is a freedman's town."

Wallace's grandparents decided to move to Austin in the 1940s and settled in East Austin. Wallace's mother was born and raised on East 12th and his father came to Austin in the 1970s to play tennis at Huston Tillotson. Wallace says his parents actually met on a Rosewood Park tennis court.

"I have a long history here," Wallace says. "East Austin is a community that's given me life. East Austin is a community, the black community in Austin really, is a community that's given me opportunities."

The Black History Walk begins at the African American Heritage and Cultural Facility on East 11th Street which Wallace says is to get people more acquainted with the City of Austin's 1928 Master Plan and the creation of what was called the "Negro District". 

It's also where one of the first homes constructed by a newly freed African American still stands. Wallace says that the Dedrick-Hamilton House and a mural near it let people know that this tour is going be looking at things from the inside out.

The tour then makes its way down 11th Street and Wallace says he talks "about the reason why we're even able to walk on 11th Street."  

Wallace says he talks "about the plans that the City of Austin has put in place, particularly the 1999 plan, that allowed for 11th Street to be changed to what it is today." He says the plan was to make the area an "urban village" so the sidewalks were widened and electric lines buried.

Talking about these things on the tour is important to Wallace because he says he wants to give people context "that everything has been engineered. Everything has been designed and it's not by accident that things happen like this."

Other stops along the tour include Wesley United Methodist Church, Charles E. Urdy Plaza, Zeta Phi Beta house and the Victory Grill.

The Victory Grill is a historic music venue that opened in 1945. It's closed now but Wallace says it's a reminder about "what the community used to be as far as entertainment (and) as far as businesses that have always been a part of the black community and thinking about what has changed."

Gentrification is a topic that Wallace discusses a lot on the tour and he addresses it at the Victory Grill as well as when the tour pauses at the corner of Navasota and 11th. 

Wallace says at Navasota and 11th he asks people to think about "grit" and to "think about the negative things that people have often associated with black communities. Historically have associated with East Austin."

"I want people to think about what the change looks like by how things happened in this neighborhood," Wallace adds.

Wallace says he also talks about education, about redlining and also "white flight" and "how people had to grapple with this idea of staying or leaving."

The tour also pauses at the George Washington Carver Library, Museum & Cultural Center and ends at the "Voyage to Soulsville" mural created by John Fisher.

Wallace says, "What we do through all this is to tell people once again that black people (have) been in this city from its foundation. We (have) been in this city every step of the way and we're going to continue to be here until we don't want to be here anymore and I don't think that's coming."

For Wallace, Black Austin Tours is a way for him to share not his necessarily his story but the story of where he grew up. He says "especially because the nucleus of the black community has changed drastically."

"I make sure that on this tour that I articulate...to everybody who comes on this tour that this is not just to see something pretty. This is not just to see different statues or murals dedicated to African Americans. This is a story that you can think about at your home. This is an American story," Wallace says.

"Racism. Displacement. Segregation. Gentrification. It's not an Austin phenomenon. Some very nuanced things have happened here but this is a U.S. story. This is a worldwide story. I really wanted to share with people that our histories are more connected than we know," Wallace says.

Tours take place mostly on Saturdays and Sundays when Wallace is available but Wallace can accommodate on a weekday depending on his availability. You can get details about the tour and book online here.