Residents look to revive Austin's shrinking black community

Campaign aims to curb Austin's fading black population
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Story highlights

  • Austin's black population decreased 5.4% between 2000-10
  • African-Americans are moving to the suburbs or other areas of the state
  • The local black chamber of commerce has launched the #IAmBlackAustin campaign

(CNN)Food, football, technology and live music are synonymous with Austin, Texas. Along with its diverse interests, the city is one of the most ethnically diverse in America, with growing Asian and Hispanic communities.

The city's African-American community, however, is seeing a decline in numbers, with a 5.4% decrease between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Now, many residents of East Austin, the city's historically black quarter, are looking for ways to reverse the tide.
East Austin is where most of the city's African-Americans have lived and raised their families since the 1930s. African-Americans once accounted for as much as 25% of the city's population. Today, blacks make up only about 8%; the number will fall to 5% in a few decades, according to city projections. The change comes as new residents, mostly young white professionals, are moving into East Austin and many blacks are relocating to the suburbs or other regions of the state.
"It's distinctly different from the way it used to be," said Wilhelmina Delco, a former Austin school board member and the city's first elected African-American official.
She and her husband, Exalton Delco, have lived in their East Austin home, where they raised their four children, for 52 years. For many years, Delco said, whites were afraid to drive across Interstate 35 to visit East Austin, but now they find it an attractive place to live.
"It's a discovery, and now newcomers are getting exorbitant prices for the homes, and that drives up the cost," she said.
In 2015, the Census Bureau named Texas' capital city as one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the U.S., with more than 885,000 residents and counting.
The median sale price of a home in East Austin was $225,000 during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. Just two years later, housing prices in the area saw a steep increase to an average sale price of $345,000.
Affordable-housing efforts, such as the work of the Blackland Community Development Corp., have been underway for years but, with the significant increase of home prices, have not been entirely effective.
In February, Mayor Steve Adler announced the creation of a Community Cabinet consisting of a diverse group of community members, including two Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce board members, whose responsibility it is to address housing affordability, transportation and other issues within the city.

Most segregated city

The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management named Austin the country's most economically segregated city in the results of a study this year. It found that many Austin residents have separated themselves from those who work in other industries or have different educational backgrounds and that the city is most of all segregated by wealth.
Shocked by the findings, Delco fears that gentrification could cause the native East Austin culture to be forgotten.
It is no mistake that East Austin was once predominantly black. In 1928, the city of Austin adopted a plan that designated an area just east of Interstate 35 as the Negro District, an effort to segregate whites from blacks and Hispanics. To entice blacks to live in East Austin, the city paved roads, built schools and parks, and improved the community's sewer system for their use. An area just south of the Negro District was designated for Hispanics.
Delco said that segregation eventually created a black middle class in East Austin as they opened businesses, worshiped at churches within their community and eventually opened the city's first institution of higher education, Huston-Tillotson University.
"I'm concerned that what used to be our image here inside East Austin is being lost because people are moving here from areas where they had no way of knowing that there was an East Austin where people were predominantly black," she said.
In a report on changing demographics, the city highlighted Austin's shrinking black population and what that could mean for East Austin establishments.
"Many community leaders talk today of how many of these families are still returning to churches in east Austin on Sunday morning," according to the report. "However, many of these same community leaders fear that the newly-suburban African American population will eventual build suburban churches closer to home, leaving the original houses of worship somewhat stranded."

#IAmBlackAustin

Members of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce have been aware that the black community was shrinking for years, Chamber CEO Natalie Madeira Cofield said. So, this year, the Chamber launched the campaign #IAmBlackAustin.
Chamber members felt that there was no longer a centralized space for black life in the city, Cofield said; #IAmBlackAustin is a direct response to that concern.
The campaign includes a website that promotes community events, as well as promotional videos and photo exhibits featuring African-Americans working and playing within the city. New videos and photo exhibits are released each quarter and afterward kept on display at the Chamber's Dedrick-Hamilton House, the home of one of the area's first freed slaves.
"We decided to use technology and creativity to rebrand, reposition and create a new narrative for what it means to be black in the city of Austin," Cofield said. "We hope the campaign will give members of the black community a place to see a reflection of themselves."
Delco, who has a primary school, a community center and a Prairie View A&M University building named in her honor, said a campaign to identify Black Austin is educational not only for the black community but for the entire community.
With support from the City of Austin, Cofield says, African-American residents have eagerly signed up to be a part of the campaign.
Sterling Smith says "I wanted to be a part of the I Am Black Austin campaign because I wanted to give back."
He says that since relocating Keystoke, his mobile app development company, to Austin from Washington two years ago, his experience has been positive. He said that the city is indeed diverse but that he is often the only African-American in the room when he meets with local tech professionals; he hopes to see that change.
"I would like to see more promoting of African-Americans and other minorities in the technology space," Smith said. "It's always more comforting to see other people at the table."