To kick off the new season of 15 Minute History, we sit down with Dr. Javier Wallace, founder and guide of Black Austin Tours. While those familiar with Austin know the George Washington Carver Museum as well as historically Black East Austin, Dr. Wallace unpacks other hidden, and not-so-hidden elements of Black history in the Texas capital.
Learn more about Black Austin Tours at https://blackaustintours.com/ and follow them on social media at BlackAustinTours.
- Javier Wallace Race and Sport Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
What is Black Austin tours and where did the idea for this project come from?
Javier Wallace: Well, Black Austin tours is exactly what is in the name? It is, it’s more than that, I’ll be honest. But what I do with Black often tours is center the history experiences and contributions of Black people in the city of Austin central Texas in the entire state of Texas, speaking specifically to what happened in that space and the contribution of Black people have made um in that space. So it can be in person tours, it can be virtual tours or I can be doing presentations or putting stuff on social media, connecting all of the different aspects into one centralized space. I mean where does it come from? It comes from me, I mean I don’t say that in any type of arrogant way, but I really wanted to tell our story. When I say our story, I’m talking about my family. I feel as though that I come from a very rich lineage and heritage, both on my U. S side and my Panamanian side that I am just so proud um of and want people to know who we are and what we did in this space. So it is me and then pragmatically speaking, it was Black . Austin tours became an extension of what I started when I was living in Panama with, I feel like the next travel with my co founder, dodge hottest Machado. And then when I came back to Austin to do my PhD and wanting to continue to elevate our stories. It just kind of was natural to go into Black often tours and what it has morphed into now.
Our listeners might recall one of our episodes from last semester which featured a conversation between one of our founding hosts, Professor Joan Neuberger and UT Professor Ted Gordon who talked about the racial geography tour at UT Austin. So we’re kind of familiar with that. But can you walk us through some of the tour and what it actually entails?
JW: Yeah, of course. And shout out, shout out, shout out dr Gordon. Amazing racial geography toward UT and needed. Um, I think what I do is needed to help narrate these public spaces. So currently I have three different experiences in Austin, one is in East Austin and what is now known as well, what we used to refer to as the negro district, the six square miles. And there I do a lot of talking about what created the negro district in 1928. Um what happened in that space after its creation? Thinking a lot about racialized segregation in the city and how we’re Black people found themselves under strict confines of the law, also created congregation right there, is that saying that Black people found where they have found segregation. They created congregation. So talk about what it was like to live in that community from the inside, looking out, being a member of that community, I can speak to that experience. And then we walked through literally walk through both chronologically and walk through the space through time and then go through what we’re currently thinking about gentrification and displacement in Austin and kind of, what does that look like in that space? And how do we narrate Black history publicly in a space that is changing drastically um where Black people in many instances are no longer in that space. So I always say what I do in that space is or what the city of Austin did is the preservation of Black people. Oh, I said that wrong. The preservation of Black history without the preservation of Black people and how we can now pull on iconic markers to talk about the history of people who are no longer in this space. Um I also do a downtown Austin tour because everything that I just said about East Austin and how it became the negro district, which we have to center um and also know that in acknowledging where Black people living in East Austin before it became the negro district, but I think most people, when we think about Black people in Austin, we not only we geographically confined Black people to East Austin And we don’t think of 1928 as a large scale displacement of Black people from out from throughout the city of Austin. So what I attempt to do in the downtown Austin tour is narrate Black people’s contribution and experiences in the center part of the city From the onset of 1839 before Austin is officially established as Waterloo and talk about Black people in that space and particularly the trafficking of Black people in the space enslavement that happened in Austin. What was it like in an urban space, a small urban space to be enslaved. We go to sites that we can that we can connect to where some of that violence happened. The state capital, the governor’s matching um, a hotel that was, that was used to separate Children from their family and sell them away. So I really like to reclaim that space in the way of, we’re not going to confine Black history in Austin to East Austin in after 1928 because as long as Austin has been Austin in whatever way it is, Black people have been here and have been here in big numbers compared to the number of people that were here. And the last tour that I do in combination in partnership with Rohan doc Austin or boat rental company on town on town lake are I think what they call it a lady bird lake now, which is the Colorado River, Let’s be clear. Um Roll Colorado road, which is an adaptation of a negro spiritual from when people that were enslaved in what we now know as the United States were used and I used that to talk about the centrality of the Colorado River to the state of Texas in the city of Austin, but particularly how it has been used literally as a view as a via that’s in spanish, wow a way two I do. That sometimes have accidents uh, to traffic people into Texas and my family, we were among those people that were trafficked into Mexico when Texas was a part of Mexico on the Colorado River. So on in that space, I really talk about what is the Colorado River mean? In Austin, how traffic people here, how it is the reason why so many cotton forced labor camps and plantation sprung up along the riverside um, in central Texas all the way to the coast. Um, when talking about self emancipating African people who are self emancipated are escaping into Mexico, how the Colorado River was served as a barrier in a border, something to be crossed in something. And if you’re caught on either side the war or for people who are chasing you either increase or decreases. So all those things is to tear up everything that we’ve been talking and really just talk about different, that’s what I do and if you come on and experience with me, that’s what I do on every piece of it. I think everything has a story. You show me a blade of grass, you show me open feel, you show me the street and I don’t think, I don’t believe in if these walls could talk, I believe in if we just listen, we’re here.
So people familiar with Austin might know that Austin is home to the George Washington carver museum as well as the historically Black east Austin, which you mentioned. But your tour touches like you said on all these different parts of Austin. So can you speak a little bit more about some of your favorite stops on the tour?
JW: I think my favorite stop, It has to be the Colorado river just because it is the literal waterway that facilitated my ancestors introduction of trafficking into texas. And so many things happened in that space. And when you, when I was studying, people who were self emancipating in the amount of time that the Colorado River was mentioned. Um, it just took me away. So it’s so much that happened in that space where people were being so deeper south, we’re losing their freedom um, or continue to be subjugated and enslaved in a new country. And I like to think about what does that look like. You know, I just started a position here at Duke in Durham North Carolina. And one thing that stands out to me in 2021 or the trees, the size of the trees here and I think about that and it might sound trivial, but I, I encourage people To think about what would have been like in 1830 for somebody who had long been enslaved in the Carolinas in Virginia’s traffic into a new country. And even the shrubbery would have seen foreign and not not to mention being enslaved in this foreign place and what you’re now forced to do. And now having to cut down these things and clear the last. I love that space to even think about those things. And that has to be my number one. That’s what has to be my favorite spot. How to all of them. And I also mentioned briefly Woolridge Square. I love Wolverine Square in downtown, wow! The strength of a community that popped out of that park in the park that the city of Austin in this historical science says has laid bacon for 70 years. It’s impossible. It’s impossible that that place was vacant for seven years. But what is true is the way history has been constructed to center certain voices and narratives that it was vacant because Black people’s history did not matter. But for me, being able to narrate that space without any historical markets, except one that just went up about Booker T Washington. It does something to me because it’s just a green space and people really feel it. And I feel the energy being in that space. Talking about what these people were doing after they were liberated from from enslavement and the institutions that they were building around that space and where the Austin history center is now, you know, that was the first color baptist church established by reverend Jacob Fontaine, you know, and the Metropolitan was there. The desegregation of the University of texas at Austin is litigated and fought at that building right next to the human sweat Travis County Courthouse. So I think it’s just so much in that space.
I am so thankful that you came on because I’ve been, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in just life and research and the centrality of place and physical spaces in the stories that we tell in the historical research that we’re doing, but also the people that were interacting with. So that brings me to my next question, which is how do you see your academic work intersecting with the incredible historical contribution that is Black Austin tours?
JW: Well, I believe in research, so that might sound foreign to people who are tuning in that don’t know about academia. Um in the way sometimes people frown on people who go into do scholarly research and focus on themselves or topics or issues directly tied to themselves. But I think that comes from a very certain perspective when academia was not inclusive to people of color and Black people specifically, it’s impossible for me to separate who I am from what I do. It’s impossible. And I say that as critically and as lay as I can because the way you see me as the way people treat me and I have to always be mindful of that. So my academic research is Black . Austin to us. Black often tours is my academic research because I have been able to access additional knowledge is by being in these spaces. But then I also come from the people who have saw the value in telling our stories and now I’m in a position where I can people some reason believe me because I got a PhD and you know, whatever right, they just really believe what I say and I don’t take that for granted I joke with it, but I don’t play with that because it wasn’t like that. We had to make it so that people would do that. So for me, all of this is my research. There’s not one thing that I do academically for any journal that I cannot post on Black out’s into it right now and talk about even with migration in sports. Because you read my bio all of it is sport, trans nationalism, my family. We were trafficked into Mexico when texas was a part of Mexico as I just mentioned, crossing borders like enslaved people when we talk about even self emancipating people going into another country not having citizenship Because enslaved people were not citizens of the United States. So when we talk when I have conversations about trafficking and undocumented people and people without they were migratory status is in 2020 2021. I always relate that To what it was like in the 1830s, 40s, 50s, 60s when people were self emancipating without any legal documentation, to go into another space. And what does it mean to be pursued by quote unquote slave catchers? And what is the difference between being pursued by slave catchers and being pursued by U. S. Immigration customs and enforcement right now? What does it mean to be deported back to a place where you feel like you didn’t have any livelihood? I. E. Back to that forced labor camp, that plantation where you tried your best to get out of and risk your life. What does it mean for people who are crossing the southern border right now in the United States, risking their lives to get to a place because they feel where they are, where they work? I was home. What’s not, they could not make themselves have a decent life. So I am what I research, I research what I am and all these things going on. I don’t even know if that even helps anybody, but that’s what I’d do. If I look at something I’m going to use it anywhere I go
This brings up another question that I hadn’t planned to ask. But I think our listeners would really appreciate. Which is, you know, what kind of advice would you give to someone, a young student or graduate student or new PhD or anybody interested in doing this kind of research and public history and public education?
JW: Oh wow, don’t get me started there, do you? To a student, to a person, whether they’re in the K through 12 system, but our going into graduate school or you move beyond that, we all speak from a place in life based on how we arrived to that place. There’s nothing wrong with you being who you are. You should embrace who you are in all ways possible because for many times, people like us holes person’s literally and everything associated with our persons, including our stories have not been valued. We value them because if we didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to help narrate them now. But you can never be gaslighting, never be convinced that you were not enough and that your ancestors were not enough and you’re not valid enough to be the subject of your own research in life. Do it objectivity? I don’t believe in it, especially for students of color because I can’t separate myself. You see me as a big Black man as I am and now you’re asking me to separate that from the stuff that I do. I can’t get a taxi sometimes and now you want me to say I’m separate when I go in to talk to. People know people respond to me different when they see me. So I encourage people to be their authentic selves, embrace who they are, embrace your extraordinary or like I like to say extraordinary ancestors who are not martin Luther king who are not, Fannie lou hamer, but who did just as many things as those individuals who we talk about every day for you. Come on, you gotta do it for yourself. And you know that’s what that’s that’s how I feel and don’t ever let anybody make you feel that you’re not enough and that your story is not enough because it’s more than enough, it’s yours. You better own it. Whoever gave it to you, they wanted you to have so you better own that thing. And that’s that’s that’s and I give that to everybody and to my people that are PhD students and scholars. No don’t just write for these journals. But I tell academics all the time they should pay me because I take the puck, I take their work to the public and I don’t say that in any type of boastful way. But there’s so much rich scholarship that exists about Black people. All people. But Black people in this instance in texas historically and contemporary lee that I only can access because of my U. T. E I. D. To get into these libraries. And that stuff is rich. So don’t just right for tenure sake, right for humanity sake and take those stories out and share them with the world, Share them with the world share. Please share them with the world. So many people want to hear so many K through 12 educators are wanting this information to take into their space. But the thing that they don’t have are you t or whatever you are you whatever university access to these libraries where these things are locked and stored away. So make your stuff as public as you can get your little tenure. I know not, not get your tenure, get you’re all those things that you need to have a decent life will make you understand, there’s people out here that can use your work to make themselves feel better and understand that we have a place in this society and when we didn’t have a place and we stood on the place, we’re going to make a way in a place. So that’s what I would say.
Well, thank you so much. I think my last question is really, how can people sign up for this tour and what can we expect from Black Austin tours in the future?
JW: wow. Um, you can catch me on www.Black AustinTours.com or on social media. I do a lot on instagram. I do a lot of posts because I can write a lot and I can put images up. So in the future still will do in person tours, not as many as I was doing when I was in awesome, but I still, I want to still be publicly accessible for what I just mentioned about how sometimes this work does not become accessible to the public. So I still want to like let people interact with me. But then also I’m going to work on other projects associated with Black awesome tours briefly one project that I’m working on right now and I think this is relevant because this 15 minute podcast comes out the University of texas at Austin and at the time of this recording will be having in at least a week gone to texas where the University of texas will be welcoming all of the incoming first year students into the the university. But what I think about going to texas and where does it come from? What would these people in the 18 twenties thirties and forties gone to texas to do, what were they going to do? So what I’m doing now with G. T. T. Gone to texas is centering the history experiences and contributions of individuals who were trafficked from other parts of the United States into texas when there are people who were enslaved in them who have the desire to enslave them with G. T. T. Gone to texas And how that traffic and pattern worked itself out of making resources for K. through 12 educators to narrate those things. And that’s one of the things I’m doing it of course. Got some things in the work to be on T. V. A little bit more so I can keep talking to the public. Um but Black Austin tours. If you follow me on any of those handles, you’ll be able to keep up with me.