February is Black History Month and as the second African American Chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, I want to highlight both some of the significant problems that still exists and the incredible progress that has been made in Travis County. I know I stand on the shoulders of giants including Gary Bledsoe, the first African American Chair of TCDP, who have paved the way for members of the African American community to hold leadership positions including elected office.
Today, one in three black children in Austin grow up in poverty, blacks account for 42% of the individuals who are homeless in Central Texas, and the unemployment rate for blacks in Travis County is more than double the total unemployment rate. As I have often said, it is not good enough for the Democratic Party to simply be a better option than the Republican Party but must respond to the real issues that exist and work together to take action in an effort to make things better. Even with a history of government-sanctioned discrimination and societal and institutional racism, black Austinites have found ways to excel in the most powerful positions.
Around the middle of the 20th Century, Austin was still segregated in many ways including: public transportation, housing, employment, education, parks and hospitals. Fortunately, the African American community was held together by strong institutions namely churches, small businesses and two colleges, Tillotson College and Samuel Huston College that in 1952 became Huston-Tillotson College, and is now known as Huston-Tillotson University. Shortly after, in 1956, the University of Texas became one of the first major colleges in the South to integrate, but discriminatory policies continued to persist across the city for African Americans
In 1945, Arthur DeWitty organized the Travis County Voters League in order to increase voter participation in local elections and nearly became the first African American elected to the City Council. Volma Overton‘s amazing work led to the desegregation of Austin public schools during the 1970s.
In 1968, after nearly 100 years without local representation, Wilhelmina Delco became the first African American elected in Austin. She served on the Austin Independent School Board of Trustees before being elected to the Texas House of Representatives. Her Trustee seat was filled by Rev. Marvin Griffin who was elected as President of the AISD Board. Delco was succeeded in her House seat by current State Representative Dawnna Dukes, who is now the longest current serving member of the Travis County Delegation to the Texas House. In 1971, Berl Handcox became the first African American elected to Austin City Council and was followed by Willie Lewis, Eric Mitchell, Charles Urdy, Danny Thomas, and Jimmy Snell who became the first African American Mayor Pro Tem. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Austin finally elected Sheryl Cole as the first African American female member to the City Council, who also served as Mayor Pro Tem.
In 1982, Ada Anderson was elected to the Austin Community College Board becoming the first African American to win a countywide election. Currently Gigi Edwards Bryant sits on the ACC board and Jeffrey Richard’s term on the board recently ended but he served as ACC Board President from 2012-2014. Richard Scott was the first African American elected as Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, and Myra McDaniels was the first African American Secretary of State.
These trail blazers opened the door for future generations of prominent African Americans to hold positions of leadership including: Sam Biscoe recently retired after serving 16 years as Travis County’s first African American County Judge, Greg Hamilton who served many years as Travis County Sheriff, Nelda Spears who served as Tax Assessor-Collector, Darwin McKee and Ron Davis who served as County Commissioner, Tamala Barksdale and Cheryl Bradley who served as AISD Trustees, Desiree Cornelius-Fisher who served as a MISD Trustee, Kenneth Thompson who served as a PISD Trustee, Richard Franklin who served as DVISD Trustee, Marc Ott who served as Austin City Manager, Karen Kennard who served as Austin City Attorney, Meria Carstarphen who served as AISD Superintendent, Charles Dupre who served as PISD Superintendent, and others.
African Americans have also served a great role in the judiciary including Joel Bennett, Cliff Brown, Kel Evans, Wilford Flowers, Alfred Jenkins, Aurora Martinez-Jones, Evelyn McKee, Brenda Kennedy, Lora Livingston, Harriett Murphy, Richard Scott, Eric Shepperd, and Yvonne Williams, just to name a few.
We are also proud to currently have African Americans serving in high positions of leadership such as Commissioner Jeff Travillion, District Clerk Velva Price, Constable Danny Thomas, Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, AISD Trustee Edmund Gordon, PISD Trustees Paul King and Renae Mitchell, MISD Trustees Elmer Fisher and Marlin Thomas, Manor ISD Superintendent Royce Avery, NAACP President Nelson Linder, Editorial Writer of the Austin American-Statesman Alberta Phillips, Tommy Wyatt long-time publisher of the Austin Villager, and Akwasi Evans publisher of NOKOA The Observer newspaper and many more.
Additionally, former US Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk is a graduate from Reagan High School and was the second African American Secretary of State, first African American Mayor of Dallas, and Texas Democratic Nominee for U.S. Senate.
Even as the list of influential African American Austinites continues to grow, African American growth in Austin has not kept up with general population growth. We must find ways to reverse these trends and allow long-time residents to stay in their homes and provide the next generation with access to the many opportunities that drive our tremendous growth.
We must continue to find ways to preserve the rich culture that the African American community has fostered over many decades in East Austin which is one of the most desirable places to live. Throughout our history, Austin has made great progress and we must stand together to create a future that is bright and rich in opportunity for all our residents.
Maybe moreso now than in recent memory, it is very important that we remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. I am committed to ensuring that the TCDP works toward equality, opportunity and justice for all.
Vince Harding, Chair
Travis County Democratic Party