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Michael Barnes

1970s Austin No. 18: Billy Harden on desegregating the city’s schools

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We asked thoughtful locals why the 1970s left such a lasting imprint on Austin. We received many provocative answers, which we’ll share here first. 

Feel free to send yours to mbarnes@statesman.com

Billy Harden, Austin educator and executive director of Spectrum Theatre Company

I was moving into my junior year in high school in 1969 when I was selected to participate in a computer programming class to be held at the Rio Grande campus of Austin High School. The class was an attempt by the Austin school district to desegregate the schools by bringing minority students to other campuses who were interested in taking classes not offered at their high school. It was part of larger current and past attempts to reform itself as an urban district with largely poor and minority enrollments.

The plan was in effect until July of the year when our parents received notification in the mail that the computer programming class would be moved to Anderson High School, located at that time on Thompson Street in East Austin.   The school had previously been an all-black high school and had only joined the UIL athletic programs under the district a few year earlier. The school was also directly across the street from the Booker T. Washington public housing complex.

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From Aug. 31, 1971 American-Statesman “Busing Gets Off to a Smooth 1st Day.”

The program had registered nearly 30 students prior to the July decision. When we arrived at Anderson High School on the first day of school, only 12 students showed up for the class. I was among the six students who represented Albert Sidney Johnston High, now known as Eastside Memorial High School. The other students came from Anderson High School (2), Crockett High School (2) and Reagan High School (2).

No students from Austin High School nor any other AISD high school registered for the class. We all commuted in each day and spent 2-4 hours at Anderson and then returned to our home campuses. We did this for 2 years and all earned credit for the course as Anderson students, but graduated from our respective high schools.

In 1970, Department of Justice officials filed suit in District court against AISD. At that time, in East Austin there were 18 schools with more than 90 percent black and Mexican American students totaling nearly 80 percent of Austin’s black students and almost 60 percent of the district’s Hispanic students. The federal district court judge ordered the district that year to close one elementary school, transfer its black students to nearby white schools, and change the boundaries of all-black Anderson high School to include white neighborhoods. No white students showed up at Anderson when school opened that fall.

In 1971, The Board of Trustees — with Wilhelmina Delco the only black member — closed Anderson high school and Kealing Junior high school, the only black secondary schools in Austin; all students were bused to white schools and teachers transferred to other district schools. Serious disturbances flared at schools receiving bused students initially but soon simmered down. Black parents whose children were bused were upset over troubles at receiving schools and often brought their complaints to both then superintendent Jack Davidson and the Board of Trustees in these years. Many parents felt the best and most experienced African-American educators were taken to the predominately white schools and the less experienced teachers were assigned by design to the minority schools mostly located in East Austin. Parents were also upset the burden of desegregation was now solely on the shoulders of the African-American community because they lack alternative educational resources.

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Photograph of Austin High School 1971 student council members standing L to R: Katie Miller, Vice President; Anna Reyes, Secretary; Charles Riptoe, Treasurer; Seated: Carlton Lowe, President. Photo: Richard Creed.

This single event changed the course of East Austin for good and thus change the inner core of African American culture forever as it existed in Austin. Without the central focus of the educational norms provided by schools in the community, gentrification was able to spread quickly and can be seen in full swing in East Austin today. Many families were forced to move out of East Austin so that their children would be closer to the schools they were forced to attend. This significantly changed the housing patterns in Austin and saw more blacks moving to neighborhoods in far southeast Austin (Dove Springs) and far northeast Austin near University Hills and Walnut Creek developments.

It is within this larger current and past context of school purposes and reforms that urban districts with largely poor and minority enrollments such as Austin, Texas operate now and for the past half-century. For nearly a decade, AISD, under the leadership of a more conservative Board of Trustees and Superintendents have introduced a bundle of initiatives aimed at reforming the district organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to improve students’ academic achievement and reduce considerably the gap in that achievement between white and minority students. The culminating reform of these efforts over the past decade is High School Redesign launched in 2005. And while I do believe that some of these initiatives have fostered overall improvements in education, they have continue to contribute to the dilution and decentralization of the African American cultural life in Austin.

Index

1970s Austin: No. 1 Elizabeth Christian
1970s Austin: No. 2 Forrest Preece
1970s Austin: No. 3 Eddie Wilson
1970s Austin No. 7: Fern Santini
1970s Austin No. 8: Rick Lowerre
1970s Austin No. 9: Sherry Matthews
1970s Austin No. 16: Bobby Bridger