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Black dispossession study starts to quantify cost of city’s 1928 master plan

Tuesday, September 6, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city’s 1928 master plan, which effectively legalized segregation in Austin and limited public services for Black residents to a newly created “Negro District” east of what is now Interstate 35, has cost Black homeowners in just five neighborhoods – Clarksville, Wheatville, Red River, East Campus and South Austin – more than $290 million. 

Acting Chief Equity Officer Kellee Coleman told the Austin Monitor this is a preliminary finding of an ongoing study of the “cumulative dispossession of Black land ownership between 1920 and today,” as she described it in an Aug. 26 memo to City Council.

The study stems from a March 2021 ordinance that formally apologized for the city’s role in the enslavement of Black people, the perpetuation of segregation and systemic discrimination, the exacerbation of racial divides, and multiple “urban renewal” programs that decimated Black communities. 

The ordinance also directed city staff to commission a study “outlining the economic value of the … harm caused through economic, health, environmental, criminal justice, and other racial disparities and declination of resources,” which Coleman attributed to advocacy by the Black Austin Coalition. 

Edmund T. Gordon, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at UT Austin, leads the research team conducting the study, which so far has focused on the land ownership piece of this broader mandate.

“At the end of all this, I think the lost potential value of Black communities and other communities of color is going to be very, very substantial,” he told the Monitor.

Developing a methodology

Gordon was already researching the history of Wheatville – “the first Black community associated with Austin after the Civil War,” according to the Texas State Historical Association –  and other Black neighborhoods around UT’s campus when the city approached him.

With the help of Rich Heyman, a lecturer in UT’s Department of American Studies, and others, the research team developed a methodology for determining comparative value.

Gordon’s research used historical census data to reconstitute historically Black communities. Heyman built on this foundation, also using census data, which includes race as well as homeownership status. 

Armed with a list of the Black homeowners in each neighborhood, the research team went to the Austin History Center, where they could find the corresponding historical tax records, which included land and home values, starting in 1920. By comparing the 1920 values with the present-day values, as determined by the Travis Central Appraisal District, the team could start to quantify the cost of the 1928 master plan to Black homeowners.

“We could say, ‘Here’s this piece of land that a certain person owned in 1920,’” Heyman explained. “‘Because of the city’s policies, they had to eventually move to East Austin if they wanted any of the city’s services. So, they had to give up that piece of land and today that land is worth a certain amount.’ We’re able to say, here’s the value of all the land that these folks owned at the time that was in a sense lost to the Black community.”

Gordon stressed that the $290 million figure – which accounts for a fraction of the study’s scope – is the result of serious academic study.

“These findings are the results of a scholarly endeavor,” he said. “It’s not primarily political.” 

From study to policy

How the final study is applied, however, certainly is political.

Coleman said she hopes the findings, and those arising from future phases, are used widely by educators, other city governments and Austin’s own Council members. 

“It could be used around restitution and what that means and what that looks like for Austin,” she told the Monitor. “Maybe this can help … inform policies and ordinances or laws as we move forward, maybe so we don’t do the same thing over and over again that doesn’t benefit folks, and maybe repair some of what the city helped to create.”

Nook Turner, co-founder of the Black Austin Coalition, has a more specific idea in mind. The coalition lobbied Council to pass the ordinance, which not only commissioned the Black dispossession study but also directed city staff to develop a plan for creating a Black Embassy. The resource and cultural center would provide funding and programming for Black-led businesses and organizations. 

“My goal in working with the Black Austin Coalition is to show the amount that the city owes us is an amount that the city will never be able to monetarily pay us back,” he told the Monitor.

Once that debt is quantified, however, Turner hopes it spurs Council to allocate funding for the Black Embassy, which he said will empower Black Austinites with the resources they need to thrive. 

“Here’s the price tag of what y’all owe us,” he said of the final study. “Now, do right by us.”

The next phase

The research team is now focused on studying the impact of the 1928 master plan on additional neighborhoods and on developing methodologies for future phases of the study. Gordon said their work is cut out for them.

Their next move is to quantify the cost of redlining and urban renewal programs. But he said the shift to the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s means many more houses, and paradoxically, many fewer digitized files. As a result, the team will likely have to develop a sampling methodology and spend many hours parsing microfilm at the Travis County Tax Office. 

Similarly, the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t release personally identifiable census records until 72 years after it was originally collected, meaning that data from after 1950 will take years, if not decades, to access. 

“It’s a slog,” he said. 

There are other challenges. Both Gordon and Coleman wondered if Austinites are ready to confront these findings and act on them.  

“The appetite for racial equity goes up and down,” Coleman said.

But she clings to the knowledge that this initial phase has already been “hugely impactful” and that the research team’s methodology is hard to discredit.

“People want receipts, and now we have receipts.” 

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to correct Heyman’s department at UT. 

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