Preserving the Past

East Austin's trailblazing Black neighborhood crosses into historic territory

Trailblazing East Austin neighborhood crosses into historic territory

John Chase architect east austin David Chapel
John Chase designed the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, which sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Chestnut Avenue. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Architecture & Planning Library

The Historic Landmark Commission has given its blessing for the formation of a historic district in East Austin recognizing one of the first local neighborhoods founded by and for Black professionals.

On July 27, the commission unanimously lent its support to an application seeking designation of the Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross Historic District. In a letter to the commission, nonprofit group Preservation Austin cites the Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross neighborhood as “one of the most intact concentrations of post-World War II housing for African Americans in Austin.”

The neighborhood, whose founding dates back to the early 1950s, “represents the strength and tenacity of many African American families who dedicated their lives to the education and uplifting of their children and their community,” according to the letter.

Although Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross is small in size, it’s large in stature, Preservation Austin says. The neighborhood is roughly bounded by East 21st Street to the north, Cedar Avenue to the east, East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the south, and Chestnut Avenue to the west.

The area features several architecturally significant homes designed by architect John Chase, who was the first Black graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture and the first Black architect to be licensed in Texas.

Creation of the district will also help preserve the neighborhood’s structures and legacy, officials say. Among other things, the district is designed to prevent the demolition of historic buildings, and encourage maintenance and rehabilitation of those structures.

Furthermore, a number of prominent Black residents of Austin lived there, including:

  • John Q. Taylor King, president of what is now Huston-Tillotson University.
  • T.C. Calhoun, longtime principal of what now is Kealing Middle School.
  • The family of Ron Kirk, the first Black mayor of Dallas and the U.S. trade representative in the Obama administration.
  • Jimmy Snell, the first Black mayor pro tem of Austin and the city’s “godfather of progressive politics.”
  • World War II fighter pilot Norman Scales, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. 

Establishment of the neighborhood “was a major milestone at a time when many white Austinites with similar socioeconomic and community standing were buying suburban homes and moving out of the city,” the Historic Preservation Commission says.

“Racially restrictive covenants, redlining, prejudiced lenders, and other social and governmental barriers prevented African Americans from making the same move,” the commission adds. “Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross was a powerful symbolic response, and established a tight-knit neighborhood of movers and shakers in the Black community, Austin, and beyond.”

The City of Austin says designation of the Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross Historic District won’t require  owners to make changes to their properties, such as returning structures to their original appearance. In addition, any review of construction projects within the district will be limited to changes affecting only the exterior of a building, not the interior.

The proposal now heads to the city Planning Commission. Final approval rests with the City Council.