Archivist LaToya Devezin On Preserving African-American History And Culture

Mar 23, 2017

On the East Side, development and rising property costs continue to force the African-American community out. With such rapid migration, how have the neighborhood's history and culture and the city’s African-American population been preserved?

As the African-American community archivist at the Austin History Center, LaToya Devezin faces this question every day. She spoke with KUT’s Jennifer Stayton about the work of local archivists to preserve the community’s history.

Jennifer Stayton: First of all, give us your job description at the history center. What is it that you do there exactly?

LaToya Devezin: As the African-American community archivist, I collect, preserve and make available materials related to African-Americans in Travis County.

Jennifer: What kinds of materials are in the archives? What do you have?

LaToya: We have photos, videos, scrapbooks, family Bibles, baby shoes, all kinds of a collection of ephemera at the history center.

Jennifer: What would you say is the most unusual or interesting item that you have in the archives?

LaToya: One of my favorite unique pieces is this presidential campaign button, "Jesse Jackson for President," from the '80s. And we have some women's rights buttons as well from the '70s, so second-wave feminism sort of things as well.

Jennifer: In general, what kind of shape would you say the archives are in? What's the quality and quantity of materials that you have?

LaToya: We have several floors of materials. At the history center, when you come in we just have one main floor that's open to the public, but we also have two floors above and a floor below that also stores archival materials. Right now, most of the archival materials are in pretty decent shape. Sometimes when we get things, they might come in shambles. It just depends, I guess, on the state they're in when people bring them to us. And so at that point we try to make efforts to preserve the integrity of the information that's in whatever material we see.

Jennifer: I imagine your job is an especially interesting one to have right now because we've been hearing about demographic shifts in the city of Austin, out migration of the African-American population. So how do you go about boosting and adding to the archives when population, a lot of the source material for that, is exiting?

"There's still a lot of rich history here, and a colleague of mine Creola Burns actually just said this yesterday. She said, 'We're displaced but not replaced."

LaToya: Well, I do make house calls. Sometimes if you call us, we can come out to you. You'll see us driving around, all of the community archivists. We also have two other archivists besides me, one who works with the Asian-American community and another archivist who works with the Mexican and Latinx communities here in Travis County. We all drive out to collect materials because as our population disperses — specifically mine, we're shrinking the rapid rate every day — I have to go farther and farther out to collect materials on African-Americans in Travis County.

Jennifer: Do you have any concerns about being able to keep up a steady stream of those items when this population is leaving?

LaToya: Yes, as a matter of fact. This is a bad joke, but before I took this position, I was like, "All the black people are leaving Austin. Will I have a job if I move here? Is it going to be OK? Will I be OK? Is there job security in this?" But I've found that we do. There's still a lot of rich history here, and a colleague of mine Creola Burns actually just said this yesterday. She said, "We're displaced but not replaced." That’s a great model to kind of consider as we go about this job. Just because the population is shifting doesn't mean that the richness of the history does not still live here.

Jennifer: So tell people, if they have items that they want to contribute, what do they need to do?

LaToya: Give me a call. You can email me. My phone number is 512-974-7390. I'm putting it out there. And you can go to the Austin History Center's website. I have a hard last name to spell. So find me directly and email me.

Jennifer: LaToya Devezin is the African-American community archivist at the Austin History Center. We thank you so much for joining us, LaToya.

LaToya: Thank you for having me.