Austin's Population Is Booming. Why Is Its African American Population Shrinking?

Jan 27, 2016

Last month KUT asked our audience to suggest stories they wanted us to report on. The story that listeners chose is about Austin’s African American population.  Specifically, why is it shrinking, while every other group in the city grows?  In the first installment of a project we’re calling ATXplained, KUT’s Mose Buchele reports. 

Ellen Sweets used to be on KUT’s advisory board, but not anymore. She left town to start a new life in Northern California.

Sweets left Austin for a lot of reasons, but her experience of race here played a part in the decision. She says that living here as an African American had just started to feel harder. She even wrote an essay about it before she left, attributing her decision partially to the city's "pervading atmosphere of racial and religious bigotry."

“Austin just has an unjustifiable level of self-satisfaction with itself these days. And at my age I don’t feel like putting up with it anymore.”

She is not alone. Thousands of black Austinites have decided to say goodbye in recent years. That is the subject of our first ATXplained:

"Why is Austin the only city in the country that’s experiencing a percentage decline of our African-American population?"

Southwestern University student Jen O’Neal was the listener who submitted the winning question.

This side-by-side comparison shows the large decline in Austin's African American population between the years 2000 and 2010.
Credit From the City of Austin
Austin is an outlier among the top ten fastest-growing U.S. cities in that it's the only one out of the ten with a shrinking African American population.
Credit From the University of Texas

The way O’Neal phrased her question is not quite right. The fact is, a surprising number of U.S. cities are experiencing a decline in the African American population — Washington D.C., Chicago and Detroit, to name a few. That’s according to UT Professor Eric Tang, who studies this trend. He says what makes Austin different from those cities is the rate at which it’s growing.

“Its growth between 2000 and 2010 was a staggering 20.4 percent,” Tang says, referring to Austin’s overall population. “So, if you took all the cities that fit that category, all of them saw simultaneous growth in African Americans. There was one exception — and that was Austin.”

As its population boomed, Austin’s black population dropped by about 4,000, around 5.4 percent, between 2000 and 2010.

“That just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t make sense,” Tang says. “Latinos, Asians, whites, all grew, and African Americans saw an absolute decline."

A lot of the people who’ve moved away still live near the city limits. But the shift still flies in the face of the Austin’s well-cultivated image as an inclusive kind of town.

“If you’re going to be white and do your own little white thing in your own little white world…I don’t know. I just don’t think I want that to be… this city,” O’Neal says.

So, the question isn’t just why it’s happening, but also, can the trend be reversed?

Let’s start with a little history.

A 2006 photo of Wesley United Methodist Church.
Credit Creative Commons Licensed

At the intersection of 9th and Neches Streets in downtown Austin, you’ll see traffic on the roads, which are lined with buildings. But 100 years ago, you’d have been near the Wesley United Methodist Church. A congregation of freed slaves built a stone sanctuary at the site in 1867.

But in 1929 that church moved. It moved east, to the other side of what is now I-35.  There’s a historic marker in front of this church that mentions the move, but what it doesn’t describe is what exactly was happening in Austin at the time.

In 1928 the city of Austin wrote up a “master plan” to cement the lines of segregation.  It pushed black and Hispanic people to the East side.  Before then, black Austinites lived in little enclaves around town.  But by 1930, right after this church moved, 80 percent of Austin’s African American community was on the East side. 

“It was where our churches and stores and business were. It was the hub center for African Americans,” says Reverend Sylvester Chase Jr., the Senior Pastor at Wesley United Methodist. He says it was the same way when he arrived 21 years ago.

“I didn’t see white people,” Rev. Chase told me. “You didn’t cross 35 — I’m talking about white people.”

Over the last 15 years, that’s all changed. White people, many of them new to town, started moving east of the highway. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.)

“Now, Whites from all across the nation are coming to the east side. The powers-that-be made that decision, and they have come, saying ‘Ready or not, here we come.’” 

Rev. Chase sees this migration as intentional. “Definitely was a plan!” he says. “Nothing could have moved this quickly, this smoothly, if it hadn’t been a plan.”

It could be that, because Austin’s black community was so segregated historically, it’s felt the impacts of gentrification more severely. Taxes are up along with cost of living. Longtime residents are leaving. 

How do you stop this from happening?

Austinite Virginia Cumberbatch says the city projects the image of place that primarily aligns with white cultural values.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez for KUT News

“I’m not even going to really address that, because we know that they do not want to really reverse what’s going on," Rev. Chase says. "You just started doing it, so why would you reverse it real quickly?”

Considering the future of his church, the Pastor says that “there may not be a future at this location.”

And that’s where the story could end. But not this time.

“The only time I see black people in the news in Austin, I don’t want it to be, ‘well, woe is me!’” says Virginia Cumberbatch. “There are not enough of us here, there should be more of us in leadership positions.  I think that does something psychologically, even if it’s unconscious to my white peers and counterparts, that that is the only worthy conversation to be associated with the black community.”

Cumberbatch is a native Austinite. Among many other things, she works in marketing and public relations. That informs her take on the question. She says yes, it’s important to address the economic realities that are pushing people out. But while we do that, we should recognize the contributions of people that are here. 

"When we're putting together our top ten list of people to watch, or we're putting together five stylish people, and all the people on that list are white. Then, what is my understanding of what Austin represents? It's white culture," she says.

So, on top of everything else, it's a public relations problem.

"I think it was one year ago, and [Austin] was on every top ten list — best barbecue, best place to run around the lake. And who do those lists appeal to?"  

To put it another way, as the city loses longtime black residents, is it doing anything to attract new ones? Cumberbatch says she just talked to a friend on the east coast who's thinking about moving here, and a lot of these issues came up in their conversation. 

That friend, Elijah Williams, lives in Washington D.C. with his wife. They're looking to move in a year, and Austin is on the shortlist. He likes the job market, he likes the laid-back reputation, and the outdoorsy-ness.

He sees it as "a good city, where we can enjoy ourselves and have fun as newlyweds, but also as future parents."

But it's up against other places with larger and more visible black populations.

"I do also value the opportunity to coalesce around folks that look like me from time to time," he says.

Williams figures finding that will be more work in Austin. And while it's not a dealbreaker, he says, it's definitely an important consideration.

This story is the first in our new series, ATXplained. Find out more about the project, and how you can contribute your story ideas, here.