Murals Depicting Black Austin Baseball Players Crafted by Locals

Jan 23, 2017

L.M. Rivers stared at the several black tiles he had glued onto the canvas. They colored one-third of what was to be a baseball cap. But Rivers was not so sure what to make of the face depicted beneath the baseball cap.

“Whose face is this again?” he asked the room of a dozen men and women, all in their '60s and '70s, in the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center in East Austin last Friday. “I got here late. Hey, I certainly can’t tell by looking at this.”

It was a sketch of Austin native and Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Willie Wells’ face – soon to be depicted through a tile mosaic with the help of Rivers and other members of the East Austin senior center. It’s part of the revitalization of historic Downs Field, which hosted The Black Senators, Austin’s black baseball team in the first part of the 20th century. The field is now home to the Huston-Tillotson University Rams.

Houston-based artist Reginald Adams directs clients of the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center during the Downs Field Community Engagement Mural Project.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Houston mural artist, Reginald Adams, is overseeing the project. The murals will be installed at the field by mid-February.

Before Rivers and others began gluing, Adams went over a few items – including safety.

“I will first encourage you to make sure your hands are protected because we are going to be working with glass,” he instructed the group. “If you don’t have glasses already, we’re going to ask you to wear some goggles.”

Adams then showed the senior center members how to crack small, square tiles with pliers, creating jagged pieces to fit alongside one another like a puzzle. He went over how to smear glue on the back of the tile so that it would stick to the canvas.

Alma Brown-Blocker quickly got the hang of it.

“Is it difficult? I don’t think so if you just follow the lines,” she said.

Brown-Blocker, like most of the others gathered at the senior center, grew up in East Austin. Because of her age, that also means she graduated from L.C. Anderson High School. Class of 1961, in fact, just 10 years before the school relocated from East Austin to Northwest Austin in 1971, after a desegregation order forced the old school to close.

While the people building a tile mural of baseball player, Willie Wells, were too young to have known or even heard of him, many knew one each other. And the morning of tile-cracking and glue-dabbing became more than just a celebration of a baseball player and the field he played on.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

“This is kind of like a reunion, to run across some of my old classmates,” said Brown-Blocker. “You had to get a lot of people down here together.”