“All of Austin’s diversity is right here.”
Words By Jess Hagemann Photos by Eric Morales
Wilhelmina Delco, the first black legislator from District 50, moved to Austin in 1957. She’s lived in the same well-kept home just south of MLK Boulevard for 59 years. While she wouldn’t live anywhere else in Austin today, initially she didn’t have a choice. It used to be that no African American was allowed to buy a house or live anywhere west of I-35. If they tried and were caught, the city shut off the property’s utilities, forcing black Austinites to seek a better quality of life on the east side.
East Austin Then
And that’s just what they built for themselves: a green and shaded parkland full of respectable banks, community swimming pools, maintained lawns with leafy trees, and enviable houses. As Delco notes, “People who come [to the east side] for the first time are, without exception, surprised at what they see.” There is not the kind of crime portrayed in the media in the east Austin black communities. “There simply is not a black ghetto in east Austin,” Delco says, adding, “Downtown 6th Street is worse than East 12th Street.”
She remembers when Austin’s so-called “Colored Parent Teacher Association” operated independently of the whites-only PTA. As chair of the Colored PTA, Delco was invited to a meeting at Austin High School on West Cesar Chavez Street. Afterward, she offered to return the favor by hosting a meeting at the old Anderson High School, originally located at 900 Thompson Street. The members declined to attend, citing rumors of taverns and prostitution.
East Austin Now
Flash forward fifty years, and now a frustrated Delco fears with so many new people flooding into the area that “one day we might wake up and never know black people were here.” A neighbor’s house just sold for an inflated $357,000. “We could have bought all of east Austin for that [amount] back in the day,” she claims, and it’s become harder and harder to recognize the city she fell in love with.
“[East Austin] is all kids from UT now. I’ve never seen so many dogs and bicycles in my life,” Delco says. Even her granddaughter occasionally shows up with “kale chips and carrot juice” from her favorite local deli on Manor Road. The local businesses “are now catering to the crowd that patronizes them,” Delco says. East Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, once a quiet country highway, has become a major traffic artery with vehicles backed up to 183. “People have discovered that MLK goes straight from here to downtown, to the capitol and university,” and in Delco’s opinion, it’s changing the east side’s mobility patterns for the worse.
Delco remembers, “I was called once by an African American woman whose husband had just accepted a job with IBM. The company had found them a house and a church [west of I-35].” Seeing Delco, then a state representative, speaking on TV, the woman phoned Delco and asked, “Where are the black people? Where are we?” For those who find themselves asking that same question today, Delco suggests attending the annual Juneteenth celebration at Emancipation Park. “It’s incredible,” she says. “The parade goes on and on forever, not just for two blocks.” It showcases the stories, people, places, and events of east Austin’s early inhabitants.
The Community We Need to Save
East Austin’s sense of community is extremely important to Delco and the main thing that she doesn’t want it to lose. Long before moving to Texas, Wilhelmina Delco grew up on the east side of Chicago. A portion of that time her family lived in a housing project, a giant apartment complex with little sense of real community. “I was used to Chicago,” she says, “so nothing seemed strange to me there. What seemed strange was the contrast first to Nashville [at Fisk, where she went to college], and then to Austin.” That contrast included much stronger evidence of racial segregation in the South, but also more robust human interaction. “Chicago wasn’t a neighborhood concept, like we have in Texas. People here come up and say ‘hi’…like I’m some kind of celebrity—you didn’t have that in the projects [of Chicago].”
Of the difference between where she grew up and where she lives now, Delco says, “It’s not bad or good, it’s just different.” People’s attitudes and priorities are different in Austin: we spend more time outside, and there’s a tendency to be more fit and active, to go to the gym. (Delco herself still swims laps daily at the local YMCA.) In Chicago, it was common for both parents to work and for the kids to be home alone, unable to invite their friends over unsupervised. Here, Delco’s grandkids regularly stay overnight with their friends, and everybody looks out for everybody else.
Why Education Will Save Us
Part of Delco’s concern over east Austin’s future stems, of course, from how heavily she has invested her own time and talents into the community. At Fisk University, she majored in sociology because she wanted to be a social worker. It seemed to her even then that people ended up in poor situations because they were being fed the wrong information. She felt she could be a vehicle for disseminating the right information. Delco picked education as the sector she wished to champion because when you’re educated, “you’re not missing out on opportunities. Life brings so many opportunities, and you have to be ready to take advantage of them.”
That said, she recognizes not everyone learns in the same way. It’s why she thinks so highly of community colleges, and why she helped ACC as a founding trustee. “[Community college] is the one place you can change your mind as many times as you want,” Delco says. “If, for example, you don’t finish your degree in four years at UT, and then take a high-paying job in that field, the perception is that you’ve failed.” Students at community colleges, on the other hand, range in age from 18 to 80. The diversity of offerings, from commercial to collegiate, gives more people more options and a better chance to be successful.
“The problem we’re seeing today is absenteeism,” explains Delco, “not the students’ inability.” She points out that many parents can’t wait for their children to be done with high school so they can get a job and start contributing to the family income. ACC helps to show parents that a college education pays off more in the long run than a lifetime spent bagging groceries. It’s the reason that ACC offers dual credit to students pursuing their Associate degrees while still in high school: to give them a leg up. “Under slavery, blacks were killed if they could read,” Delco reminds us. “So you know education is valuable.”
As a young student herself, Delco once came home and presented her mother with a report card showing straight As. She announced that as her friend’s mother gave her daughter a dollar for every A and asked if she could be entitled to a reward, too. Dryly, Delco’s mother told her that’s the reason she went to school was to make all As, “and you don’t get rewarded for doing what you’re supposed to do.” Given that mindset, Delco has a “real beef’” with both teachers who stereotype their students and with parents who don’t take an active role in their children’s education. “When you pigeonhole kids as dumb or smart, you cost some the opportunity to move up before they even try.” Austin doesn’t have to be like that. There’s room for all its diversity.
A Little History
- Elected to AISD Board of Trustees, 1968 (first African American elected to public office in Austin)
- Texas House of Representatives (first African American official elected in Travis County)—served 10 terms (20 years) on 20+ committees
- Founding member, Austin Community College Board
- Appointed chair, House Higher Education
- Appointed speaker pro tempore, House Higher Education Committee, 1991-1995 (first woman and the second African American to hold the second highest position in the Texas House of Representatives)
- Chair, Board of Trustees at Huston-Tillotson University
- Adjunct professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin with the Community College Leadership Program