- And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928
In And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928, Michelle Mears offers a thoroughly researched account of several Austin neighborhoods that housed freedmen from the end of the Civil War until 1928, when a new city master plan changed the city's racial geography. Organizing the bulk of her work thematically rather than chronologically, Mears first discusses the founding and growth of Austin's freedmen communities, noting that unlike many other cities, which tended to concentrate black residents in a single neighborhood, Austin had several distinct communities scattered throughout the city.
Mears offers an impressive series of maps to illustrate her account of the early residents and unique character of each neighborhood, recounting biographical information on prominent Black Austinites like Joseph Fontaine along with detailed information on the establishment of churches and schools. Mears then repeats the process for the nearby rural areas, primarily on the south side of the Colorado River, which are now within the city limits. In describing that slaves were concentrated in the area to build the Confederate Fort Magruder in South Austin, Mears produces an account, based on extensive use of WPA slave narratives, of the local plantation geography that would absorb the displaced people. This geography influenced the formation of freedmen's communities in the area, which were usually built around a plot of black-owned farmland. As in her chapter on the urban communities, Mears charts the growth of these settlements with information on the establishment of churches, schools, and cemeteries.
In between chapters on the growth of freedmen's communities and their eventual decline, Mears offers two chapters on daily life, based in part on histories of black life in the urban south, but made specific to Austin with information culled from newspapers, city directories, and local histories. Finally, Mears describes the impact of the 1928 city master plan, which led to the decline of the fifteen distinct neighborhoods she chronicles. Faced with the knowledge that enforcing racial segregation through zoning laws had proven unconstitutional, the city planners noted that although "negroes were present in small numbers, in practically all sections of the city," one space "east of East Avenue and south of the City Cemetery" was almost all black (138). The planners hoped to concentrate all of Austin's African-American population in this area and plotted to do so by providing that neighborhood, and only that neighborhood, with parks, playing fields, and a high school open to black residents, near already established Samuel Huston and Tillotson colleges. Largely, their plan was effective, and Mears describes both the decline and present-day reminders of freedmen communities in north, west, and south Austin.
Mears, an archivist by training, uses a wide variety of primary sources; not only local newspapers and histories, but also from an archeological dig, city directories, census data, oral histories, and financial records. These sources and the many [End Page 103] details, characters, and anecdotes they bring to light are the strength of Mears's work. And Grace Will Lead Me Home is a snapshot of the period, of interest especially to those who will recognize her Austin landmarks, but Mears rarely strays far from the facts and tends to collapse the years between the end of the Civil War and the 1928 master plan, losing the opportunity to explore how these communities changed over time or were affected by events beyond Austin. Mears demonstrates that Texas, and Austin in particular, considering its idiosyncratic patterns of residential segregation and the drama of the 1928 master plan, may be an interesting vantage point from which to study African-American life during the Jim Crow Era, and will be a necessary foundation to any further work on the subject. [End Page 104]