By Juan Castillo, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 on the Austin American-Statesman.com, at www.statesman.com/news/news/local-govt-politics/austins-rosewood-neighborhood-blossomed-in-spite-o/nTKcB/.
Almost 50 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, blacks in Austin organized their own, lesser-known civil rights protest.
African-Americans in Austin could not board public streetcars from the front door or sit up front. A 1906 city ordinance prohibited it.
Gilbert and Jane Rivera stand outside the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center in the heart of the historical Rosewood neighborhood. The couple said their book doesn’t mince words about Austin’s history of segregation.
Blacks were outraged, and when the city refused to revoke the ordinance, they began a boycott similar to the one by African-Americans decades later in Montgomery, Ala., after Parks’ arrest. In Austin, owners of horses and wagons offered rides to those who had depended on the trolleys to get to their jobs. The boycott gained traction, and a year later, city leaders rescinded the ordinance.
“We were just amazed. It was a part of Austin history we did not know,” says Gilbert Rivera, who, with his wife, Jane, opened that window to the past in research for their new pictorial book on Austin’s historical Rosewood neighborhood.
Stocked with about 250 photos, the majority from Gilbert Rivera’s private collection, “Images of America: Austin’s Rosewood Neighborhood,” tells the story of the evolution of one of the city’s oldest black enclaves, from the late 1870s to its current incarnation as a diverse, dynamic neighborhood feeling the effects of gentrification and now home to blacks, Latinos and whites.
Rosewood’s traditional, historical boundaries are East Avenue (what is now Interstate 35) on the west, Airport Boulevard, Manor Road and East Seventh Street. The neighborhood is named for Rosewood Avenue, part of the once-bustling commercial heart of the community.
Crucial to understanding the forces that shaped Rosewood, the authors say, is understanding the city policies beginning in 1907 that sought to segregate African-Americans in East Austin. A 1928 city master plan was a key component of the policies.
“It is a work of love and of politics for us,” Gilbert Rivera said of the book.
Rivera, a retired energy conservation representative with Austin Energy and an amateur historian, said the book set out to convey that Rosewood began because of politics. “We wanted to show that though the African-American community was put into a part of town that in many ways had no infrastructure or city services, the strength of the community made Rosewood a very viable, beautiful neighborhood,” he said.
The Riveras have lived together in Rosewood 33 years. Gilbert Rivera, 65, was born there, about three blocks from where the couple live. He often tells the story about the midwife who buried his umbilical cord in the yard. “My mother always said I’ll never be able to leave Rosewood because my umbilical cord is still there,” he joked.
The Riveras worked for two years on the book, “Images of America: Austin’s Rosewood Neighborhood,” interviewing old-timers and researching the archives of local history centers.
“We wanted to celebrate the community,” said Jane Rivera, a state employee. “Celebrate the community it became, not what the city had envisioned. It’s impossible to write a story of Rosewood without talking about the bad things, and the institutional racism it faced.”
Rosewood and other historically black neighborhoods overcame those barriers, Harold McMillan, executive director of the Diverse Arts Production Group in Austin, says in the book’s introduction. “Jim Crow had a positive impact in that it created strong and viable African American communities,” McMillan wrote.
The Riveras worked on the book about two years, interviewing old-timers and poring through the archives of the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center and the Austin History Center. They learned of the boycott of public streetcars during their research at the history center.
Cynthia Evans, African-American neighborhood liaison at the Austin History Center, had not read the book but said such accounts are important because they preserve teachable information for future generations. “There’s so much information that gets hidden over time,” Evans said. “People kind of forget that.”
The Riveras are longtime East Austin neighborhood activists; they met during a protest march more than 30 years ago. Gilbert, chairman of the city’s Community Development Commission, founded the Brown Berets in Austin and participated in a number of Chicano civil rights and East Austin community groups. A native of Ohio, Jane came to Austin in 1980 and helped lead efforts to build affordable housing in East Austin. She is the chairwoman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.
“At the end of the day, we sit down and talk about what we did for the neighbors,” Gilbert Rivera said. Of Rosewood, he said: “The people who live here are very proud of what we’ve been able to build out of basically nothing. … That’s what we tried to show.”