Race Relations and Segregation on the East Austin Blues Scene
By Roger Gatchet
“A literary and musical form . . . a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature . . . these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling . . . that’s a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought . . . can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain.”
--Robert Palmer, Deep Blues
“In general, whites who embrace black music—be it blues, jazz, rap, whatever—are opening themselves up to aspects of black experience they worry will finally elude them.”
--Francis Davis, The History of the Blues
Background: Segregation in Texas and Austin
In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States legally sanctioned the long-standing practice of racial segregation in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson. Despite the dissenting opinion of justice John Marshall Harlan, who foresaw a future governed by “sinister legislation” that would “interfere with the blessings of freedom,” “regulate civil rights common to all citizens,” and “place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens,” the Court majority decided to extend the legal power of state and local governments to practice segregation on the basis of whether one was White or Black.
Newly empowered by the Supreme Court decision, in the years following Plessy v. Ferguson the Texas legislature passed a number of laws that specifically targeted the rights of African American Texans. A poll tax in 1902 forced many Black voters away from the polls, reducing their numbers by the tens of thousands, and in 1906 the Austin city council passed an ordinance that legalized segregation on public transportation systems. In 1923, the legislature even went so far as to pass a “white primary law” that prohibited Blacks from voting in the Democratic primaries. According to Dulaney, despite the bold efforts of African Americans to resist institutionalized racism in the form of segregationist laws, “nothing succeeded in stemming the tide of segregation that restricted the rights of black Texans by the early twentieth century.”
Perhaps the most vivid example of institutionalized racism in Austin was the 1928 city plan, a document that called for the establishment of a “Negro district” in East Austin. This division between West and East Austin was underscored by the construction of East Avenue (completed in 1933), which became the site of present-day Interstate Highway 35 some three decades later. Although gentrification and recent commercial and residential development are changing the demographics of East Austin, I35 continues to create a barrier between communities living on the East and West sides of the city (especially for those attempting to cross the highway on foot).
Blues and Race in East Austin
“. . . when you’re reading that book about the history of Texas blues and Austin blues, you’re reading an interview with Clifford Antone and Stevie Vaughan and Jimmy Vaughan. You’re not reading an interview with Grey Ghost, or Snuff Johnson, or Matthew Robinson, so their story’s not really out there, you know.
“I’ve been traveling, traveling from toe to toe/Everywhere I have been, I find some more Jim Crow. One thing people, I want everybody to know/You’re gonna find some Jim Crow everyplace you go.”
--Leadbelly, “Jim Crow Blues””
Despite the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism throughout the state of Texas, Blacks in Austin established a vibrant, thriving community in the Eastern part of the city. A number of independent, Black-owned businesses were established there, as Diverse Arts founder and director Harold McMillan describes in a 1999 interview:
“Once you go back to pre-integration black East Austin . . . what you’ve got is a community that had cultural institutions, and commerce, and people with money, and people without money, and crime and people with jobs and people without jobs, but it was a normal, functioning community. One of the things that segregation did for black folks was provide some amount of insulation so that they knew what was going on in the community, and their institutions were granted respect.
There was a point where black East Austin had two colleges, for instance. Two colleges, lots of churches, barber shops, theatres, hotels, doctors, grocery stores—stuff that’s hard to believe today, but that used to be the situation. Part of it was that’s the only place they could do business in Austin, but that had its advantages culturally.”
In addition to the businesses McMillan lists above, East Austin (particularly Eleventh and Twelfth streets) were ground zero for what would soon become known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” one of the liveliest blues scenes in the Lone Star state. Established touring acts like Ike & Tina Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, even the King of the Blues himself, B. B. King, would play in East Austin juke joints like Charlie’s Playhouse and the still operational Victory Grill. As Jonny Meyers explains in a 2007 article on the Chitlin’ Circuit, “The circuit was more than a tour route. It was an important and vibrant means of economy, community, and cultural trade. Since segregation placed limits on African-American businesses—no bank loans or credit, zoning and neighborhood restrictions, zero mainstream exposure—entrepreneurs turned to informal means in order to run their businesses.”
Photographed by Roger Gatchet
Photograph provided by Harold McMillan
Donald “Duck” Jennings, an Austin native and veteran blues musician who has been playing in East Austin venues since the 1950s, recalls the businesses he used to frequent there:
“So what a lot of them did was take their home, and little old box houses, it was kind of like a little living area and a bedroom, right here. They’d knock this wall out, and block this right here, and they had a club. They lived, put a room back here maybe, if the house was big enough they wouldn’t have to do nothing. Just move all that back here, and they had a club. And several houses did that.“And then there was this one lady. She didn’t have a club, but what she did was the front of her house, she made a little café. Could cook, I mean man, she could cook. And a lot of times she wasn’t open every day. She couldn’t afford to open up every day, but when she did, boy it was good. I’d stop by there sometimes on my way to work. I’d stop and eat, have bacon and eggs, toast, coffee. All that was about, for about thirty cents.”
In spite of the city’s segregation laws, these East side businesses did very well. Jennings explains:
“They thrived. And that was true on East Twelfth street, Eleventh street, and Rosewood, because those places served the whole East side. Everybody went there, because it was segregated. You couldn’t go nowhere else. So you had to pick a place where you like, and that was it. Restaurant, pick a place. They had some restaurants on Twelfth street that were dynamite. Because the people could, the owners could, you know they could deal with it because it wasn’t so bad on them. You know, the city codes and all that, they didn’t have all that. They didn’t give a damn if you had extension cords everywhere.”
It is in this racially segregated community that Henry “Bluesboy” Hubbard, a native of La Grange who has called Austin home since 1955, started his career as a professional blues musician. The talented guitarist and pianist (who currently performs with the Texas Eastside Kings) held court as the leader of house band Bluesboy Hubbard & The Jets at Charlie Gildon’s famed clubs Charlie’s Playhouse and Ernie’s Chicken Shack. Jennings would later add his trumpet playing to the Jets, and the band quickly established itself as one of Austin’s premier blues bands. As word spread out to West Austin, Hubbard, Jennings and company began to attract the attention of area college students. Hubbard recalls:
“We started playing for Charlie in ’58. Around 1960, ’59 or ’60, the White kids at the University of Texas heard about Bluesboy Hubbard and the Jets.
So they started calling Charlie. And he had a girl named Eleanor. She would be there early, open up early. So they would call her, and asked her, ‘Could Whites come to the club?’ and all this kind of stuff. And she said, ‘Yeah, definitely.’
So, the fraternity brothers would call the Playhouse and want to book Bluesboy Hubbard and the Jets. So, that was the beginning of us playing in every fraternity house out there at the University. It’s probably not a fraternity house out there today we haven’t played, including female fraternities [sororities].”
Charlie’s Playhouse: The “Talk of the Town”
“To be part of a sea of black faces offers both a thrill and a validation: one is being granted a privilege denied to other whites. On the other hand, most whites who listen exclusively to black music inevitably feel unworthy of it on some vague, existential level. For some whites, this is part of the attraction; far from the least curious aspect of a love whose fulfillment depends on remaining unrequited.”
--Francis Davis, The History of the Blues
Photograph provided by Harold McMillan
As Bluesboy Hubbard and the Jets found more and more work with fraternities and sororities on the West side of I35, Gildon’s clubs began seeing an influx of White patrons on certain nights of the week. As Hubbard recalls, it got “to the point where if you went to Charlie’s on a Friday or Saturday, the place was completely White. It would be like ninety-eight percent White.”
The image of a crowd of eager White college students hanging out in a Black-owned blues club in the early 1960s in Austin suggests that the process of desegregation had started early there. While that may be true, it should be noted that both Hubbard and Jennings cite 1971 as the year when Austin began to desegregate—a full seven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And as Hubbard recalls, the students’ presence wasn’t always embraced by Black patrons:
“But what happened was, Charlie and Miss Ira [Gildon’s wife] being businessfied people, you know, if you came to their club and you were Black and you were sitting at a table that was for five, he would ask you to move, to move you over here where there was a table for two. Because he had five Whites that wanted that table, see. So all that got to be friction there. And it would—the Black people on the East side, saying that Charlie’s catering to White folks. (laughs) You know, he’s, he, his club is open now for Whites. And if you’re Black, he’ll make you get up and all that. Well he did, but not in that sense, that they would put it out.”
“But yeah,” Hubbard continues, “the talk of the town on the East side: Charlie catered to Whites.” Hubbard defends Gildon for his business sense: “He would never make no Blacks not sit, if they were sitting there, get up and all that. But he would make them move from a table for five to a table for two, you know.” “But eventually,” he admits, “the place was completely White”:
“Now the problem was, the White University kids would call and reserve their tables. So you may walk in there and see a lot of people over here, and there’s not a lot of people over there, and you say, and some Blacks would come there, and look in there, and say, ‘Well let’s go in here.’ And Miss Ira would say, ‘Well all that’s reserved.’ Well see, most of the Black people, ‘Reserved, what are you talking about?’ See they wasn’t into that reserve thing, because this is a Black club. But the White University brothers had already reserved the whole spot for maybe fifty people. And the reserved sign is on the tables, you know. ‘Reserved.’ And Black people couldn’t understand, ‘What do you mean reserved? This is a Black club. I should be able to walk in here and sit wherever I want to or when I want to.’ But that’s what they found out they couldn’t do. And they was getting pissed about that, you know.
While White patrons were more or less welcomed into East Austin blues clubs, Hubbard’s band did not always receive the same open invitation when he crossed the East-West divide. He recalls one particular experience when he was booked to play a fraternity gig in Huntsville, Texas:
“And in another town that it was terrible, was in Huntsville. By the prison there? Oh man, they were terrible down there. They had Colored, White, Colored, White, and everything. Well I, we started playing down there. This was in the late fifties and early sixties. This was when Charlie had the Playhouse. And one of the guys that came to the Playhouse, a fraternity, he was going to school. There’s a college down there in Huntsville. And he was going to school. So he hired us to play down there, on like our off-nights. Like a Tuesday night, Wednesday. And when we went down there, he said, ‘Hubbard, now you all got to stop over there at that service station. And, and I’ll, and I’ll come over there and get you all. Y’all gonna be there at such-and-such a time?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, okay. I’ll come over there.’
Now that service station had Colored, White, Colored, White, all over the, everything. And Gloria Jean and the Rollettes was playing in Huntsville at a country and western club. And the sheriff actually come in there, and cut them off one night and told them don’t come down there no more. Yeah. And he did us the same way, but we were playing—but what happened was, we went down there and played. And the guy that hired us from Austin, he come and saw us, and he was waving and everything. He said, ‘I tell you what we’re going to do, we’re going to, you all are going to play at the National Guard Armory.’ You know, they have those buildings on the highways and stuff. He said, ‘Well I’m a take a shortcut through the campus, so y’all stay close to me. Because they don’t even allow y’all to come through the campus.’ Yeah.
And that was that college down there in Huntsville. So he pulled out and went through the campus, and we were right behind him in two cars. And we went—and the National Guard Armory was like down the street further, on one of the main highways. So we went down there and played, and them kids enjoyed it, man. So he hired us again.
About the third time that he hired us, we were playing like a son of a gun. And here comes, this was, it was a sheriff and, and a Highway Department. I mean you know the, the troopers that get you for speeding? They, yeah, they came in there, and he, this guy walked, the sheriff walked in. He said, ‘Who’s the bandleader?’ And my drummer was sitting there, and—what you call this, said, ‘He is.’ I said, ‘Right here.’ So he come over there. ‘I tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to shut this down, and y’all pack y’all’s stuff and leave.’
So, one of the fraternity [brothers] came up there and said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Y’all got kids out there that’s underage.’ That’s what he laid it on, see. ‘They’re underage. Some of those girls ain’t no eighteen or twenty,’ and all this stuff. So, he said, ‘But the best thing that you can do is tear your stuff down.’ So I looked back at everybody, I said, ‘Man, the sheriff want us to tear everything down and cut out.’ And so we did. We tore everything down and cut out.
As Hubbard’s comments make clear, such experiences with racial oppression and the threat of violence were not uncommon for Black musicians in Austin. It would take the sacrifices and social activism of the Civil Rights Movement, coupled with the legislative intervention of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address the violence of segregation that Hubbard describes.
The Changing Face of the Blues in Austin
Photographed by Roger Gatchet
As Hubbard and Jennings are quick to point out, one of the ironic consequences of desegregation in Austin was the collapse of the East Austin blues scene. Yet at the same time, desegregation brought new opportunities as venues opened up for Black musicians in West Austin, albeit at the expense of what was once a thriving, self-sufficient community along East Eleventh and Twelfth streets. As Jennings remembers,
You see when, in ’71 the clubs closed. Lot of them just give up. Because all the customers and the patrons, they left and went across the freeway. Well these people closed up, wasn’t no more Playhouse. And we were getting jobs on the West, on the West side of the freeway. A lot of them went over there, and that’s what happened to a lot of clubs. They just gave up because there was nobody to support them. And they went to different bands.
When that happened, the different White bands that had gotten set up, a lot of Blacks went and joined them. See there was no such thing as the all-together Black band now, see. It’s different. And they started playing different styles of music, here comes that guy, the, hip hop, R&B. R&B’s a little different from solid blues. And this means that if you know anything, you can get there and change the whole order. See from just solid blues, it could be different. That’s what happened. A lot of the clubs, even everywhere. It changed. In all the big cities, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth. All the places we used to play in Dallas and Ft. Worth, they just like the Austin scene, they’re all gone. Because musicians is, it’s broad now. It’s a broad field.
Big playing field, and you don’t have to, you don’t have to try to just be confined to, to one type. You can go make money anywhere if you can play, and it don’t matter whether you White or Black.”
Photograph provided by Harold McMillan
Jennings himself has played in racially diverse bands, including the Tim Torres Orchestra (an all-Latino Tejano group that was popular in the 1960s) and his current band the Texas Eastside Kings, which features a Japanese guitar player. As he continues reflecting on the changes in Austin’s music scene after desegregation, Jennings recalls playing at Clifford Antone’s famed club, which Antone first opened on Sixth street in the summer of 1975:
“So the music, the music did, it helped bring people together. People of different color and people of color, it brought us all together because it didn’t matter about you being there White, and I’m being there Black. We come for the entertainment. And a lot of people thought it was going to be chaos, but it was not. It wasn’t. It was all right. There again, you know there are some jerks out there, they’re still out there. But the music had a big difference in what Antone did. I mean, bringing people together.
See, at Antone’s, he, the people could see how he mingled. When you come to his club, he was right there. He was right there. He had the musicians, he’d bring them in, and, see. [Bobby “Blue”] Bland, we opened up for Bland several times down there. We opened up for Little Milton, all these guys. We, my band, we opened up for them. And the people were there, man, like flies. This table is White people, this table here was Black, full of Black people. All, just was all mingled in there. And it didn’t make a damn, see, because we weren’t there, we were not there for nothing but the entertainment. And everybody minded their own damn business, and that’s the, that’s how it happened.”
At Antone’s, Jennings offers, “It wasn’t nothing to look up, you look up and there’d be a Black guy and a White girl dancing together. It just didn’t matter. It was all about the music. It was because we liked it, and the crowd liked it.” He acknowledges that racial integration was a slow process, but the process did move forward, and music played an important part of it:
“It’s all gone. It’s all gone. Do you know, the segregated part of it, it’s just all gone. The all-Black club, all-Black club, no, they’re all gone. All gone.
You can’t, you can’t want desegregation and then, and then at the same time be segregated. That don’t work. So that’s the way it went. I have fond memories of, of all of it. The places we used to play. Now, if you, even here in Austin, private parties and whatever’s private, you might see anybody in there now. See, as opposed to back in the day, if it was a party, it was all, just all Black there. Now, man, Blacks got White friends, White friends got Black friends, they’re married, all that. Girlfriend and boyfriend now, sure shit, it’s all gone. That way of life is gone.”
Together as the Texas Eastside Kings, Hubbard, Jennings and other veterans of the East Austin blues scene continue to perform regularly at venues such as the Victory Grill, Central Market, and Tokyo Steakhouse in Round Rock. They also have a self-titled album on Dialtone Records, a local independent record label dedicated to promoting Texas blues. For more information, visit http://dialtonerecords.com/es_kings/kingsbio.htm.
I would like to thank Martha Norkunas for her support and helpful comments during the development of this project, and to Harold McMillan of Diverse Arts for providing photographs and for his enthusiasm and support for the exhibit. I would also like to thank Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Jennings for their generous time and participation in the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, African American Texans Oral History Project.
“Whose Blues?: Race Relations and Segregation on the East Austin Blues Scene” is part of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, directed by Dr. Martha Norkunas. It was produced in the fall of 2008 for the graduate seminar, “Cultural Representations of the Past.” The exhibit was created and designed by Roger Gatchet, then a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and edited by Dr. Norkunas. It is donated to the public domain and full permission is given to use the materials for nonprofit, educational purposes, given the individual permissions and restrictions that may apply to archival photographs and texts.
The Project in Interpreting the Texas Past (ITP) at the University of Texas at Austin was created by Dr. Martha Norkunas to shed new light on the Texas and American past by researching, interpreting and presenting the histories of women and minority communities. Students have engaged in historical and cultural research and in-depth oral history interviews to create innovative interpretive projects for historic sites, museums, and community organizations all over the state of Texas. For more information about the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, please contact Dr. Martha Norkunas, Head of the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past, Department of Anthropology, EPS 1.130, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78727; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
ITP is an initiative of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, created and directed by Dr. Richard Cherwitz, which is committed to building interdisciplinary, collaborative, and sustainable ways for universities to work with their communities to solve complex problems. For more information, please visit https://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie/.
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Fraser, Catherine, and William Bacon. “Segregation and Civil Rights in Texas,
Greenberg, Sanford N. “White Primary.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas
Hess, Christopher. “The Primary Source.” Austin Chronicle. Austin Chronicle
Hubbard, Henry “Bluesboy.” Life History Interview, transcript of an oral history
Humphrey, David C. “Austin, Texas (Travis County).” Handbook of Texas
Jennings, Donald “Duck,” Sr. Life History Interview, transcript of an oral
Leadbelly. “Jim Crow Blues.” Bourgeois Blues. Smithsonian Folkways, 1997. CD.
McMillan, Harold. Life History Interview, transcript of an oral history
Meyers, Jonny. “Juke Joint Blues: Blues Boy Hubbard Remembers Austin’s
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Penguin, 1981. Print.
Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 US 537. Supreme Court of the US. 1896.