Clarksville was a freedom community located west of downtown. It was bordered, roughly, by West Lynn Street to the east, and by West 9th and 12th (now Waterston) Streets to the south and north, respectively. At its height, its stretched west into what is now Texas Loop 1, or MoPac Expressway. As was typical of freedom colonies throughout the South, it was located in a bottomland and suffered from poor drainage and intermittent flooding.
The community’s history dates to 1870, when, shortly after courts resolved land disputes in the area, real estate speculators bought swaths of the largely undeveloped lowland– in what was then the outskirts of town – then promptly subdivided their holdings and sold to Black buyers. In 1871, a formerly enslaved farmer, Charles Griffith (who later changed his last name to Clark), purchased two acres in the area. Hoping to create a place where “his people can be together,” Clark subdivided his property for sale to other African Americans. Over the following years and decades, other Black people bought property in the lowland, establishing the Clarksville community.
Most of Clarksville’s residents worked as day laborers and domestic workers. Some worked in a nearby quarry, others for the city, and many as seasonal laborers on farms further out of town. Relatively poor, they built one-room plank houses, expanding their homes one room at a time over the years. In 1876, community members organized the Sweet Home Baptist congregation and held its first services at the home of a Clarksville resident. In 1882, they purchased a plot in the lowland and built the Sweet Home Baptist Church. Clarksville resident Maggie Mayes, wife of Texas state representative Elias Mayes, established the community’s first school, holding classes in the family’s home on West 10th Street and, later, in the enclave’s church.
Into the early 20th century, Clarksville remained isolated, surrounded by undeveloped land and private estates. One of these estates, a 320-acre property, belonged to former Texas governor Elijas Pease. It bordered Clarksville to the north. In 1916, following Pease’s death, his heirs began subdividing and selling the property. Thanks to the automobile, the estate’s hilly, picturesque landscape, and new bridges over Shoal Creek, sales boomed.
By 1928, when Austin passed its first master plan, Clarksville was surrounded by some of Austin’s wealthiest, exclusively white neighborhoods; however, due to its low-lying topography and the city’s refusal to invest in Black neighborhoods, the enclave suffered from chronic sewage and flood hazards, deterring would-be real estate developers from the area. As a result, the community remained intact even as other Black enclaves located in prime Central Austin neighborhoods – such as Wheatville – were displaced and pushed into East Austin.
City neglect of Clarksville manifested as early as 1912, when, in response to a typhoid epidemic that sickened white residents, the city purchased private sewage lines and expanded the system. It did not build sewage lines in Clarksville, turning the bottomland into a receptacle for its own sewage and for increasing amounts of sewage run-off from white neighborhoods on the surrounding hills. In the 1930s, in order to realize the segregationist vision outlined in its 1928 master plan, the city extended (inferior) municipal services to Black communities in East Austin – including parks, paved roads, and sewerage – while continuing to deny these services to Black enclaves in other parts of town. As a Clarksville neighborhood group wrote in 1976, throughout Jim Crow, “City sewer lines ended just outside the neighborhood, dumping their contents into Clarksville’s ditches and creek beds.” Additionally, by covering the ground in impermeable surfaces, suburban development increased rain run-off, and Clarksville began to suffer more intense and frequent floods.
Despite these environmental hazards and ongoing city neglect – through the 1970s, Clarksville also had no paved roads, city parks, or street lighting – the enclave provided refuge from the economic and psychological toll that Jim Crow took on African Americans. Residents tended food gardens and fruits trees and hunted in nearby woodlands, and despite municipal rules banning livestock in the city, they were able to keep hogs and hens, enabling them to supplement poor wages. Residents also pooled resources, helping one another build houses and care for children. As Clarksville resident and community organizer Mary Baylor recounted in an interview, “The community was an oasis for those escaping the hostility of segregated Austin.” It “spiritually and economically supported its residents and provided a haven from an intolerant world.”
Clarksville’s eventual displacement began shortly after the demise of de jure school segregation. During Jim Crow, even when Black and white neighborhoods abutted one another, as in Clarksville’s case, Black and white children attended different schools. In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, however, the US Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Anti-Black racism remained pervasive throughout US society, and new strategies quickly emerged to racially engineer urban space, preventing school integration. Such strategies included highway construction and urban renewal.
These national trends played out in Austin. In 1964, after the federal government ordered Austin schools to integrate, the city closed Clarksville Elementary and began busing Black youth to nearby, white Mathews Elementary school. The city also expanded Austin’s transportation plan to include a Crosstown Expressway that would connect I-35 with Mopac, which was slated for construction and would cut through Clarksville’s western end. According to the modified plan, the Crosstown Expressway would run through the middle of Clarksville, “virtually destroy[ing] the community.”
Clarksville residents learned of Austin’s highway plans in 1968, shortly before the city began condemning properties along MoPac’s right-of-way. Residents organized to save their neighborhood, forming a non-profit, Concerned Citizens for the Development of West Austin Association. In 1970, the group filed suit to stop highway construction, alleging the city and state failed to provide adequate support to residents forced to move by Mopac’s construction. The injunction was denied, and construction began that year, destroying almost 30 Clarksville homes. Of the families displaced, only five were relocated in Clarksville.
Unbowed, Clarksville residents used their new organizational capacity to demand parks, paved roads, and drainage works. Despite these demands, the city refused to invest in the neighborhood, citing Clarksville’s immanent destruction; however, the Crosstown Expressway had no state or federal funding, and planners could not confirm when it would be built. Such uncertainty about the expressway’s timeline was strategic; it deterred Clarksville residents from investing in their homes, reducing property values and facilitating the city’s and state’s eventual acquisition of the bottomland.
By the mid 1970s, however, important changes were underway. White West Austin residents organized a “freeway revolt” against MoPac, demanding the city eliminate ramps and access roads that would have obliterated white neighborhoods. They also joined with Clarksville residents to fight the Crosstown Expressway. More importantly however, white people were moving into Clarksville. Most were young, middle- to low-income renters who appreciated the area’s cheap rents, central location, and proximity to the schools, parks, and other amenities of nearby, affluent, white neighborhoods.
Given these demographic changes, Austin City Council voted in 1974 to scratch the Crosstown Expressway. That same year, the city rezoned Clarksville, preventing high density or commercial development that would destroy the neighborhood’s historic character. Two years later, following a community petition, Clarksville was listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as an historic district. Residents hoped this listing would give them more control over the community’s development.
This proved not to be the cause. In 1976, the city approved the use of federal Housing and Community Development funds to pave and gutter Clarksville’s streets, build a neighborhood park, and make emergency housing improvements. The funds would also pay for the installation of sewerage and drainage works, eliminating Clarksville’s environmental hazards. Almost immediately, real estate developers took new interest in the bottomland. In 1977, Tao Ono, an Austin- based architectural firm, began purchasing vacant Clarksville lots and building middle-to upper-income housing for its white clientele. The firm also purchased older homes at depressed rates. After renovating the houses, Tao Ono sold them at exorbitant rates or rented them, sometime nearly tripling the rent.
Clarksville community leaders responded by forming the Clarksville Community Development Corporation (CCDC), a non-profit dedicated to building affordable housing in the neighborhood. By increasing low-income housing stock, the CCDC hoped to draw residents displaced by MoPac back to Clarksville and to level out property values, stalling gentrification. Funded by federal grants and low interest city loans, CCDC housing temporarily “saved” the community.35
Eventually, however, gentrification overwhelmed the enclave. For decades, Austin developers had been working with UT and local and state officials to woo technology firms to the city. Their collaborative efforts proved effective; in 1983 the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation moved to Austin, followed in 1988 by a consortium of semiconductor manufacturers. In the 1990s, hundreds of smaller technology and venture capitalist firms settled in the city, spurring rapid urban growth. Gentrification of Central Austin– of which Clarksville was part – intensified. Developers descended on the bottomland, flipping houses, or tearing down and rebuilding. Property values soared. The number of affluent, white residents in the area increased, and the number of residents of color fell. By 2000, only 2.1% of people living within the boundaries of historic Clarksville identified as Black.
 J. Hennenberger, A Short History and Historic Tour, Austin, 1975, 6.
 Clarksville Community Development Corporation, Clarksville walking tour.
 M. Greenstein, Mary Baylor struggles for the life and soul of Clarksville, Austin American Statesman (22 March 1997), 13.
 J. Bryant, Ben May loves his ‘backyard’, but the ‘backyard’ now is in trouble, Austin American Statesman (17 November 1968), A14.
 C. Henery, History, memory, and gentrification, Black Perspectives (12 December 2017), https://www.aaihs.org/history-memory-and-gentrification/
Clarksville Community Development Corporation, Clarksville Walking Tour, 1976, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/565ded29e4b085b1596246b9/t/571a98b4356fb0 bb3458eb17/1461360838 249/Clarksville_WalkingTour-sm.pdf.
C. Henery, “History, Memory, and Gentrification,” Black Perspectives (12 December 2017), https://www.aaihs.org/history-memory-and-gentrification/.
Historic Marker Application: Hezikiah Haskell House, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting Texas Historical Commission, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth491849/?q=clarksville.
M. Landon and J. Williams, Clarksville Historic District, National Register of Historic Places nomination on file at the Texas Historical Commission, Austin, 1976.
M. Mears, And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928, Lubbock, 2009.
G.L. Nelson, “Clarksville,” Film, 1970, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTIRTFvKEu0.
J.R. Ross, “The aesthetics of gentrification in the Clarksville National Register of Historic Places Historic District, Austin, Texas, 1871-2003,” unpublished Masters thesis, Texas Tech University, 2003.