Austin — AUSTIN -- There is a group of University of Texas at Austin alum affectionately known as The Precursors. They are African-American undergrads who attended UT between 1950 and 1970; the university's first black co-eds. Their stories are now the subject of As We Saw It -- The Story of Integration at the University of Texas at Austin.
Co-Editor Virginia Cumberbatch sat down with KVUE's Ashley Goudeau to talk about the book and the work at the UT to increase diversity and inclusion.
Goudeau: The story of the Precursors is one that not a lot of people know in the Austin area. So what inspired you to tell their story?
Cumberbatch: So this has been a project of the University of Texas Division of Diversity and Community Engagement for nearly 10 years. Recognizing the importance of telling the full story of the University of Texas, which includes both the positive and negative historical legacy of integration. And so I was really fortunate when I was a graduate student to sort of be presented with the opportunity to be a part of this project, and we realized there's no better time than now. There was a sense of urgency, not only because these stories were literally going to die off with the Precursors, those folks who entered between 1950 and 1970, but given the current context of social and political unrest around race relations, tt felt like such a relevant time to elevate these stories.
Goudeau: Not to mention that the stories of the Precursors, some of the things that they dealt with, some of the things that they were feeling back then are things that students of color at UT still feel today.
Cumberbatch: Yes, I mean, this is definitely not a story that is unique to the University of Texas, but I think it represents some of the things we're seeing in higher education across the board. And because, you know, universities and colleges are nearly just microcosms of the larger social and political spaces in cities, particularly urban cities, students of color are feeling those same pressures that we're seeing take place around the country in the headlines and newspapers around police brutality, around immigration rights, around economic and social disparity, around education equity. And so because the university sort of creates that sort of micro-experience, students of color definitely have particular experiences that are very reminiscent of what the Precursors went through.
Goudeau: One of the things that I think is interesting about the book is that you not only talk about the Precursors, but also what was happening in Austin at that time and some of the history of Austin, particularly the city's Master Plan of 1928. A lot of people don't know about it. Tell us about that plan.
Cumberbatch: Yeah, so the book doesn't particularly focus on the 1928 plan, but definitely what that plan did for the sort of social context of the city. For those that don't know, the 1928 plan was something that was sort of a critical sort of landmark policy in our city. It mandated that black people that were currently living in what we know now as West Austin, particularly neighborhoods like Clarksville and Wheatsville -- those now we don't necessarily think of as being predominately black communities, but they were. It's where most slaves when they were emancipated ended up creating freedmen towns -- some of the first freedmen towns actually in the state of Texas. And in 1928, the city realized that that was prime real estate, that they wanted it, that they wanted to build sort of new homes and attract a different type of community there. So they mandated that all negros had to move east of what we now think of as I-35, but at the time was East Avenue. And that's what became known as the community or the negro district. And those are some of the neighborhoods we know now as Chestnut and Blacklands. And so not only were black people sort of forced to move to that part of the community or city, but if they didn't they were going to be cut off from city resources or city services. And so that's a really important part of understanding where we are now as a city, as a community, and definitely interacts with the policies and social sort of movements that took place at the University of Texas.
Goudeau: UT has been working to not only kind of address, but address and correct some of the things that happened that were discriminatory in the history. Tell us why that's important for the university.
Cumberbatch: Sure. Well I certainly can't speak on behalf of the university, but the work that we're trying to do through the book As We Saw It, and as a member of the staff of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, that was sort of the impotence for creating a division. It's very unique in higher education to have such a large vice president portfolio dedicated to addressing conversations around diversity, inclusion, equity. I mean, we have nearly 300 staff members where that is our mandate right, to not only address those issues, but to create an environment, a campus climate where no matter people's backgrounds, no matter people's ethnic racial religious identity, that they're walking away with a four-year education where they believe they were sort of fully supported in every part of their being. And sort of connected to that is the university's commitment to being a good neighbor. You know, like a lot of large universities in urban settings, they haven't always had great relations with the community around it. Particularly communities of color. And so the community engagement part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement is really working to not only build trust with the community, but truly leverage the resources of the university like our research, our students, the faculty thought leadership to use that to move forward on conversations on access and equity. And that's particularly what the community engagement center is dedicated to.
Goudeau: When we think about inclusion, when we think about equity, sometimes those are almost bigger terms that we use and it seems almost unreachable. What are some tangible things DDCE is doing to help make that a reality in Austin?
Cumberbatch: Sure. So, in Austin at large, one of the things that we think is really important about inclusion is making sure that everyone feels like they have opportunity to voice their concerns. So we've created a program called the Front Porch Gathering. The front porch is the metaphor that we use for the center that we consider ourselves to be the front porch of the university. Right, when you think of Texas homes, you think of it being a gathering place, a safe place to share ideas and share sort of their hopes and dreams. And so the Front Porch Gatherings have been a dedicated space where we hope we kind of reconstruct what community engagement looks like. Where it's not this sort of stage on the stage model where we have experts talking at the community, but we're creating an environment where everybody in the room is an expert and we can think about solutions and models to addressing some of these pressing priorities in the community together. Because the people with the most knowledge are the people living through those life experiences. And so that's what we sort of inclusion, creating a space where those voices and those ideas are truly tangible and something that's being addressed. And I think in terms of equity right, that's something that's systematic right. So it can't just take the University of Texas certainly. And we really consider ourselves to be a partner with the community. We don't think we have all the answers or all the resources to just make some of these problems go away. So the idea of equity is making sure that we're partnering with each other, that we're listening to one another and figuring out who's in the best position to break some of these systemic problems; some of these things that we're seeing in education where we're not creating equitable access to great education. Or what we're seeing in health care in terms of people's ability to access mental health services. What are the ways that we can build better equity in those systems as a community.
Goudeau: When we think about those and we think about some of the stories that are included in the book themselves, there are some stories of triumph in the book when it comes to the Precursors. What's one that really stands out for you?
Cumberbatch: Sure. I mean there's so many incredible stories and I think what's so special about this book is the opportunity to tell them right, to raise the visibility of some incredible individuals that not only lived their life, but helped move our university, our city, our state and our country forward in terms of education access. I mean, the landmark decision in terms of Heman Sweatt versus UT pre-dated Brown versus Board, right. So that's pretty incredible. And so some of the stories that stand out to me particular is a chapter where we focus on the intersection of gender and race, right, that sort of complexity of women not only feeling in some ways alienated in terms of their access to particular educational experiences because of their gender, but also as being African American or black women. And there's some incredible women that we profile in the book that helped integrate dormitories. And when I think about the courage that that took and the tenacity that that took to be listened to, to be heard in some ways it just makes me really excited for our students today and communities around the state to hear those stories."
Goudeau: This book has truly been a labor of love for you. Someone who is a native Austinite. You didn't go to UT undergrad but you went to graduate school at UT. And then to put this together, the history of your city, of your university. What do you hope people really take away from this?
Cumberbatch: Yeah, well first I have to say this has definitely been a team effort. It was definitely not just my labor but the labor of my co-editors including Lisa Blair, who really moved this project forward over the last few years, and the support of the division and Dr. Gregory Vincent, our former VP. But you're certainly right. This is definitely something that is so exciting to me as a native Austinite who has had different interactions with some of these people in some of these spaces over my lifetime. And just being a true believer in the power of storytelling, that it can really help to break down walls and for people to see themselves in spaces that they ordinarily haven't. And I think when you take a book like this and you put it in the context of what we've seen around the country in terms of the taking down of statues on campus and around cities and you think about it in context of some of the racial tensions that we've seen, I think this can be a tool for us to learn a little bit about our history and see where we're coming from so we can realize the power of where we're going. And so I'm excited for not just students, but us as a city to really value all of our stories because we've all contributed to this amazing city that we call home. And I think we do ourselves a disservice if we only tell part of the story.