Cultural Warrior

by Published on
photo by Joey Gidseg

Harold McMillan believes that culture can be a political weapon.

For more than 20 years, the founder and director of Austin’s DiverseArts Culture Works has documented and presented the music and culture of the city’s dramatically changing African-American community. Gentrification and “black flight” have dispersed the black population of central East Austin, threatening to bury a rich cultural heritage under new construction.

Preserving the area’s traditional music and culture has been McMillan’s response to gentrification. DiverseArts will provide cultural and musical programming in a new state-and city-designated African American Cultural Heritage District in East Austin.

“You can have conversations in a cultural space that you can’t in a political space,” says McMillan, surveying East 11th Street, part of the new district.

“Cultural preservation is important because it transmits and carries culture between generations. And oftentimes when there is a question of whether something is not being presented, performed, or produced—it signals that some significant aspect of a community’s culture is at risk of being lost. I don’t think that is the same thing as waxing nostalgic; I just think it’s true.

“My focus of work since I’ve been in Austin has been the African-American community [in East Austin] and my work in the West Austin community of Clarksville. We are headed in a trajectory where these neighborhoods are being transformed, and over time these communities are looking less and less like the families that founded them. … What is possible is to maintain a sense of place so we know what once was here, and the importance of the cultural institutions, because those communities are gone.  What’s come along with [gentrification] is something like black flight. The black population in central East Austin is decreasing, so while some core institutions remain here, many people who grew up in central East Austin don’t live in this neighborhood anymore. … Some folks are being forced out, but some are leaving willingly.

“Because of the city plan of 1928 [which forced African-Americans into an area east of Interstate 35] the black neighborhoods were insulated from the rest of the city. So there are historic homes and homesteads and neighborhoods here that have significant history as it relates to Austin history in general. [East 11th Street] was the core of what used to be the cultural district, the entertainment district. There were live music venues and theaters, with a supporting commercial corridor with entrepreneurs. … The Victory Grill [a music venue and restaurant] is pretty much the only place that’s still here that is owned by the family that originally built it in 1945—the Johnny Holmes family. He died a few years ago, but his heirs still own the building and the property.”