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CLARKSVILLE, TX (TRAVIS COUNTY)

CLARKSVILLE, TEXAS (Travis County). Clarksville is just northeast of the intersection of the Missouri Pacific Railroad and West Tenth Street in west Austin, Travis County. The land, containing streams and steep hills, had previously been part of a plantation owned by Governor Elisha M. Pease. It is said that Pease gave the land to his emancipated slaves with the vain hope that they would remain near his mansion and be available for further service. Clarksville was founded in 1871 by Charles Clark, a freedman who changed his name from Charles Griffin after emancipation. Clark bought two acres of land from Confederate general Nathan G. Shelley and built a house on what is now West Tenth Street. He subdivided his land among other freedmen to start a community outside of Austin. Despite its isolation Clarksville came within the jurisdiction of Austin early in its history. Early Clarksville has been described by its older residents as a wilderness broken by an occasional dirt road and train tracks laid by the International-Great Northern Railroad in the 1870s. The Sweet Home Baptist Church served as the community meeting center. The church was organized in the home of Mary Smith on the Haskell homestead sometime before 1882, when the congregation purchased land on which to build a church. Rev. Jacob Fontaine served as the first minister. Elias Mayes, a black state legislator from Grimes and Brazos counties in the Sixteenth and Twenty-first legislatures, lived in Clarksville as early as 1875. He built a home on land purchased from Charles Clark in 1884. Many Clarksville residents worked in the cotton industry or farmed; others held jobs in surrounding communities. Leroy Robertson owned and operated a community store. In 1896 a school at Clarksville had an enrollment of forty-seven. In 1917 a new one-room schoolhouse was built and named Clarksville Colored School. It offered six grades.

Early in the twentieth century developers began to realize the land value of Clarksville, which lay near growing downtown Austin. Austin city policy aimed to concentrate the local black population in the east, and pressured black communities in west Austin, such as Clarksville and Wheatsville, to move. In 1918 the Austin school board closed the Clarksville school. Clarksville residents were later forced to use city services in east Austin or none at all. The 1928 master plan of the city of Austin recommended "that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the Negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the Negro population to this area." Most Clarksville residents endured the lack of services, however, and refused to move. The community did experience two small emigrations to California, the first during World War I and the second in 1943. Clarksville maintained its school, which enrolled sixty-nine students in 1924, sixty-six in 1934, and seventy in 1940. Sometime in the 1960s the school building was moved to O. Henry Junior High School. The Sweet Home Baptist Church was rebuilt for a third time in 1935.

Until 1930 Clarksville residents used kerosene lamps, and the community remained surrounded by woods. In later years Clarksville began to feel the pressure of Austin's expanding white community, which filled the surrounding area with spacious, middle-class homes. In 1968 Clarksville residents unsuccessfully protested a state and local plan to build a highway along the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which extended along the western boundary of Clarksville. The completed MoPac Expressway cut through the community, causing twenty-six families to be relocated. Twenty-three families left of their own accord. The number of homes in Clarksville decreased from 162 in 1970 to less than 100 in 1976.

Residents of Clarksville began requesting Austin city funds for the improvement and preservation of their community in 1964, but dirt streets crossed the area until 1975, and a creek carrying sewage periodically flooded homes. In 1975 the Texas Historical Commission designated a two-block-wide strip of Clarksville as a historic district, and the city paved the streets with asphalt. In 1976 the Austin City Council approved the use of $100,000 from a federal housing and community-development grant to pave streets permanently, improve drainage, and expand the playground in Clarksville. Another $100,000 was designated for housing rehabilitation. The same year Clarksville residents and supporters defeated a plan to build a thoroughfare through the community connecting Interstate Highway 35 and the MoPac Expressway. The Clarksville Neighborhood Center, the third community center in Clarksville's history, opened in 1976 to provide information and referrals to community members. The center, remodeled from an old home with volunteer labor, also served as a base for community-improvement projects.

Land values in Clarksville rose with the municipal improvements, and in 1977 a development company began buying lots and building houses that attracted a young, predominantly middle-class white population to the community. Rent costs subsequently increased for the older residents. The Clarksville Community Development Corporation, formed in 1978, worked to establish community services and low-cost housing in the area to retain its black population and promote the return of former residents.

Historical markers stand outside the Sweet Home Baptist Church and the Clarksville Community Center. Some historic buildings, such as the Haskell homestead, have been restored. Clarksville was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Betty Fine et al., Clarksville (Corpus Christi: Mission Press, 1969). John Henneberger, Clarksville: A Short History and Historic Tour (Austin: Clarksville Community Development Corporation, 1978). Jennifer Sharpe, Clarksville: Whose Community? (Austin: Bread and Roses, 1982). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Nolan Thompson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Nolan Thompson, "CLARKSVILLE, TX (TRAVIS COUNTY)," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hpc01), accessed December 19, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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