Mary Frances Freeman Baylor, African-American community organizer, director of the Clarksville Neighborhood Center in Austin, and founder of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation, only child of Gladys Y. Freeman and Will Freeman, was born in Austin, Texas, on August 9, 1929. She was raised by her mother in a section of West Austin known as Clarksville. She attended grade school there but later finished at Olive Street Elementary School, then attended Kealing Junior High School and L. C. Anderson High School. She also attended Tillotson College for a short time before marrying Charles Baylor in 1948. Together they had five children—Cynthia, Linda, Vicky, Ronnie, and Skip.
Baylor was a lifelong resident of the Clarksville neighborhood, and her ancestors were among the original settlers of Clarksville, which was one of the earliest freedmen’s communities established west of the Mississippi River. Over time, the all-Black community was incorporated into the city of Austin. However, in an era of rigid segregation, Clarksville was something of a geographical oddity. Essentially a closed, quasi-independent hamlet, it was surrounded on all sides by affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods and was isolated from the much larger, thriving African-American district in East Austin. Unfortunately, Clarksville’s unique location meant that it was persistently neglected by city officials, who concentrated social services for Blacks in East Austin. As a result, the area lacked many basic services. However, Baylor devoted her entire career to improving the impoverished community, which did not have developed schools, recreational facilities, sewers, or even paved roads until the 1970s.
After 1964 Baylor became an active supporter and volunteer in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program, and she began to petition the city of Austin to fund much needed improvements in Clarksville. Then, in 1968 she secured employment with the city of Austin’s Health and Human Services Department, which appointed her director of the Clarksville Neighborhood Center (then known as the Human Opportunities Corporation)—a position she held for twenty-four years. Under her leadership, the center became a valuable resource for many of Clarksville’s disadvantaged residents. It organized community volunteer and youth programs, hosted community meetings, provided food and clothing for the needy, and gave referrals to legal and medical resources. It also offered twenty-four-hour counseling services to assist residents with food stamp and welfare applications and to help them find employment and affordable housing.
In addition to her duties at the Clarksville Neighborhood Center, Baylor worked closely with the Clarksville Neighborhood Council, the Clarksville Advisory Board, and a host of other passionate volunteers to represent the political and economic interests of the disadvantaged community. From 1968 to 1970, she was a lead organizer in the protest against the construction of Texas Loop 1, colloquially known as the MoPac Expressway. The proposed route of the expressway threatened to demolish nearly one-third of Clarksville and displace dozens of needy minority families who had lived in the area for generations. Accordingly, Baylor and others recruited legal assistance and brought suit against the Texas Highway Department and the city of Austin. However, the lawsuit was unsuccessful and construction went ahead as planned. Despite this setback, the group managed to halt the construction of a cross-town expressway to connect MoPac and Interstate 35 in 1975—a project that would have further decimated what remained of Clarksville.
Following that success, Baylor and others convinced city officials to redirect federal funds toward basic infrastructure improvements for Clarksville. From 1975 to 1979, more than a million dollars were invested in order to repair dilapidated homes, pave roads and sidewalks, install street lights, traffic signals, storm drains, and sewers, and to construct a playground. Additionally, funds were provided to open a new community center, which was designed by architecture students at the University of Texas at Austin and built with volunteer labor recruited by Baylor.
These improvements could not have come any sooner. In fact, prior to the construction of an adequate drainage system, the community’s sewage flowed into narrow, open ditches that periodically overflowed and flooded nearby homes. However, the enhanced infrastructure soon attracted real estate investors and commercial enterprises looking to redevelop the area. Afraid that gentrification would mar the neighborhood’s historic character, raise taxes, and drive out low-income residents, Baylor responded. In 1978 she founded the Clarksville Community Development Corporation (CCDC) with the expressed goals of preserving and repairing historic structures and ensuring the availability of affordable housing for the indigent. The CCDC, which was among the first non-profit community development corporations in the country, recruited legal assistance to halt unwanted developers, raised funds to repair rather than demolish older homes, and even convinced the city of Austin to construct the Clarksville Health Clinic in 1982. The CCDC’s crowning achievement, though, was the construction of eighteen new homes for Clarksville’s neediest families.
Baylor retired as director of the Clarksville Neighborhood Center in 1992 but continued to be closely involved with the community. She was a lifelong member of the Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church, which formed the nucleus of Clarksville society for more than 100 years, and she acted as church clerk from 1989 to 1997. Additionally, from 1991 to 1997, she served on the board of the McAuley Institute. Founded in 1983 by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, this organization provided financial support and organizational assistance to community development organizations nationwide, with a specific focus on helping underprivileged women and children.
Baylor died from a heart attack in Austin, on March 16, 1997, and was buried in Austin’s historic Oakwood Cemetery. She was survived by her husband, five children, and five grandchildren. In her memory, the Seventy-fifth Texas Legislature passed a resolution to commemorate her achievements on behalf of the city of Austin and the community of Clarksville. Likewise, the city of Austin named a Clarksville-area park in her honor. Forever remembered as Clarksville’s “problem solver,” she was eulogized by Rev. W. B. Southerland of Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church, who credited Baylor as “the primary instrument in bringing Clarksville from rocks and mud to paved streets and sod around the houses.”