History Department
History Department

Undergraduate publishes class paper on slavery in Austin

Thu, August 18, 2011
Undergraduate publishes class paper on slavery in Austin
Joanna Labor

Joanna Labor’s article, titled  “A History of Slavery in Austin and Surrounding Areas”, appears along side other preeminent authors such as Professor and poet Jericho Brown who teaches at the University of San Diego; Professor Horace Maxile Jr., the associate director of the Research Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago; Professor Edna Garte of Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills, Mich., and many others.

“A History of Slavery in Austin and Surrounding Areas” was a class paper project that she researched using primary sources from the Austin History Center, the Briscoe Center for American History, and other libraries at The University of Texas (UT) campus.

She discovered that from Austin’s beginnings, slavery has been a part of its history, though rarely acknowledged in modern times. “The most surprising thing to learn was that at one point in Austin's history, one-third of the population was enslaved,” Labor said.

Because of the town’s growing population in 1839, coupled with its remoteness from any other concentration of civilization, this gave the slavery institution a distinct role.

There was a great need for help in building the new buildings of commerce, the first State Capitol and Governor’s Mansion, cultivating the land, and the building of homes for the white people. This led to slave owners hiring out their slaves to others and collecting a fee for their slaves’ work.

Lone Star Legacy: African American History in Texas journalThis was a tremendous opportunity for slaves to accumulate money of their own and some even hired themselves out to the indignation of the white citizens. All of this was supposedly illegal, but everyone basically ignored the law because they were desperate for the help.

As a result, this kept the wages of hired help high. This in turn helped the slaves to be able to buy the building materials necessary to build their own homes and eventually land for crops.

The 1840 Census counted 850 people living in Austin and out of that number — 145 were slaves. There were only a small number of Hispanic residents living in Austin and the white people saw them as conspiring with their slaves to instigate rebellions or escapes into Mexico where slavery was illegal.

Eventually the Civil War ended slavery and the freed slaves created their own communities called Wheatsville, which is now West Campus, and Clarksville, which is now a West Austin neighborhood.

Lone Star Legacy is a premiere periodical and according to its website “details the struggles, existence, and triumphs of trailblazing African Americans (current and past) throughout Texas, including various periods from their arrival to the present.”

Editor in chief  Delicia Daniels said, “I consider Ms. Labor an excellent researcher. She unveiled the young town of Waterloo (later renamed Austin) as it progressed through unique slave labor.

“Among the countless number of interesting topics mentioned in the article, three stood out to me. The first involved the competitive case concerning the capitol between Houston and Austin. The second concerned Black slaves who were paid wages and the third involved religious meetings incorporating black slaves and white preachers.” Daniels is an English professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.

Labor was so excited to find out the journal was publishing her article that she immediately called Berry—who was on vacation—to tell her. She dedicated her first published work to her parents and Professor Berry for her sustained support and mentoring throughout the process.

Berry had been contacted by Daniels for stories on African American history. “I thought what a great way to support our students and help a local journal with original research,” said Berry. “They did not have anyone writing on slavery so I encouraged Joanna to submit her paper.”

This is part and parcel for Berry, but especially with students who are interested in pursing graduate work in history. And this is the second time that an undergraduate of Berry’s has had a class paper published in a journal.

Labor just completed her final two classes this summer to graduate from UT. She plans to attend graduate school and is considering researching slavery in San Antonio, her native city.

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