Many citizens of Austin are preoccupied with the University of Texas Longhorns’ losing season. But one UT alumnus is working tirelessly to prevent another loss: the cultural legacy of East Austin.
Diverse Arts Culture Works is the East Austin’s oldest black arts and culture project, and one of the only nonprofit organizations preserving Austin’s black culture.
“I think cultural history is really important,” says founder Harold McMillan. “One of the ways I live my life is looking at American history and African-American history, looking at it as cultural history because it informs broader stories.”
Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage District spans six square miles of central East Austin. In the early 1900s, the city of Austin and UT Austin pushed for the eastern relocation of minority groups to this area through legal mandates and de facto segregation efforts.
While the laws allowing this relocation are long gone, the area is still home to rich black history and culture. Yet the East Side is often overshadowed by central Austin, which is home to The University of Texas, downtown Austin, and many businesses and startups.
In the past few years, East Siders have seen their community rapidly gentrifying. With living costs skyrocketing, it is one of the only fast-growing cities to have a shrinking black population. McMillan says this makes what he’s doing so much more important.
“The shift of my focus a few years ago to central East Austin has everything to do with gentrification,” McMillan said. “You produce programming that addresses a need.”
An Austin resident for over 30 years, McMillan moved to the city by chance, but stayed by choice. After he finished his undergraduate studies at what is now Texas A&M University Commerce, he went to the University of Texas to earn a master’s degree in social work. During his time in the graduate program, however, he realized that finishing this degree was not important to him.
“I was tired of social work with the emphasis being on always trying to fix broken humans and social problems,” McMillan said.
Without his master’s in hand, McMillan still knew he wanted to inspire social change.
“I was an angry young man and wanted to change the world,” says McMillan, now 58.
So he did.
In 1993, McMillan founded Diverse Arts Culture Works, originally called the Diverse Arts Production Group.
McMillan had been working on the Clarksville Jazz and Arts Festival and the East Side Circuit. He reached out to some of his friends who were working on the Women in Jazz concert series and the Austin Acoustic Music Festival.
“I had this bright idea, or I thought it was a bright idea. I sat these people down and said, ‘If we come together as a production group, we’ve got a season of name-identified, already-popular programs that now have a brand,’” he said.
Over the past 20 years, Diverse Arts has branded several music, art and history projects. Some early endeavors included Little magazine, an arts and culture publication, and a traveling gallery series.
“Some of the projects I’ve conjured are deeply tied to my passion and my expertise. Some of them are tied to just the fact that in this community, there aren’t any other African-American folks doing the work,” says McMillan.
In addition to live music showcases like Kenny Dorham’s Backyard and the EastSide Blues Syndicate, Diverse Arts also prides itself on preserving African-American historical accounts through projects like The Blues Family Tree Project and The East Austin Black History Project, both of which utilize academic writings, film, photography and oral histories.
“Part of the impetus was that I was doing research, trying to find the history of the black music community in Austin through ‘legitimate scholarly avenues.’ I had questions that were not being answered because the material was not on the record,” McMillan said. “You have to consider that during a good portion of the 20th century in America—at least to the media and scholars—black folks largely did not exist.”
McMillan says part of what inspired him to create records of oral histories was a textbook he used in graduate school that consisted entirely of primary accounts from common people living through a historical event.
“If the history is not already documented but a person who was there is still alive, there is no better expert on that than them,” he says. “You don’t have to be a scholar to be the subject of intellectual history inquiry.”
Most of the records can be found online in Diverse Arts’ archives. They are still working to digitize some of their documents.
One of Diverse Arts’ biggest struggles is keeping a regular staff due to a lack of funding, which makes projects like digitizing records take longer than average. The project relies solely on intern and volunteer help, so what they can accomplish depends on the staff they have at any given time.
“There are volunteers that have been working with me for 20 years. They show up when they can and do the things that they can,” McMillan said. “I can count on them to do the things they say that they’re going to do, but they don’t say that much.”
McMillan said small nonprofit organizations have the same needs as large organizations, but not the same budget.
“My goal has always been to put stuff out there that looks like and feels like we’ve got a great paid staff of seasoned professionals,” he explains. “I want them to think I’ve got a pocketful of money, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s a lot easier to be dedicated to your creative passion when you’re getting a paycheck. I can’t offer many paychecks, including to myself.”
McMillan hopes to retire soon and pass on some of his projects to a younger generation, but at the moment, no one is stepping up to take over the reins.
“Part of my disappointment is that I started all of these really cool projects and I’m having a hard time getting people [to take them on],” he says. “Part of that has to do with the transient nature of African-American intellectuals and creatives that come to Austin. Those that grew up here, who are invested in the community, don’t stay here to continue to do the work.”
Many members of the black community are only here temporarily for school or work, or leave Austin as soon as they’re old enough. McMillan is currently looking for young African-Americans who are planning on staying in Austin for the next five to ten years to take on some of his projects.
Even though the future of Diverse Arts is unclear, McMillan knows he’s doing the right thing.
“Regardless of who lives here 50 years from now, they’ll know where they are,” he said. “They’ll have a sense of place and cultural identity.”