Stories collected from those who have a history with Downs Field, an historic site for Austin’s African American community, will now be donated the Austin History Center’s African Community Archives and the Huston-Tillotson University Archives.
The oral histories were gathered through Forklift Dancework’s year-long project Take Me Out to Downs Field, which explored and celebrated the history of the site. During its project, Forklift convened 15 community members for meetings throughout the year to share stories. From these conversations, Forklift recorded key community stories relating to the sports field.
Downs Field, which is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, has been a center for sports, particularly baseball, and community since the 1920s when Samuel Huston College first developed the land for a baseball stadium. Originally conceived as a racially segregated facility in the Jim Crow era, Downs Field was home to the Negro Baseball League’s Austin Black Senators, the Austin Black Pioneers, the Austin Greyhounds, the Austin Indians, and the Austin Palominos. Baseball greats like Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, and Buck O’Neil are said to have played there.
Downs Field is currently the home field for the Huston-Tillotson University Rams, and its neighboring field Mabson Field is home to RBI and Greater East Austin Youth Association little league teams.
The field and its history serve as a reminder of both the inspiring legacy of Austin’s Black community and its talent, resilience, and creativity, as well as of the history of segregation and gentrification. As Pamela Benson Owens, executive director of Six Square notes, “Downs Field is way more than a field. It’s a playground for dreams, building community, and preserving a rich legacy.”
Other Forklift programming at Downs Field include “A Beautiful Symphony,” a portrait series created by Austin-based photographer Cindy Elizabeth of Downs Field community members, on display at the field through December 20.
“The Austin History Center’s African American Community Archives Program is elated to be chosen as a community repository to house the Take Me Out to Downs Field oral history collection that provides an intricate look at the Black baseball era during Jim Crow, Segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement in Travis County at Huston-Tillotson University, and Downs Field,” said kYmberly Keeton, African American Community Archivist & Librarian at the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
“Huston-Tillotson University Archives is beyond honored and excited to be a home to the oral histories of the Take Me Out to Downs Field project as we share a very rich connection to the land and community of Downs Field,” said Danielle McGhee, Director of Library and Media Services & University Archivist, Huston-Tillotson University, Downs-Jones Library.
“It’s a part of history that a lot of people don’t know anything about, and it’s right there in their neighborhood. I lived it and wasn’t thinking about history when I was a kid. I was just out having a good time. It brought people together, and people need that now,” reflected Willie Ray Hale, former bat boy for the Austin Greyhounds and the Austin Indians, whose story is one of those donated to the archives.
In 2021, the city will undertake the rehabilitation of the historic grandstands at Downs Field with the support of funding from the City of Austin’s Historic Preservation Fund.