Community leaders this week are paying their respects to Wilbert Austin Sr., who overcame an upbringing of poverty and prejudice to become a tireless community volunteer, minister and District 1’s longest-serving city councilman.
Austin died Monday night — on Juneteenth, friends noted — after a long battle with the stomach cancer that had caused him to resign the city council seat in May. He was 76 and had served on the council for 11 years.
“There’s no question he made a mark on Waco, from the work he did in the early days to his time on the city council,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “His leadership and personable style made it easy for him to work with others while working as a team member in a cooperative way to reach big goals.”
Services for Austin had not yet been announced as of Tuesday, but McDowell Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.
Austin was a plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit that forced the city of Waco in 1976 to adopt single-member voting districts, including District 1, which is centered on Austin’s home base of East Waco. He won the seat in 2006, but only after five unsuccessful prior bids for the office. Before and after his official public service, he was known as a super-volunteer, a man eager to pick up a paintbrush or load up a mower to help elderly neighbors.
“At Christmastime, he would collect gift cards from different businesses and divvy them up to families that needed them,” said Sam Brown, a longtime friend who owns several Elm Avenue buildings. “Nobody ever knew about that stuff except the families. He loved being a solution to problems. You’ve got a guy who’ll get out and mow people’s yards and also will serve on the city council. He truly had a servant’s heart.”
Brown said that ground-level knowledge of his district allowed Austin to become intimately involved in solving its problems, including crime and drugs in the parks.
“He would stand toe to toe with drug dealers and tell them they had to go somewhere else, that these parks were for families and neighborhoods,” Brown said. “Apparently, the drug dealers paid attention.”
Noah Jackson Jr., a longtime friend whom the council chose last week to fill the remaining year of Austin’s term, remembers recruiting a young Austin in the 1970s to help with youth sports.
‘A lot of energy’
“He was just a young guy with a lot of energy,” Jackson said.
Austin managed to talk donors into doubling or tripling their usual contribution, he said.
“When you’re a good person, there’s always a demand for your help,” he said.
Austin grew up in a shotgun shack in a now-vanished section of South Waco called Sandtown, around the current site of Clifton Robinson Tower. The abandoned First Street Cemetery and the city dump were his playgrounds.
“We didn’t have anywhere else to play,” Austin recalled in an interview at his modest Turner Street home in May. “Next to the cemetery they had a rendering plant, and people would bring in their sick horses. They were going to slaughter them in the next two or three days, so we’d go ride those horses.”
Austin’s father, Shedrick, was a day laborer who picked cotton — a hard life the young Wilbert was sure he didn’t want. His mother, Annie Bell Austin, was deaf but could read lips well enough to hold down work as a laundress and a cafe worker and to raise five children.
“When I’d see her coming home with a gallon bucket in her hand, I’d know she had leftovers from the cafe and we’d have plenty to eat,” he said.
When he was a teenager, federal urban renewal programs displaced his family, paying them about $400 for their home and leaving them to live in the Estella Maxey housing complex in East Waco, the area that became his home for the rest of his life.
But Austin said he never dreamed as a boy that he could become a city councilman.
“When I was coming up, we couldn’t go farther than Washington Avenue,” he said, referring to the segregated world of Waco in the 1950s. “Cameron Park was off-limits.”
He noted with satisfaction that he went on to represent District 1, which includes the upscale Cameron Park Neighborhood Association.
Austin would go on to work a variety of jobs, including as a worker at Owens-Illinois, while volunteering in his neighborhood, serving as an NAACP leader and sometimes leading protests. He also served as pastor of Moody’s Peaceful Rest Baptist Church for 38 years.
Plaintiff in 1974 lawsuit
In 1974, he was recruited as one of several plaintiffs in Derrick v. Mathias, which led a U.S. district judge to order Waco to divide into five districts, each of which would select its own council member.
The judge noted that the city had adopted at-large districts in 1950 after a black man came close to winning the seat representing the old East Ward, and said that even though black representatives later were elected, they did not always represent the electoral choice of the largely black East Waco.
Austin said he didn’t think at the time that he would ever run for the seat, but starting in the 1990s, he dedicated himself to trying, running five times and losing every time until 2006.
Linda Jann Lewis, a longtime political ally of Austin, said he was an inspiration to her.
“I grew up in segregated Waco, too,” she said. “To see someone who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit to get single-member districts become the district’s elected representative gives me hope in America. It gives me hope that we are what we say we are.”
In an emotional farewell address at a retirement party last month, Austin said he was leaving a legacy of a city and a district that was more vibrant, with less crime and more opportunity, and he urged others to carry the torch.
“I’m all packed up,” Austin said. “When you hear of my passing, don’t grieve for me. I’m just another soldier going home to be with the Lord.”