For many years, archival work for the Black community was severely limited due to a pointed lack of interest, and to this day, there are scores of sites that are probably gone forever from history based on the failure to prioritize the Black story in Austin. Even though Austin has a history center and a Black museum and cultural center, there was no archivist for Austin History Center for many years, and with the efforts of the dominant narrative to ignore any challenges, there was insufficient staff to tell the city’s full story. Enter Karen Riles, who was not only the first African American Community Archivist at the Austin History Center, but worked tirelessly to acquire substantial information about the Black experience.
Too often, the voices of everyday people are stifled because of the dominant narrative’s quest for greatness. We often hear about all of the great leaders who accomplish great feats and change the world, but we rarely hear about those who were alive, and existing as best they can. Being “great” means being open to constant scrutiny, which Black people already endure without having ambition. Moreover, we forget that the point of liberation is the right to live without having to seek the spotlight and sell ourselves, but to quietly continue to thrive to our fullest potential. Instead of seeking those who make the biggest headlines, the time has come to acknowledge those who were not at the forefront of the minds of everyone.
Isaac Chapman was a teacher who grew up in Wheatsville, attended school in East Austin, and raised two families to the best of his abilities. During his interview, he talked about Juneteenth festivals, leadership in Austin, and the changes within the Black community, and he paints a picture of a full life. Through the interview skills of Karen Riles, listeners can hear the fullness of real person, not an icon, but a genuine person who lived in Austin for almost a century. This interview is a reminder that Black people deserve to live with quiet dignity without being required to place ourselves on pedestals.
A special thanks to the staff at Austin History Center for all the work they do.