Ada Anderson in 2011. Photo credit: Westlake Picayune
Ada Anderson – community leader, civil rights activist, and advocate for the arts – has been making Austin a better, more just place to live for more than half a century.
Ms. Anderson was born near Austin in 1921. She attended segregated schools, graduating from L.C. Anderson High School, and went on to earn a degree in home economics from Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in 1941. Note that she was just 20 years old when she graduated.
After the historic Sweatt v. Painter decision desegregated Texas colleges in 1950, Anderson decided to pursue a graduate degree. Her options were limited; she wanted to study educational psychology and work with children, but UT told her the only programs she could enter were architecture, law, social work, or library science. (So much for equal access.) She chose library science and became the first Black person to enroll in the program. Though UT was the first major university in the south to desegregate, it didn’t happen all at once, and many barriers to educational achievement persisted. It’s no exaggeration to say that racism prevented Anderson from completing her degree. She was barred from field trips to the Texas State Library and could not find a local library at which to complete her required fieldwork, which forced her out of the program.
Anderson found other ways to live an amazing life. She was a married mother of two by this point, going to school part-time while helping her husband, Marcellus, establish a real estate business, which she co-owned. (Side note: he was the first African-American realtor in the US.)
That’s a lot for anyone. But Anderson was very also active in the community. She helped found and run the Austin chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a social and educational group that serves mostly youth of color, and went on to hold national and regional leadership positions in that organization. When she discovered that the local ice skating rink was whites-only, she organized a boycott that eventually drove it out of business. Using the skills and allies she developed during the boycott, Ms. Anderson pulled together a coalition of clergy, professors, and community leaders that grew into the Austin Human Relations Commission (now the Human Rights Commission), which was instrumental in desegregating schools, city facilities, and businesses to everyone, regardless of race.
Policies at UT eventually changed, and in 1965, Anderson received her master’s in educational psychology. She went to work for the Texas Employment Commission, where she developed and taught financial literacy classes focusing on women, and later went on to work as a psychometrist (testing psychologist) for the Austin public schools.
Bottom line, y’all: when Anderson thinks something needs doing, she gets organized and makes it happen. Here are some other things she did:
- Advocated for desegregation of the local Girl Scout camp and won a partial victory – Black scouts were allowed to attend the last week of the camping season
- Became the first African-American member of the Austin Community College Board
- Helped found the Austin Lyric Opera
- Served as a trustee for The Long Center
- Created the Leadership Enrichment Arts Program to offer low-income youth and youth of color the opportunity to experience the arts, make their own creative works, and visit college campuses
Her list of awards and honors is a mile long because she’s pretty much spent her whole life fighting for civil rights and better lives for women, Black folks, and children. Austin is lucky that Ada Anderson calls it home.
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