Graduate students research history behind Austin’s first gay-friendly public space
“By both allowing and welcoming queer patrons, the Manhattan Club served as the first public space for queer Austinites to gather and socialize without fear of ridicule or violence because of their sexuality.”
-- 'The Manhattan Club, Austin’s First Gay-Friendly Public Space,’ by Amber Leigh Hullum and Railey Tassin
Public history graduate students Amber Leigh Hullum and Railey Tassin joined forces in the local and community history class to tell what some consider to be undertold history — the gay history of Central Texas, specifically the Manhattan Club. Located on Congress Avenue, it was Austin’s first gay-friendly public space.
The story that the Texas State students uncovered was published this spring in the Travis County Historical Commission blog and will be submitted to the Texas Historical Commission’s Undertold Marker project.
Tassin said they originally didn’t plan to apply for the historical marker, “But we felt so passionate about the research, and it came out so well that we wanted to go forward with the actual application process.” Undertold Maker applications open in August, with a November deadline for all submissions.
Both Tassin and Hullum said the history class, taught by Dr. Ruby Oram, is a favorite and they especially appreciated that Oram endorsed their work. Students in the class are required to work on historical marker applications, but Oram said they are not required to submit them. “The Manhattan Club is definitely eligible for the undertold marker program, and I think has a good chance of securing a marker (pending the property owners’ approval). Members of the Travis County Historical Commission read Amber and Railey’s application and agree it’s a great candidate for the program,” Oram said.
While the professor provided the class a list of potential subjects for the undertold marker project, what wasn’t on the list was queer history or any words related to LGBTQIA. “It struck us that it must be a really undertold story,” Tassin said.
“As a queer woman, I want to see the history of my history,” Hullum added.
In September 2020 they started researching using old city directories and newspapers. They reached out to people who might remember historic places or sites in Austin – like dance halls or bars. One requirement for a historical marker, Tassin explained, is that it had to be at least 50 years in the past.
The Manhattan Club fit the bill.
The club was a small back-room bar in the Manhattan Deli, which was owned and operated by David and Florence Robbins. “The thing is, the owners were Jewish, and they probably understood about being ostracized,” Hullum said. It was the couple’s third restaurant location in Austin. A grand opening was held in June 1957 for the deli at 911 Congress Ave. The locale was in operation until 1969.
In their blog post, the students write about what gay life was like in Austin, the laws in place at the time, and how the Manhattan’s owners were accepting of gay patrons. They interviewed national gay activist Randy Wicker who was able to give them an idea into what being gay in Austin in the ’50s and ’60s was like.
Oram encouraged the students to work with the Travis County Historical Commission. She introduced them to Richard Denney, vice chair of the commission. “Mr. Denney was very helpful. In one email I remember he said, ‘it takes a team of historians to make any project complete,’” Tassin said. “In public history we use the term ‘shared authority’ a lot and we talk about stakeholders. That was a great opportunity for Amber and me to practice that shared authority — talking to all the people that were going to make the final project come to fruition.”
This summer, both graduate students are working in their future career fields. Tassin is interning at the Kreische Brewery and Monument Hill State Historic Site near La Grange. She is researching, revising docent materials, and helping visitors. Hullum is spending the summer at the Philmont Scout Ranch, a 140,000+ acre tract in the mountains of New Mexico. She has been on the summer staff at the ranch since 2016. In addition to the outdoor adventures at Philmont, the Scouts can experience interpretive (or living) history such as gold panning, mining, blacksmithing, and burro packing.
After graduation, both Texas State students hope to work at a museum (Tassin) or a state or national park (Hullum), in a living history capacity.
Next up for Tassin and Hullum, getting permission from the owner of the Congress Avenue site and submitting the application. If that is approved and the city is willing, then Hullum said a Pride event will be in the works in June 2022.