The Origins of Clarksville
During slavery days, the area now known as Clarksville was the location of the slave quarters for at least some of the slaves who worked for Governor Elisha Pease at Woodlawn, his plantation. The plantation encompassed much of what is now known as Old Enfield and Old West Austin. The stately plantation home still stands at the corner of Pease and Niles Roads and is commonly referred to as the Pease Mansion.
In 1865 after emancipation, Pease gave land in the Clarksville area to some of his favorite former slaves and sold land to others. Then in 1871, Charles Clark, a former slave, purchased two acres of land from Nathan Shelley, a Confederate general. He built his home on the north side of what is now the 1600 block of West 10th Street. He sold the rest of his acreage to other freedmen. This area formed the nucleus of what would become the community of Clarksville, which according to tradition, Clark envisioned as a place where former slaves could reunite with their families and friends, direct their own lives and freely practice their religion. Clarksville was one of the first freedman's towns established west of the Mississippi.
Elias Mayes (other surname May and Mays), a Black state legislator, was one of the community’s most prominent early residents. He purchased two lots from Clark in 1884. His son Ben May (the last two letters in the name were dropped at some point), later lived at 1624 West 10th.
Early Clarksville was a densely wooded area located west of Austin, far outside of town. It quickly became a tight-knit, highly self-sufficient community. Residents built very simple wood-frame homes, hunted in the area, fished in the Colorado River, grew their own food, kept cows for fresh milk and raised hogs and chickens. They also hauled water from the river and caught drinking water in barrels and cisterns. For entertainment there were quilting bees, baseball games, picnics and candy-pulling parties.
Soon after settling in Clarksville, early residents informally organized the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church, which became the focal point of their lives. Prayer and fellowship meetings were held in the home of Edwin and Mary Smith, who were among the organizers of the church. In July 1882, residents paid $50 cash to buy the land where the current church is located. Initially, services were held under a brush arbor, but it was not long before the congregation was able to build an actual church. Jacob Fontaine, who began the Gold Dollar, Austin's first Black newspaper, was its first minister. For more information about Sweet Home visit our Historic Landmarks page.
Clarksville residents had little or no education and so most of them held jobs that involved physical labor. For example, they picked cotton, worked on farms, labored at the rock quarry in Round Rock, worked at the Zilker Brickyard, or held down construction jobs. Some had jobs at the Pease mansion, took in laundry and did ironing. Other residents worked at the home for Confederate soldiers that was built just south of Clarksville, while another resident began a community store that was located at what is now 1710 West 10th Street.
During Clarksville’s early days, Maggie Mayes, wife of Elias Mayes, taught Clarksville children in the couple’s home. Later children attended school at Sweet Home. Then in 1917, the Clarksville Colored School was constructed where Mary Baylor Clarksville Park is now located at 1807 West 11th Street. The one-room elementary school operated until 1965 when it was closed after the Austin public school system was fully integrated. Originally, the school offered 1st through 4th grade classes, but later it added classes for 5th and 6th graders.