Civil rights activist recounts childhood spared from racism

Ada Anderson (KXAN Photo)
Ada Anderson (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN  (KXAN) — There are several sides to every story. One long-time Austin civil rights activist says stories like hers are rarely recited. Her hidden history is one that’s almost unscathed by the ills of segregation and racism, all because of a simple lesson learned on a farm in southeast Travis County.

“This is a story that doesn’t get told,” said 95-year-old Ada Anderson.

It starts with her great-grandfather, Newton Isaac Collins, Sr. He was a biracial freed slave from Alabama whose white father insisted on educating him with a carpentry tutelage. But, shortly after moving to Texas, he was once again enslaved.

Not long after emancipation, Collins started using his skills and smarts to buy land near McKinney Falls State Park, southeast of Austin. By the time he died, Collins had amassed more than 500 acres of land and divided it among his children.

That is where Anderson grew up, on a farm passed down to her father, Walter Gabriel Collins. She said it was idyllic.

Newton Isaac Collins Sr. (Courtesy: Ada Anderson)
Newton Isaac Collins Sr. (Courtesy: Ada Anderson)

“[We were] happy, happy, happy,” Anderson said of her childhood.

The Collins were surrounded by all white friendly neighbors. Anderson said her parents made sure talk of race never came up.

“One of the things that was forbidden in our family was to talk about race,” she said. “It never occurred to me why. But, that was a subject that was never discussed at our home. I presume if they had done that, I would have been sensitive. I am not sensitive. Not at all.”

Anderson went to school on that land, in a two-room school house built by her great-grandfather. He even set aside funds to hire the teachers. Collins zipped through the lower school portion, and started high school at 12. She attended the now-defunct L.C. Anderson High in east Austin, the only high school for black students in the region.

And a few years after graduation, Anderson says she saw discrimination at the school, but not from the usual suspects.

“My two younger sisters, who are very fair, attended the same schools,” said Anderson. “And they said they caught hell for attending the school. [The other children would say] ‘Oh, you think you’re white.'”

Not long after graduating from Tillotson College, now Huston-Tillotson University, Anderson decided on graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. It wasn’t integrated yet and her application was denied several times.

“I’d apply and they’d say no and not to come back,” she recounted. “And, I’d go and apply the next day, the next weekend. Whenever I was in the neighborhood.”

That tenacity came straight from her childhood. “Growing up without feeling the sting of prejudice allowed you to go ahead and feel successful in so many fields,” said Anderson.

But the 1950 historic Sweatt vs. Painter Supreme Court decision opened the doors to graduate schools for African-American students across Texas. However, the university would only allow blacks to enroll in four programs: architecture, law, social work or library science.

The Educational Psychology degree that she wanted was out of reach. So, Anderson settled for Library Science. But, she was blocked from attending field trips required to complete her coursework. And, was even barred from attending a class brunch at a private residence. Although it forced her out of the program, Anderson said she never took it personally.

“It was their problem that they didn’t want me.”

“That was their problem. I never took the problem as mine. It was their problem that they didn’t want me.”

By 1965, segregation at the university had eased and Anderson went back. This time for that Psychology degree. She got it and soon started working with students at Austin Independent School District, administering psychological test on students.

By this time she was a wife and mom of two. As a parent, she was still drawing on the lessons from the farm her great-grandfather built.

“I never taught my children to care about race. Nobody could insult my children. If you don’t care, you can’t be insulted.”

In 1953, she and her husband, Marcellus “Andy” Anderson, started the Anderson-Wormley Real Estate firm, Austin’s first black-owned real estate agency. In 2014, Mrs. Anderson, by then a widow, gave $3 million to her alma mater, Huston-Tillotson University. It was the largest private gift in the university’s history.

And last year, Del Valle Independent School District broke ground on a new elementary school named in honor of her great-grandfather, Newton Issac Collins, Sr.

Ada Anderon’s story is one of several included in KXAN’s special America’s Hidden History. The special honors black history and those who have made important contributions in Austin and across the country. You can watch the special on these stations:

  • KBVO, Sunday, Feb. 26 at 5:30 p.m.
  • KNVA, Sunday, Feb. 26 at 9:30 p.m.
  • KXAN, Sunday, Feb. 26 at 11:30 p.m. 

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