During this Black History Month, Austin Parks & Recreation invites you to learn more about the remarkable lives of our forebears and the historic cemeteries where they rest. African Americans have been a part of Austin since its founding and have helped shape our city into what it is today. The following biographies are a small sampling of some of the prominent people we honor this month:
Ernest “Ernie” Mae Crafton Ernest Miller (1927–2010)
Ernest “Ernie” Mae Miller was born on February 7, 1927, in Austin. She was the granddaughter of L.C. Anderson, a famous Black educator and school administrator at Prairie View A&M and Old Anderson High School.
Musically gifted, Miller began playing the piano by ear from an early age after listening to her grandmother’s records on the family Victrola. By the age of five, she was taking lessons from a teacher in Waco.
In high school, she shifted to the saxophone and showed enthusiasm for live performances in Austin that included Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
After enrolling at Prairie View A&M University, she was invited to play baritone saxophone with the Prairie View Co-Ed Jazz Band, one of several African American all-girl bands that were popular in the mid-1940s.
Miller traveled with the 16-piece band and performed for servicemen at Army camps and forts all over the United States. The Prairie View Co-Eds sometimes performed with popular acts like Bob Hope, Vaughn Monroe, Anita O’Day and Billie Holiday.
Miller began a solo career as a jazz pianist and vocalist after returning to Austin and performed in clubs like the Dinty Moore Restaurant and Bar, the New Orleans Club, the Flamingo Lounge, the Jade Room and the Driskill Hotel. She recorded two live albums at the New Orleans Club and showed her range in vocal styles on the album “At the New Orleans,” where she showcased her Billie Holiday-style vocals. Janis Joplin lived in Austin during the peak of Miller’s career and later covered “Little Girl Blue” from that album.
Ernie Mae Miller died at the age of 83 on December 9, 2010. She is buried in Oakwood Cemetery near her family.
Dr. Everett Givens (1888–1962)
Dr. Everett H. Givens was one of Austin’s first Black dentists and a World War I veteran. His work as a civic leader who pushed for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans here in Austin made him well known within the city.
His fight for equity began in 1946 when he sued the University of Texas Board of Regents for denying him admission to the school for a dental course. He demanded that the board build the Black college that had been approved back in 1882. Their failure to do so was technically a violation of the Texas Constitution’s Education Clause.
When it came to Austin, he fought hard for parks, playground equipment, better streets, bus services and bridges to connect East Austin across what is now I-35. He urged Travis County Commissioners to hire Black deputies, and the City of Austin for support of more equitable policing from the Austin Police Department and to hire its first Black firefighters.
Givens was a booster and local organizer for Thurgood Marshall's campaign to dismantle the state's “white primary laws,” which banned Black Texans from voting in the Democratic primaries and limited their representation at the state level.
To honor Dr. Givens’ legacy, East Austin’s Oak Springs Park was renamed Givens Park. He died in 1962 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery next to his wife.
Willie Mae Kirk (1921-2013)
Willie Mae "Ankie" Kirk was a consummate humanitarian driven to work in her East Austin community by two key ideas: the belief in "the worth and dignity of each individual," and her firm stance that "if you have anything at all, you have something to share." A lifelong educator and civil rights advocate, Kirk worked with other community members and leaders to heal racial tensions, promote social justice and create quality education in Austin.
She was a co-founder of the 1963-1964 Mothers Action Council, which led demonstrations to integrate public facilities in Austin. In 1968, the Austin City Council appointed Kirk to its first Human Rights Commission. After protests resulting from attempts to desegregate businesses in the University of Texas area, she served on an ad hoc committee to address the ramifications. Austin Mayor Jeffrey Friedman appointed her to the Library Commission in 1971. To save the George Washington Carver Library, Austin's first branch library, Kirk led fundraising and supported a bond initiative that saved it from demolition.
Throughout her life, Kirk earned the respect of state and local leaders across different spheres of society, including political, educational, non-profit and religious institutions. In October 2012, the City of Austin recognized her collective achievements with the naming and dedication of the Willie Mae Kirk Library (formerly Oak Springs) in East Austin. Kirk passed away in 2013 at the age of 92. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Visit us in person and look for signs near notable burials at Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery, and Evergreen Cemetery. Scan the QR code with the camera on your smart phone to learn about even more remarkable Austinites and their extraordinary lives.