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#TBT: Texas State students uncover history behind Austin's first gay-friendly public space

{p}The Manhattan Club located on 911 Congress Ave. It opened in the late 1950's and closed a decade later. (Photo courtesy of Austin History Center){/p}

The Manhattan Club located on 911 Congress Ave. It opened in the late 1950's and closed a decade later. (Photo courtesy of Austin History Center)

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It was a Google search that helped two Texas State graduate students uncover Central Texas queer history.

"It was remarkable how many people had never heard of this place and had lived in Austin for years," said Railey Tassin.

With not much on in the internet, Tassin and her classmate Amber Hullum dove into the archives searching for what they could about Austin's The Manhattan Club.

It was an assignment the two women had for their public history class at Texas State taught by Dr. Ruby Oram.

"This place was right here on Congress. I drove past it last week. And it is so close to the Capitol building," explained Tassin.

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The lot now sits empty on 911 Congress Avenue. But in the late 1950's The Manhattan Club was Austin's first gay-friendly public space.

The club was in a small back-room bar in the Manhattan Deli owned by a Jewish couple.

A grand opening was held in June 1957 for the deli and it was open until 1969. The women found that the Robbins' operated two other restaurant in Austin.

Hullum believes the owners David and Florence Robbins probably understood the plight of gay people and wanted to provide a safe space.

"The Manhattan Club would have been a precursor to the gay liberation movement that followed Stonewall in New York City," said Tassin. "This would have definitely been a safe haven for people who did not have these spaces yet."

The students used old city directories and newspapers. And they reached out to people who might remember historic places or sites in Austin, including national gay activist Randy Wicker.

"Were able to get in contact with Randy and kind of build a little bit more of what specifically this club would have looked like," said Amber Hullum.

Along with details about The Manhattan Club, the women also wrote about what gay life was like in Austin and the laws in place at the time.

While their efforts have uncovered some about this queer space, there's more than remains unknown and will probably stay that way.

"There are not a lot of people left that you can talk to. Not only just because of old age, but a lot of people got killed during the AIDS epidemic," explained Hullum. "That makes this so much more poignant."

The two students plan on submitting their research on The Manhattan Club to the Texas Historical Commission -- under their 'Undertold Marker' project.

"I've never seen a queer history historical marker before," said Hullum. “As a queer woman, I want to see that."

Next up for Tassin and Hullum, getting permission from the owner of the Congress Avenue site and submitting the application in November.

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If that is approved, the women would like to throw an unveiling party for The Manhattan Club maker in 2022.

"If it were to get a marker and be even more visible and well-known, then that could hopefully spark more people to want to dig into the history of their town in other counties," said Tassin.

You can read Tassin and Hullum's blog about The Manhattan Club here.

For details on the Texas Historical Commission's 'Undertold Marker' project click here.

EDITOR NOTE: #TBT or Turning Back Time is a series of stories by CBS Austin This Morning Anchor John-Carlos Estrada. The series will focus on history around Central Texas that has an impact in the community. If you want to share an story idea with him – email him ( or message him on social media via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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