An Open Letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler
Dear Mayor Adler:
As a strong supporter of yours I watched the recent establishment of a task force on institutional racism with considerable interest. I would respectfully like to bring an example of institutional racism to your attention.
At issue is the property located at 500 Montopolis Drive. It is one of the most important African-American historic sites in the city and is the location of the Montopolis Negro School, an important artifact of segregated education in Austin and Travis County. The school building and its surrounding landscape, along with the historic Burditt Prairie Cemetery, are the two most important African-American historic sites in the Montopolis neighborhood. You can learn more about the history of the school by downloading a copy of the presentation I delivered before the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday, November 28th, 2016 here: mcghee-montopolis-presentation.
The intact survival of the school is now in peril. The current property owner purchased the property in 2015 and intends to construct non-affordable and historically unsympathetic spec housing at the site. He has applied for a demolition permit. He has also strangely attempted to portray himself as a victim of the neighborhood and its residents, when in fact he has acted haughtily and in bad faith and is perceived as a perpetrator.
Some historic context helps to shed light on the history of institutional racism I am alleging. At the time of the 1900 census Montopolis was a rural agricultural area mainly populated by African-American cotton plantation workers. The population at the time was enumerated at 142 persons. According to a 1907 survey the area had two county operated schools, one for whites which had 9 pupils and the Montopolis Negro School, originally established around 1891, which consisted of a classic one-room country schoolhouse for 108 segregated black students.
In 1935 the original Negro school building was destroyed in a storm. In what was a sign of a clear racial double standard, Travis County refused to rebuild or replace the school, leaving black students in Montopolis without education. Realizing the untenability of the situation, the congregation of Montopolis’ St. Edward’s Baptist Church agreed to donate land for a replacement school and also secured a former army barracks building to serve as a replacement one-room schoolhouse. A copy of the April, 1935 transfer deed can be downloaded here: 1935-montopolis-negro-school-deed.
When the City of Austin started annexing Montopolis in 1952, responsibility for the school’s operation was transferred from the Colorado School District to the Austin Free Public Schools, the precursor to Austin ISD. Austin ISD shuttered the Negro school in 1962 and directed parents to send their students to schools in East Austin as the newly constructed Allison Elementary School was still mostly segregated. A copy of the 1952 deed transfering the property to Austin ISD can be downloaded here: montopolis-negro-school-1952-deed.
Did Austin ISD re-gift or sell the donated land back to St. Edward’s Baptist Church? It did not. It placed the property up for auction. It was eventually purchased by Ross and David Willhoite in 1967. The Willhoites converted the school building into the Montopolis Church of Christ and established a trust to run it, which explains the wording currently located near the building’s front entrance, but the church was never successful and attendance was never high.
St. Edward’s Baptist Church, which is the oldest African-American Baptist church in Travis County still in continuous operation, was located at 400 Montopolis Drive between 1897 and 1990. Before that it was located near the Burditt Prairie Cemetery. In a final act of institutional racism, the City of Austin condemned the church property in 1990, forcing the historic church, which had been constructed with materials from the original church building from the 1860’s to eventually relocate to its current location at 708 Montopolis Drive. The property at 400 Montopolis Drive, now vacant, is currently owned by—you guessed it—David Willhoite.
The use of the city’s eminent domain power in this case was accompanied by efforts on the part of city planners to extend Grove Boulevard to Montopolis Drive. This is why the city currently owns a significantly sized road easement through the property. This was and remains another example of disrespectful and unmindful land use decisions on the part of the city that is soaked with the foul stench of institutional racism.
What is the solution at this point? Given the unscrupulous history of institutional racism described here, we believe that the city, county and school district bear direct moral responsibility for making this situation right.
The community believes that this property should be historically preserved in situ and the area turned into a park similar to other parks with buildings in our existing parks system. To be clear, we believe that the property is a cultural landscape–it was used for Juneteenth celebrations by the Burditt’s Prairie Freedmen’s community as well as for other community purposes. Simply focusing, therefore, on the preservation of the school building in order to accommodate the real estate development desires of the current owner would be short-sighted and a mistake. It would also violate the National Register eligibility standards the city claims to follow in historic landmark cases.
Mr. Mayor, the Montopolis neighborhood appreciated your visit to our community during your 2014 run for office. As a fellow city council candidate I took great pleasure in co-hosting your visit and in placing a copy of my then newly released book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood into your hand. I took similar pleasure in supporting your run for mayor afterward. We believe your commitment to doing something about institutional racism in Austin to be sincere and ask for your help in putting right the historical injustices described in my book and in this letter.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this epistle. Best wishes for continued success in the weeks and months ahead.
Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.
President, Carson Ridge Neighborhood Association
Founding President, Montopolis Neighborhood Association
Board, Burditt Prairie Cemetery Association
Member Austin Community Development Commission
Author, Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood and other works