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    Austin Needs to Fix Its Historic Preservation Problem

    Map of Austin’s Urban Freedmen’s Communities, Circa 1900

    Austin last took a hard look at its historic preservation program in the early 2000’s, where a joint task force made up of Planning, Zoning and Platting, and Historic Landmark Commissioners made some recommendations to upgrade but not fundamentally alter the city’s program as originally established by always serving ZAP commissioner Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s.  Betty Baker herself chaired the 2003-2004 task force that was tasked with examining the question.

    The time has come for Austin to do heritage preservation and management correctly.  Piecemeal reforms applied over the years have not worked; we need a complete redo.  As one of Austin’s leading African-American preservationists I offer my time and services toward the achievement of this objective.

    Basic Background

    At a time during the early to mid 1970’s when the full meaning of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act was still being figured out, Baker advocated for and helped to successfully enact a historic preservation program in Austin that was fundamentally Southern and bourgeois in character and administration.  It reflected an early post-Lyndon Johnson, Roy Butler-esque repudiation of the Great Society and embraced a more homespun Texan understanding of history and historical significance grounded in respect for private property rights.  I should not have to say so but I am going to do it anyway:  this was a program designed by white people to primarily benefit white people, just as the Austin “Gentleman’s Agreement” concluded just a few years prior had been.  Austin’s African-American and Latino preservationists could get properties landmarked, but only at white ruling class discretion.

    In doing so Baker was not being altogether unusual; what she put into place was an Austin version of what already existed in other cities of the former Confederacy such as Charleston or Savannah, already bourgeoning centers of a peculiarly Southern brand of heritage tourism that emphasized the quality of the fine china at plantation big houses and avoided discussion of the slave quarters.  In examining this history it may be useful to bear in mind that First Ladies from Lady Bird Johnson to Laura Bush – and women like them at lower levels of government like Betty Baker – have played an important part in the politics of historic preservation over the years.  Baker did not take as many cues from the preservation programs in place in Galveston and San Antonio, the two Texas cities generally judged at the time to have the “most history” because some of the history in those cities was more complicated.

    Perhaps the most enduring legacy of what Baker established in Austin was the program’s misguided over-focus on historic buildings.  This imprudent attention has led to the compromise or destruction of dozens of non-architectural historic properties in Austin, some of them of considerable research value.  In 2017 it is fair to say that when Austinites think of “historic sites” they nearly always think of historic buildings, not archaeological sites or Traditional Cultural Properties, although the latter two are also historic properties eligible for National Register consideration and historic landmarking.  The excessive attention paid to historic buildings is, of course, a sign of white middle and upper class bias; members of minority groups and the working class have rarely occupied grand estate homes whose “historic” character is obvious to the untrained eye.  City staffers at this stage don’t even bother to meaningfully pretend that they care about anything other than historic buildings; the recently completed East Austin historic resources survey was not only strategically gerrymandered to exclude much of East Austin as well as Montopolis, Dove Springs and Del Valle, it only focused on buildings, not archaeological sites or TCP’s.

    Another aspect of Baker’s legacy is the stringent requirement for landmarking historic districts.  It is notoriously difficult to establish historic districts in Austin due to a requirement that at least 51% of property owners in the proposed district agree to the zoning change.  The former Austin Historic Preservation Officer weighed in publicly about that in 2004; it was a major factor in why she left her position and was replaced by her assistant Steve Sadowsky.  Here’s the truth:  in most American cities historic zoning is conducted like any other type of zoning.  Special districting requirements such as Austin’s are unusual and are usually enacted at the behest of real estate interests and private property rights fundamentalists.

    What is now clear over forty years later is that Austin’s historic preservation program has become inequitable, one-sided, and unfair.  It not only subsidizes the preservation of an elitist conception of the city’s history, the program also buttresses city-driven practices of gentrification.  In short, a program that should be protecting the heritage of every culture in our city is instead administered in keeping with the cult of minimally regulated real estate development that has characterized the recent history of our city.  In doing so, our city’s leaders are not only violating the spirit and letter of historic preservation laws and violating basic standards of professional practice, they are engaging in deliberate acts of institutional racism.  What is also problematic is this:  Austin’s minority taxpayers are subsidizing tax breaks for rich West Austinites and are not seeing their own history adequately reflected in Austin’s landscape.

    In this presentation I made two years ago before the Austin Human Rights Commission concerning the Rosewood Courts historic zoning case, I pointed out some of the hypocrisies and racial inequities in the city’s historic preservation policies and practices.  I could elaborate on them with further quantitative and qualitative data–further discussion of the role of real estate development (and Betty Baker) in the destruction of Clarksville in particular–but in the interest of saving time and space I will now focus on what I see as the most important fixes our city should undertake in order to satisfactorily reboot our city’s historic preservation program.  I also encourage you to read or re-read my February 7, 2017 blog post in which I offered preliminary reform remarks in the wake of the most recent audit of the historic preservation program.

    Basic Principles

    • Race and Class Equity and Fairness
    • Democracy, Public Transparency and Accountability
    • No Special Interest Favoritism
    • Ease of Use

    I elaborate on each principle in turn:

    • Austin’s historic preservation mismanagement has been willful as well as harmful.  Thanks to people such as Betty Baker and her progeny such as Jerry Rusthoven, the race and class snobbery has been baked into the cake.  A basic sense of integrity, fairness and commitment to the truth demands that a sense of restorative justice be institutionalized into how Austin conducts heritage management going forward.  In practice this means conducting proper eligibility studies of ALL of Austin–and for all eligibility categories, not just buildings–with a special focus on East Austin, in collaboration with bona fide neighborhood organizations.  Imagine Austin must also be amended to better reflect East Austin values.  Our cultural resources matter just as much as our natural resources.
    • The Austin City Council needs to make it clear to the city’s real estate interests that their hegemony over our city’s historic preservation practices must end.  This means fundamental reforms to how appointments are made to the city’s historic landmark commission–lawyers or real estate agents with no credentials in historic preservation have no business on that commission–and rigid adherence to the National Register procedures the city claims to follow.  In most cities members of the Landmark Commission are experts in the field of historic preservation, not political hacks with axes to grind such as former Austin commissioner Arif Panju.  The federal manual for National Register State Review Boards specifically states as follows:

    “Beyond the intricacies of historic judgment, other important issues faced by the Review Board are the political and economic ramifications of National Register listings. A present owner may oppose a property’s listing regardless of its significance, because of a fear of being unable to develop or use the property as desired. On the other hand, an owner may push for nominating a property that does not have sufficient historical significance to justify listing in order to take advantage of certain tax incentives. These factors shall not be taken into consideration by the State Review Board. Their responsibility is to apply professional, technical standards in an unbiased fashion to determine if properties meet the National Register Criteria.”

    This is what Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission also ought to be doing.  Staff ought to be helping them do so, not playing political games and shilling for real estate developers at taxpayer expense, as Jabba Jerry Rusthoven slimily did for Austin Stowell at the Montopolis Negro School or for the Austin Housing Authority in the Rosewood Courts case.  Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission should also reflect the diversity of Austin; it is unconscionable for this commission to continue to be without qualified African-American representation for as long as it has, especially while it deliberates over and decides highly controversial cases involving sensitive African-American cultural heritage.

    It also means finally adopting and enacting the historical wiki that city officials have let sit on the shelf for years in beta status.  Every citizen of Austin ought to be able to easily find out where the historic properties in our city are located using a tool such as Google Maps, developers included.

    • It’s not just real estate interests.  Preservation Austin and similarly bourgeois advocacy groups are part of the problem and must undertake democracy-enhancing accountability reforms inside their own organizations.  They can become part of the solution if they concede the role they have played in perpetuating institutional racism in our city and commit to relinquishing some of the oppressive prerogatives they have garnered over the years, most of which are rooted in their incestuous relationships with developers and Austin’s real estate interests.  One concrete step Preservation Austin could take is to cease its advocacy for CodeNEXT.  CodeNEXT would be a disaster for East Austin in particular and would destroy much of its cultural heritage.
      In many ways the organization now known as Preservation Austin is as much a creature of Betty Baker as the city’s historic preservation program itself.  The organization can send the message that it cares about true and equitable historic preservation by advocating for the proper protection and care of working class and minority cultural heritage alongside or in support of bona fide minority led and controlled historic preservation organizations such as the Burditt Prairie Preservation Association.
    • Historic Preservation is not hard.  Its basic public policy framework is straightforward.  Yet the Great Society that established much of how “cultural resource management” is presently conducted was targeted by Governor George W. Bush’s deregulatory hitmen starting in the 1990’s for relatively simple reasons:  if not administered correctly, the requirements of Section 106, NEPA or the National Register can be stereotyped as needlessly bureaucratic, even oppressive, especially by real estate developers and other special interests.  The framing of this issue as one of excessive regulation was always a political canard.
    • Democracy matters.  Historic preservation need not and should not become the personal playground of insiders and specialists making unaccountable decisions in the dark.  Ease of use means that public employees should conduct themselves with a devotion to duty that reflects the customer service and public education ethos lying at the heart of heritage preservation.  Public heritage managers must also have the political courage to enforce the independent analysis of cultural properties; it is a fundamental conflict of interest to permit developers to hire their own for-profit historic preservation consultants.  Cultural Resource Management guru Tom King has written and spoken cogently about some of this over the years.

    In closing, I need to re-stress the following:  minor technocratic fixes are not going to get the job done.  Recent advocacy efforts concerning the Montopolis Negro School and the Hotel Occupancy Tax (a.k.a. HOT Tax), are indicators that fundamental historic preservation reform enjoys broad citizen support and cannot be pushed further down the road.  Too much heritage has already been lost, and further controversies surely await if we fail to promptly act.  The inequitable Betty Baker approach to Austin historic preservation has gotten us this far, but the time has come to turn the page; we need a historic preservation program for the 21st century:  one that is inclusive, ambitious, comprehensive, collaborative and democratic.

    Worthy Examples

    I am limiting my list of more or less exemplary cities to the United States.  As a German I am tempted to point to what I consider to be worthy European examples, but my list is invariably constrained by a basic American fact:  the United States is the only major country on earth to consider cultural heritage to be private property instead of part of the public domain, something routinely discussed at UNESCO over the years.  In fact in states such as Texas even human remains are considered to be private property if located on private land or water.

    Should the Austin City Council convene a new task force to advise it on fundamental historic preservation reform, here are some cities worth looking at:

    1. Seattle’s historic preservation program is housed inside the city’s Department of Neighborhoods and since 2000 has endeavored to undertake a comprehensive analysis of historic properties inside the city’s limits.  Austin can learn many lessons from this effort, good and bad.
    2. The Boston Landmarks Commission is one of the most qualified and highly regarded bodies of its type in the United States.  It doesn’t always come down on the side of preservation, but its deliberations are usually well grounded and based on empirical–and properly documented–evidence, including archaeological and cultural landscape analysis.
    3. The San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation does it far better than Austin does.  The office is properly staffed with qualified professionals, and they get to do their job without some developer’s stooge constantly breathing down their neck.  The main reason they can do this is because the department’s chief administrator reports directly to the city manager, not to the city’s planning and zoning director.
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    Time for Some Real Talk about MUNY

    The subject of this blog post, dear gentle reader, is a May 1, 2017 op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman by Volma Overton, Jr., son of the Austin civil rights icon:

    Commentary: Bills would accomplish what UT hasn’t — secure Muny’s value

    I have great regard for Volma Overton, Jr. But this opinion piece is not exactly a street fighting civil rights screed that sticks it to the man.

    I don’t live in the bubble occupied by Austin’s black bourgeoisie, so please allow me, with all due respect, to point out a few things:

    1. The obstacles my nomination of Rosewood Courts has faced at multiple government agencies are an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE more egregious than anything Mr. Overton writes about in his op-ed. If Mr. Overton’s outrage at the political games being played at Muny is sincere, he should be even more outraged at the actions of the Austin Housing Authority, the City of Austin, the Texas Historical Commission, and the National Park Service in the Rosewood Courts situation. He should be just as vocal about the injustices visited upon the effort to preserve Rosewood Courts as he is about what he sees as the injustices taking place at Muny. I look forward to him authoring an op-ed in on the matter in the not too distant future.

    2. The historic preservation effort and National Register nomination for Muny has been lavishly funded and supported by prominent members of Austin’s upper class: Ben Crenshaw, Tito’s Vodka, GSD&M as well as many others. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose district does not include the golf course, is also a prominent supporter, although when asked to support the preservation of Rosewood Courts, he demurred.  In contrast, the Rosewood Courts effort has been entirely pro bono, done against long odds, and without the public support of Mr. Overton and other similar Muny supporters.

    3. Which is more historic and emblematic of segregation and civil rights in Austin? A segregated municipal golf course or the first African-American public housing in America? Let me be frank: The Lions Municipal Golf Course is not the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The notion that this golf course was somehow iconic in the civil rights history of the United States was always questionable at best, laughable at worst. Supporters of preserving the golf course engaged in an oral tradition fishing expedition and made it stick. Good for them. But please don’t stretch it too far.

    The reason why the property was listed in the National Register at its present level of significance and enjoys the support of Austin’s political establishment is simple: some of the richest and most politically influential people In America, not just Austin, support it. The history itself really does not.

    The fact that we live in an era of hegemonic neoliberal governance, where the behavior of individual as opposed to institutional actors is king, is also surely a factor.  It permits people who are usually critical of “historical revisionism” to engage in their own projects of historical revision when it comes to subjects such as the role played by the PWA, FHA, VA, public housing and local government in the creation of residential segregation and its relationship to race and class injustice in our own time.  It also permits rich people whose quality of life is often maintained at black and Latino expense to wax self-righteously about golf course civil rights in ways that are psychologically dubious and shamelessly self-serving.  Austin’s African-American hoi polloi do not care about this golf course.

    I do not have a dog in the fight to save Muny. Although I enjoy playing the game of golf from time to time, I have never played there. What I do have a problem with is hypocrisy and selective memory, with overstated and dishonestly convenient usage of black history to serve the desires of Austin’s high society at a time when the city’s assorted race and class injustices are in many ways even worse than they were during the Great Depression.

    One last thing:  as a historian and the author of a forthcoming book about Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease, I must also take issue with Mr. Overton’s selective reading of George Washington Brackenridge’s credentials as a Civil War unionist.  As with most historical matters, the history is more complicated than Overton lets on.  While it is true that Brackenridge, like Pease, would not swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy at the outset of the war (although Brackenridge’s three brothers all fought for the Confederacy) and had to eventually leave the Lone Star State in 1863, it is also true that Brackenridge earned his fortune as a war profiteer who smuggled Confederate cotton through the union blockade.  While harboring generally sincere anti-slavery sentiments, Brackenridge also held conventionally paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans; like Pease, he did not consider emancipated African-American bondsmen to be equals, and certainly not deserving of basic rights such as the right to vote, to serve on juries or to serve in governmental positions.

    African-American leaders and politicians such as George T. Ruby found such attitudes insulting and deeply grounded in racial prejudice; they worked alongside actual champions of black equality such as governor Edmund J. Davis to implement Reconstruction in Texas on a more egalitarian basis.

    Brackenridge was a prototypical Texas businessman who made his money placing his services on offer to both sides of the Civil War; hardly a principled anti-slavery position.  Overton’s lauding of Brackenridge’s extensive philanthropy is overstated and telling; at the time Brackenridge made his bequest to the University of Texas it was a thoroughly segregated institution.

    Other iconic Texas business and philanthropy figures such as William Marsh Rice did the same thing.  Want to read about some of that history?  Read the “Lone Star Yankees” chapter of my 2016 book The Black Crop:  Slavery and Slave Trading in Nineteenth Century Texas.

    In short, Brackenridge was the prototype of the typical Texas businessman/philanthropist.  It was he, Pease, and other close business partners such as Charles Stillman, that placed the philanthropy mentality into Austin’s political DNA.  Historical efforts to trace Austin’s contemporary race and class inequality will indubitably find much of the cultural source for what has become a non-profit industrial complex of impressive proportions to northerners such as Brackenridge, Pease and others.

    Austin in 2017 is one of the most unequal cities in America.  It is the only high-growth city in America to have lost black citizens.  Mr. Overton’s actions regarding the recognition and conservation of the cultural heritage of black Austin shows quite clearly that there is unacceptable inequality within black Austin as well.

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    Some Thoughts on the Audit of Austin’s Historic Preservation Program

    Thanks to my long-suffering and loving wife and children I was able to attend yesterday’s Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee hearing.  The centerpiece of the meeting was the presentation of the city auditor’s most recent audit of the historic preservation department.

    Jo Clifton of the Austin Monitor also attended the meeting and filed this report.  The official website of the Austin City Auditor can be found here.

    Ms. Clifton could and perhaps should have interviewed me, particularly since I not only have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on many occasions over the years, particularly concerning Rosewood Courts and the Montopolis Negro School—two rather controversial cases—but also because I am one of the city’s leading historic preservation professionals, with decades of experience.  But I digress; my main desire in this blog post is to talk about how to improve the city’s management of historic properties, not necessarily to critique the Austin Monitor’s biased reporting.  That said, I do feel compelled to say one thing about the story.  In a paragraph nearly half-way through her story Clifton observes:

    In addition, the audit said that some members of the Historic Landmark Commission lack the training they need to make well-informed decisions. As a result of the November election, the commission has two new members who replaced members considered opposed to historic preservation in general, and the city’s programs in particular. So, it is not clear whether the problem was really about lack of education in those two instances.

    Clifton is incorrect; it is clear.  Neither Arif Panju nor David Whitworth met (or meet) the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications guidelines in the field of historic preservation.  Mr. Panju is a “constitutional lawyer,” a term probably made most popular by former President Barack Obama, but hardly a profession, and certainly not one meeting the practical field experience requirements expected of most historic preservation professionals.  As for Mr. Whitworth, as Sheri Gallo’s appointee it was always clear what interest he truly represented:  minimally regulated real estate development.  He does not meet the guidelines either, neither in terms of education nor experience.

    As the audit notes, Austin’s professional guidelines for service on the Historic Landmark Commission are not mandatory, but advisory only.  This is an exception to standard practice in other cities, one that should be remedied.

    Clifton’s report also addresses the audit finding that the department is understaffed, both in real and absolute terms in comparison to peer cities.  That too needs fixing, but even a fully staffed department won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong, in my opinion.  In the end the problems are political, not administrative.

    We can haggle about the details, but any true fix of Austin’s historic preservation department must do the following:

    1.  Properly staff the department with historians, architects, archaeologists and support personnel.  The audit strongly suggests that 4 people isn’t enough; a minimum of 8-10 is better and in keeping with best practice.
    2.  Increase the department’s non-personnel budget substantially.  My initial recommendation is $2-5 million dollars.  Having enough people isn’t enough.  They need to have the tools in order to do their job.  Once that’s done, they need to be respected as the highly qualified professionals they are.
    3. The city must make it clear that it follows the National Register criteria.  It should also make clear to non-specialists what those criteria are and how they are professionally applied.  If the city chooses to follow another standard, it should develop it, properly vet it, and make it public.
    4.  Most importantly, the city’s historic preservation officer must report directly to the city manager, by-passing the chain of command at the department of planning and zoning.  Anyone with common sense knows why this was done in the first place, and whose interests it serves.

    The landmarking criteria themselves should not need much revision, if any.  Historic preservation judgments are ultimately subjective, but this is not to say that these are endlessly contingent; it takes skills and the ability to evaluate empirical evidence to document and reach conclusions about historic properties.  In Austin’s case, judgments about community value are ultimately political judgments.  City councillors are elected to make such decisions.

    In order for members of the city council to reach proper conclusions they should be furnished with sound information reflecting the best professional competencies of city officials.  Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in the leadership of the Planning and Zoning department should not be in a bureaucratic position to thwart or frustrate what should be fact and standards based historic preservation discussions and debates.

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    Historic Preservation in Austin—Some Initial Thoughts

    Most local observers understand that the way Austin does historic preservation—actually how it does not do historic preservation—is in need of a significant upgrade.  The city has simply grown too large for the small town approach pioneered by the late Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s.  At it’s Thursday, January 26, 2017 meeting Austin’s city council voted to enact a small but important change to how the city’s Historic Landmark Commission can vote to enact the historic zoning of a property.  Earlier that week I sent an email to the city council and various staffers in support of making the change.  I reproduce that email below:

    Dear Mayor and Austin City Council,

    I am writing to respectfully request that you support the resolution appearing as Item #46 at tomorrow’s city council meeting.  Councilmember Tovo’s resolution is a step in the right direction and deserves your support.  I am delighted that the resolution has garnered so many co-sponsors.

    As one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, and as the president of the only African-American and Disabled Veteran owned and operated archaeological consulting company in the United States, I am well acquainted with our city’s historic preservation regulations and practices, as well as the state and federal laws from which they tier.  I have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on numerous occasions over the years, especially over the past 5 years, mainly in a pro-bono capacity.  As you are probably aware, I am one of our city’s leading African-American historic preservation advocates.

    Our city’s historic preservation program badly needs top-to-bottom reform, and a plurality of the current Historic Landmark Commission membership, including the current chairwoman, agree.  As background, if you have not yet read it, this December 18, 2016 article in the Austin American-Statesman documents that the year 2016 was not a good year for this commission.

    Setting aside the larger issue of proper reform for another day, I ask that you keep your focus on what Councilmember Tovo’s resolution actually does and avoid the tendency to engage in casuistry.  This resolution is not about the Historic Landmark Commission’s inability to hold meetings due to a lack of quorum; it is specifically focused on the existence of a unique and unfair disparate standard requiring a supermajority of votes in order to achieve an affirmative vote.  Such a prejudicial requirement is unique to this commission and is undemocratic and should be terminated.

    Ladies and Gentlemen of the Austin City Council, I hope you agree that it is unnecessary as well as unwise to wantonly destroy our city’s cultural heritage in order to satisfy our city’s economic development objectives.  Please think deeply about this matter and familiarize yourself with examples from other U.S. and international cities regarding this issue.  As always, I stand ready to assist if asked.


    Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.

    Now that Councilmember Tovo’s resolution has passed (9-2 in favor with Councilmembers Troxclair and Garza voting against), I offer the following intial thoughts as food for discussion going forward.

    1.  The Historic Landmark Commission’s zoning vote regarding the Montopolis Negro School was 7-1 in favor of historic zoning.  But had that vote passed, I would have opposed it afterward.  Here’s why:  the zoning resolution sponsored by Commissioner Terri Myers was a “compromise” that not only ignored the property’s historical significance as a cultural landscape—something that the National Register rules the city claims to follow require analyzing and making recommendations about—it would have allowed the property’s current owner, real estate developer Austin Stovell, to move the building from its original location, thereby deliberately destroying the historic integrity of the historical site.  The commission should not be in the business of making half-cocked and ad hoc decisions based upon deliberately incomplete information.
    2. This Historic Landmark Commission has many other problems.  One noteworthy problem is this:  unqualified people serving on the commission.  The city’s rules recommend, but do not require, that the people serving on this commission at a minimum meet the minimum professional guidelines specified by the Secretary of the Interior.  Arif Panju, the most divisive commissioner, at least met the requirement of being a lawyer, but what were commissioner David Whitworth’s credentials in the field of historic preservation?  The effort to stack this commission with real estate agents and developers was and remains a problem.
    3. As I have been saying now for years, the city’s historic preservation officer should be a stand-alone position that reports directly to the city manager.  That’s how San Antonio does it, as well as other cities.  The placement of this position inside the Planning and Zoning department is a deliberate effort on the part of Austin’s always-ruling real estate clique to unfairly stack the deck in their favor.

    There are many other things that need to change, including the proper staffing of the department as well as other challenges, such as an almost complete lack of focus on archaeological sites located on public as well as private land.  The City of Austin cares more about heritage trees, and taxpayers fund several arborists on the city payroll, but to date the city has never funded a staff archaeologist.

    To get a sense of how other cities do it better, take a look at the historic preservation departments for the cities of San Antonio (notice that a member of the city’s code enforcement department focuses exclusively on historic buildings), Seattle (Seattle has a “Department of Neighborhoods” that manages community involvement far more effectively than Austin’s silly “Contact Team” idea), and Boston (the City of Boston leverages its many local universities and sponsors archaeological digs at sites such as the historic Malcolm X House).

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    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

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    The Montopolis Negro School Revisited

    Last week’s meeting of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission was once again a wash.  Only seven commissioners showed up, enough for a quorum but not enough for the supermajority required on the 500 Montopolis Drive matter.  A supermajority is required because the present property owner opposes the historic landmarking of the school property.  The item was postponed to a special called meeting tonight at 7:00 p.m. (19:00 for you world time folks).

    Regrettably, city staff have declared public comment concerning this zoning case to be “closed” despite the fact that the item has been postponed multiple times and at least 2-3 commissionders have never heard the item due to their lack of attendance.  That number goes up by one commissioner if the empty seat for Councilmember Sabino “Pio” Renteria is included; he has not made an appointment to this commission.

    Had I been offered the opportunity to speak at tonight’s meeting, here is some of what I would have presented.  There are two main points of emphasis I would have made:

    1.  This property is a cultural landscape.  The National Register guidelines, which the city claims to follow, require proper consideration of such landscapes.
    2.   The city and county bear a heavy moral responsibility for their historical mistreatment of St. Edward’s Baptist church and the African-American property owners of 400 and 500 Montopolis Drive.  Not only did the school district not return the land that was originally donated by the church in 1935, the city condemned the original location of the church in 1990 and took the property via eminent domain and sold it.  In both cases it was David Willhoite who purchased the property.

    Gentrification today relies on “the market” to change the race and class composition of neighborhoods.  This looks to be more of an example of old fashioned municipal racism at work.  You can download a copy of my presentation here:


    After tonight this item will go on to the Planning Commission and then to the Austin City Council.  I expect to be able to present this important material at those meetings because “public comment” is not as assiduously and self-servingly restricted there because people actually show up for meetings.

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    The Montopolis Negro School

    On Monday November 21st at 7:00 p.m. the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission will meet to consider historically zoning the last remaining rural Negro school in Travis County, the Montopolis Negro School.

    A photograph of the school is in my 2014 book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood.  The school was founded in about 1891 at a location along Bastrop Highway and was moved to its present location on land donated by St. Edward’s Baptist Church in 1935.

    Gentrification in Montopolis is taking place at an accelerating clip.  No more vacant land is left, and several long time residents have already accepted buyouts.  The location of the school offers panoramic views of downtown and any units constructed there will fetch premium prices.

    The history of the school is not in question.  One of many things at issue is the status of this property as a cultural landscape, not just as a historic building.  Separating buildings from their context may make thorny historic preservation debates easier to manage, but it also does violence to a place’s historic associations and the community fabric.  Also important is that much of the land at the site continues to be owned by the City of Austin, which condemned the St. Edward’s Baptist Church located next door in 1990, forcing the church to move to its present location at 708 Montopolis Drive.

    Please write a letter of support to the Historic Landmark Commissioners and to Steve Sadowsky, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer (who has recommended historic zoning).  You can watch a brief You Tube video of the school’s history here.