- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Ruby McClain arrived at the Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School in 1952 when she was 9.
“I was a shy little person,” McClain recently told freelance illustrator Aletha St. Romain. “Before that, I went for two years to public school. I did the best I could. I didn’t do very well with math or English or literature.”
Once a month, while attending the Austin state school for African-American youths at 4101 Bull Creek Road, where she thrived, McClain returned to her hometown, Cameron, where she was reared by her grandmother.
But the legally blind girl couldn’t wait to get back to the Austin school grounds on a terraced high point above meadows and escarpment oaks leading down to Shoal Creek, the same spot a proposed development, the Grove at Shoal Creek, is slated to occupy.
“At home, I was teased and made fun of by the other children,” says McClain, who now lives in Grand Prairie. “But at school, we would all help each other.”
Other surviving students of the school, founded in 1887, relate similarly fond memories, especially about its pleasant, well-kept surroundings and outstanding music program, led for some time by pianist and musicologist Maud Cuney Hare. It produced talents such as gospel great Arizona Dranes, who spent 16 years there and studied classical music before picking up popular styles.
Virtually nothing remains of the campus that once hosted 28 buildings, several substantial and multistoried. A foundation here. A shard of glass or pottery there.
One cinderblock service building might predate the campus’s closing in 196o, when the students were briefly moved to a site in East Austin where the Austin Animal Center now stands. That school was merged with the Texas School for the Deaf on South Congress Avenue in 1965.
Since the 1980s, a portion of the site has been home to modest TxDOT offices. The open fields between Idlewild Road and West 45th Street also now serve as an informal leash-free dog park.
One inherent attribute, hidden from the naked eye, has caused some concern.
“The site has never been properly investigated,” says archaeologist Susan Dial, editor of the Texas Beyond History website for the University of Texas. “As it should have been, given its unique history and importance to the city and the state. Lacking a systematic investigation, the evidence will be lost forever.”
Plans are underway by developer ARG Bull Creek for a big mixed-use development called the Grove at Shoal Creek. Folks in the nearby neighborhoods, such as Rosedale and Ridgelea, have opposed it for many reasons — too much density, too much traffic, not enough care for what is there now.
There is another thing, though: Not many people are talking about the land’s history.
For 73 years, it was the home of Texas Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute for Colored Youth — a name that evolved over the years. In 1943, it was merged with the State Colored Orphans Home and became the Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School.
According to the Texas Historical Commission and the developers of the Grove, there are no specific plans for an archaeological survey.
“ARG Bull Creek is firmly committed to treating this incredible land with respect,” said developer’s spokesman Jason Meeker. “And that includes respecting its history. We plan to recognize the history of the land in our development, but it is too early to say what form that will take. It is also too early to say whether we will conduct an archaeological survey.”
The state, which must, by law, determine whether any antiquities will be disturbed when building a highway, for instance, has not requested a survey.
“We are working with TxDOT to determine if a survey is needed,” said Alicia Downard, who was the Texas Historical Commission’s spokeswoman before recently taking a public relations job with Software Advice. “We may know more soon, but at this time our agency has not received a formal request from TxDOT.”
The curious two
One spring morning, illustrator St. Romain and archaeologist Dial walked through the muddy fields on the site. Wildflowers had sprouted everywhere after the rains. Dogs trotted by every few minutes.
Although verbal shorthand for this land is often “Bull Creek” because it lies on a remnant of the old Bull Creek Road, the actual Bull Creek is nowhere near here, but rather located on the other side of the highlands west of MoPac. Shoal Creek, however, is a defining factor within sight, shaping the eastern edge of the land.
An overlay map of the 1930 campus and a Google Earth screen grab show exactly where 28 buildings once stood, including a hospital, trades building, dining hall, laundry, power plant, pump house, dairy barn, blacksmith’s shed and engineer’s quarters.
Along the way, the curious hikers examined shards of glass and pottery and bits of metal tool parts as well as chipped stones from pre-Institute (Native American) days.
According to a report dated 1933-1938 and housed at the Austin History Center, the Institute was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the 18th Legislature during the administration of Gov. Sul Ross.
The project was pushed by African-American State Rep. William Holland, whose education had been paid for by his white father and who, along with his brother, fought on the Union side during the Civil War. He also passed legislation that led to the founding of what is now Prairie View A&M University.
One hundred acres of farmland on both sides of Shoal Creek were purchased northwest of Austin.
“A most beautiful and healthful location,” the 1930s report states. “Free from city attractions, and yet close enough for all city conveniences.”
The Institute opened on Oct. 17, 1887, under Holland, whom Ross named as superintendent. He served two terms, 1887-1897 and 1904-1907.
As its original name connoted, it was segregated from similar schools for Anglo youths. As a working farm, the school, like a prison, was expected to feed itself.
When purchased, it included a two-story wooden mansion, two frame cottages, one brick cottage and a small two-story stone building, along with a storehouse, stable and outhouses. A new three-story building was completed in 1888 — heated by steam and lighted by electricity — at the highest point on the land.
In 1897, the two-story brick Main Building was added, with offices, a clinic, parlor, library, chapel, dorms, music rooms and bathrooms. A mess hall and a separate dormitory were added in 1898.
Records reveal the details of school life. Students rose at 6 a.m. and ate breakfast at 7 a.m. Chores, fresh-air exercises and chapel followed. Classes began at 8:30. “From 3:30 until 6, every variety of play, work and recreation is going on,” says the 1930s report. “Chorus work, shop work, gymnasium work.” At 6 p.m., the bell for supper rang, after which rest or exercise was encouraged. A study hour followed, and at 8:45 a “retiring” bell rang. Lights out at 9 p.m.
By 1963, after the students had left, it became “excess property” for the state. The State Library and Archives Commission acquired the part of the land that lay on the east side of Shoal Creek. TxDOT took the rest of the land in 1987. In 1995, portions were set aside as a future annex for the Texas State Cemetery, but it was never used for that purpose.
In 2014, TxDOT offered the city of Austin first right of refusal to buy the property for $28.5 million, but the City Council didn’t exercise the option. It was sold for $46.76 million later that year.
Long gone are the school structures, which had fallen into disrepair, including the Administration Building, designed in 1923 by famed Austin architect Charles Page Sr., presumably demolished with the rest.
Even if the underlying physical remnants of the old school are never recovered, at least the remaining alumni treasure their memories. Originally from San Antonio, Sandra Fancher attended the school from 1954 to 1961.
“I realized this is where I needed to be,” Fancher told St. Romain. “They were good teachers, but tough. They wanted us to be responsible adults.”
Her favorite teacher was Mabel Myers, who taught English and literature.
“She was a great example of what it was to be blind and an adult,” Fancher recalls. “You never called her by her first name. She taught you to do it until you got it right. … I will never forget her.”