Southeast Austin residents demonstrated Friday to preserve what used to be the Montopolis Negro School, one of the last of 42 institutions that educated African-American children from 1935 to 1962 when the city’s schools refused to.
About 15 members of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team called upon the city to buy the property from developer Austin Stowell of KEEP Investment Group/Real Estate. The groups want the city and the community to manage the land and schoolhouse as a park and a museum.
“The mayor is about to launch his institutional racism task force,” East Austin resident and historian Fred L. McGhee said. “If you want to do something about it, you need to look at it in the face. Here we have three separate governmental entities — Travis County, Austin ISD and the city itself — engaging in direct dispossession of African-American property. This is one of the most egregious examples of institutional racism in the city. So what are they going to do about it? If I have to chain myself to this building and go to jail, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Stowell in July applied for a permit to demolish the building. He said he didn’t know the property’s cultural value at that time but now wishes to develop it in a way that will not require destroying the building.
The application process gave Stowell a 75-day window for the city’s Historic Landmark Commission to decide whether the schoolhouse should be protected. At a meeting on Monday, the commission voted 7-1 to do just that but failed to get the minimum eight votes needed for approval.
City officials said the demolition permit hasn’t been formally approved. However, because the schoolhouse isn’t officially protected as a historical landmark, neighborhood activists said Stowell is now within his legal right to demolish it.
But Stowell told the American-Statesman he has no intention of tearing down the former schoolhouse: “I have already met with Council Member (Sabino ‘Pio’) Renteria’s office and look forward to working with other council members to find a creative solution to save and restore the structure. I am open to a number of different scenarios that I believe will provide a mutually beneficial solution.”
Stowell declined to go into further detail about why he obtained the permit, citing “confusing” problems with the land development code.
“We are in possession of a demolition permit; however, we do not intend to demolish and the neighborhood is aware of that,” Stowell said “I want to make that abundantly clear.”
At the Monday landmark commission meeting, Stowell discussed the possibility of moving the building somewhere else on the property while moving forward with plans of constructing 15 single-family units. However, members of the neighborhood are not satisfied with this solution because it doesn’t protect the former schoolhouse indefinitely or bar the developer from razing it if he changes his mind.
“We’re putting our foot down on this one,” McGhee said. “This is why, if you’re a developer, you actually go to the indigenous people from the community who know its history and its culture and find out about what you have. If (Stowell) hadn’t been thinking in terms of dollar signs and instead thought in terms of community, we wouldn’t be here.”
Susana Almanza, a leader of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, said residents are keeping a close eye on the structure. She said if they see any signs of possible bulldozing, they plan to come out in full force and chain themselves to the structure.
Georgia Steen, a former Montopolis Negro School student who attended the protest, held up a photo of herself as a schoolgirl and pleaded with the city to save the building in which she learned the lessons of life.
“This property is not just a piece of real estate,” Steen said. “It is a cultural landmark.”
History of Montopolis Negro School
1891: Montopolis Negro School opened on the north side of Bastrop Highway.
1935: The original school is destroyed in a storm. Historian Fred McGhee said Travis County refused to help rebuild the school, which was the only source of education for the black children of Montopolis. According to historical records, the Rev. J.H. Harrel of St. Edward’s Baptist Church — the oldest African-American Baptist church in Travis County — donated the land and the current building for the school.
1952: The area and the school are annexed by the city of Austin and the school becomes part of the Austin public school system.
1962: The Austin public school system shuts down the school.
1967: The property is auctioned off.