Monday, September 14, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Travis County now has an African American Cultural Heritage Commission

As of Sept. 8, Travis County officially has a commission dedicated to the preservation and celebration of African American cultural heritage.

“We see a lot of the African American communities, artifacts and heirlooms being destroyed as we grow in size as a city,” said Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who sponsored the establishment of the commission at Tuesday’s meeting. “What this group would like to do is identify a lot of those monuments and heirlooms.”

The initiative to form a new commission originated with the community members, eight of whom telephoned the Commissioners Court to encourage it to vote for the creation of this commission. The Commissioners Court approved the formation of the African American Cultural Heritage Commission in a unanimous vote.

“We’re working on making sure our history isn’t destroyed, (that) our history continues to live,” said Creola Shaw Burns, a fifth-generation Austinite. She and other county residents are working with a number of municipal governments in Texas to establish similar commissions throughout the state.

Alberta Phillips Bledsoe told commissioners that members of the community are “up against the clock” to preserve the architecture, cemeteries and monuments of African American history in the region.

Travillion supported the argument, noting that snippets of history are already being forgotten. He pointed to the Austin Community College Highland Campus, saying it used to serve as an orphanage and trade school for the St. Johns Neighborhood Baptist Church, but that few remember that past.

In order to preserve the history of the dozens of post-Civil War settlements in Central Texas and the culture that grew out of these homesteads, the new commission will work with the community and surrounding counties. Additionally, the commission will serve as a liaison to county commissioners and others regarding claims of African American history and culture around the county.

County Judge Sam Biscoe pointed out that the individuals presenting this initiative to the Commissioners Court represented only a small area of Travis County. “The absence of non-Austinites stood out for me,” he said. “I know that in the Manor area and in Pflugerville there are people interested in the African American history in this area.”

While the commission is now official, the county has yet to select who will sit on it. The application and selection process will take place at a later date, and Travillion said there is no desire to exclude applicants from smaller jurisdictions within the county from participation. “We will make sure that we include others and invite them to participate,” he said.

Photo by Jennifer Rangubphai/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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