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Photo by Fred McGhee

PARD publishes update on Montopolis Negro School preservation effort

Thursday, May 13, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

For nearly three decades in the 20th century, the Montopolis Negro School gave Black children an education in an era when they were not welcome in Austin schools. The schoolhouse at 500 Montopolis Drive was not just a place of education, it functioned as a community center in the then-rural Montopolis neighborhood.

At one point, Travis County operated 42 rural schools for Black children, but as Austin was slowly desegregated, many formerly Black schools were shuttered. The Montopolis Negro School closed its doors in 1962.

Recently, the now-defunct school has been the center of a community preservation effort. In 2015, real estate developer Austin Stowell purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping the site.

Due to the school’s historic nature, Stowell’s redevelopment plans drew a fair amount of pushback – though he claimed he wasn’t aware of the site’s history before purchasing the land.

In 2017, community efforts came to a head when Austin City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to move forward with purchasing the property. The language of the resolution said the school had “undeniable historic significance and should be preserved by any means possible.”

The initial goal was to preserve the land and perhaps turn the site into a museum operated by the city, an effort that would cost an estimated $5.7 million to complete and another $193,000 a year to operate.

The actual process of acquiring the property turned out to be a little more complicated than anybody could have predicted. After months of negotiations, the city and Stowell were not able to agree on a price for the land. At one point, Stowell was offered $362,000 for the land.

In June 2018, the city escalated the acquisition effort when City Council passed a resolution authorizing the Law Department to begin eminent domain proceedings in order to acquire the property. The case was finally resolved in 2019 when special commissioners awarded Stowell $464,000 in exchange for allowing the city to take control of the property.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, historian and activist Fred McGhee, who is president of the Montopolis Community Development Corporation, called the city’s acquisition of the land an example of  “restorative justice,” though he still feels there’s more work to be done.

McGhee, who has been one of the restoration’s most vocal proponents, said the city’s communication, community outreach and level of transparency have been subpar through the entire process.

The most recent update to the restoration effort came earlier this month when Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley sent a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council updating them on some of the project’s developments over the past few years.

Last year, the hazardous material abatement process was completed and $150,000 in Austin City Limits funds were set aside for planning the project’s next steps, though the pandemic has halted any movement on those steps for the time being.

Additionally, all of the building’s sensitive materials and furnishings were relocated to archival boxes that are being stored in a climate-controlled environment, a move that helps the preservation process.

PARD plans to formally launch its planning effort in the spring of 2022.

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