Watching Austin’s Last (Known) Slave Quarter: Black History In hiding – News

One of the city’s last remaining slave quarters is behind the Neill-Cochran House Museum (Photos by Jana Birchum)

on April 23, Joe McGilli came to Austin and did what he did at the former homes of enslaved people in countless cities across the country: stay overnight.

McGill, who lives in Charleston, SC, is the founder and executive director of the Slave House Project – an effort launched a little over a decade ago to center the experiences and stories of enslaved people on historical sites they have all too often obliterated.

In Austin, that work is of particular importance. McGill stayed in a two-story building behind the historic Neill-Cochran House Museum — a historic home in the West Campus neighborhood — believed to be the city’s last remaining slave quarters.

The Main Building at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, June 5, 2022

“We’ve denied our real history in the United States for so long,” McGill said. “We knew all along that that beautiful, beautiful house was there, but so many had no idea that behind it was the slave house – and usually it is intentional that these places are not known … That deliberate concealment of this history that’s why I do some I do.”

Even director of the museum until 2016 Rowena Dasch had no idea the property was home to a residence for enslaved people. But standing in the house one day, Dasch realized she hadn’t seen any signs of house features associated with housework. There was no laundry room or kitchen. Closet and general storage space was very limited. Considering the house was built in 1855, prior to the Civil War, the timeline suddenly clicked, Dasch said. “Once we started thinking about it, it became clear that it was.”

To confirm the history of the two-storey building and to find out who lived in it, Dasch collaborated with professor at the UT School of Architecture Tara Dudley† As of 2018, the couple estimate that she and Dudley’s students spent thousands of hours researching the building’s history.

The second floor of the slave sleeping quarters at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, June 5, 2022

What they found is telling: the names and stories of the families who lived in the building and kept the main building running. The museum will present information about people such as Maggiewho worked for the Cochran family and made their soap by hand, and Jacob Fontainewho lived a block away and founded one of the first black newspapers west of the Mississippi.

“We knew all along that that nice, beautiful house was there, but so many had no idea that the slave house was behind it — and usually it’s intentional that these places aren’t known.” – Joe McGill, founder of Slave Dwellings Project

Now the museum is working with the UT on a project called “Keeping the Past in Mind: The Untold Story of Racing in AustinOver the next year they will restore the slave quarters to their antebellum appearance and set up a series of programming that will put the site in the broader context of the history of slavery and racism in the city. Fundamentally, Dasch said, she and her colleagues have made this effort to improve Austin’s historical memory. That means we’re not targeting visitors to the city, as house museums often do, but people who live in them.

“Heritage tours are always welcome… but frankly, they’re my lowest priority right now,” said Dasch. “They’re the locals. They’re Austinites. And especially children, because as a child if you’re exposed to this broad knowledge, this importance of a place in history, then you’ll grow up with that recognition in yourself.”

The museum hopes the renovated quarters and new tours and exhibits will give Austinites an accurate sense of place. A number of people, Dasch said, are unaware of the magnitude of West Austin’s black history. The Neill-Cochran House, for example, is just a few yards away from Wheatville – one of the city’s first black communities, founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the cooperative’s namesake. It and other similar communities in West Austin disappeared after the adoption of the 1928 Austin city plan, which separated the city along what would become I-35.

Irregular wooden planks in the slave quarters would not be allowed in the main main house

There were once many slave quarters in Austin; the sole survivor status of those in the Neill-Cochran House shows how Black Austin’s built history is under significant threat. “There’s so much of the physical aspect of Black Austin that has been destroyed and continues to be destroyed,” Dudley said. “We think of East Austin and how that should be Black Austin, but every day, through the effects of development and gentrification, we see that physicality, those tangible aspects of history, are being taken away.”

Officials and researchers at the museum are working to connect with descendants of the people who lived in the neighborhoods, though they haven’t found anyone yet. For people working on the project, there is much at stake — not least because of efforts in Texas and elsewhere to limit educational work on the true history of races in the U.S.

“I think these buildings help us realize that this slavery thing was real — and not only was it real, [but] these people, despite being classified as less than human, they still thrived,” McGill said. “They’re still chasing their happiness…I think these buildings can help us give them that missing voice.”

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