by Sebastian Wren
Just over 100 years ago, as we all know, most of the area around this part of town was nothing more than fields and orchards. What most people have probably forgotten (or never knew), is that much of the land north and east of our neighborhood — 350 acres – was once owned by the Regular Missionary Baptist Association, a Reconstruction-era African American organization which was first moderated by the famous Reverend Jacob Fontaine.
Years after the Civil War, there were many young black children who were living without parents or reliable care-givers, but there was no orphanage for African American children in Texas. The Regular Missionary Baptist Association dedicated themselves to addressing this problem by building an orphanage for black children in Texas on the edge of their farmland. This was far outside the Austin city limits, and there was a frontier attitude about construction and development at the time. The first building for the orphanage was a clapboard wooden structure built in 1906 next to the Tannehill Branch Creek, but it didn’t last very long — within a few years, it burned down (under “mysterious circumstances,” as buildings owned by African Americans were wont to do at the time).
In 1910, the Association decided to rebuild, but this time they commissioned well-respected architect John Andrewartha to replace the devastated wooden structure with a much larger and more substantial limestone building. In 1911, the St. John’s Industrial Institute and Home for Negro Orphans re-opened and began serving 300 to 500 children.
The creation of the orphanage was overseen by Dr. Lee Lewis Campbell (Campbell Elementary School on East MLK is named in his honor), featuring a 3-story limestone building (for the girls) and a smaller wooden structure (for the boys). Campbell also designed an educational system to take children who lived at the orphanage through high school. The St. John’s Orphanage quickly earned a reputation as one of the best educational institutions for African Americans in the South. Booker T. Washington described the orphanage as a paragon example of educational opportunities for the first generations of free African American children in the south.
The orphanage also became a very important social hub for African Americans across Texas. Every year, African Americans would make a pilgrimage to the St. John’s community for a social, religious, and educational conference. As many as 25,000 people would journey to the orphanage – traveling by any means available – to spend a few weeks encamped on the farmland around the orphanage.
Some of these pilgrims walked for miles and miles to attend the “encampment” every year. At its peak, the annual pilgrimage to the St. John’s orphanage more doubled the size of Austin (which was just over 20,000 at the time). The “encampments” were social events, but they were also educational opportunities. In addition to parades and contests, people also attended sermons on temperance and informal classes on farming, job-training, sanitation, and self-improvement.
While the orphanage was a successful social and educational center, it was also the focus of frequent, unwanted attention from southern racists. For example, in 1923, children from the orphanage were invited to sing a concert for congressmen at the Texas State Capitol, but the concert was interrupted when members of the Klu Klux Klan entered the Capitol in full ceremonial robes. They claimed they were interrupting the choir of children to make a “donation” to the orphanage, but their intention was clearly to intimidate the children and assert their dominance.
Despite challenges, the orphanage thrived throughout Dr. Campbell’s life, but after his death in 1927, the orphanage began to fall on hard times. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, funding was nearly impossible to acquire, services were cut, and the very building itself began to decay. It was finally, quietly abandoned in 1942. The once impressive limestone building languished vacant, abused by vandals, occupied occasionally by vagrants. Somehow a rumor circulated that the old building was haunted.
In 1951, the City of Austin annexed the farmland around the abandoned orphanage, but people continued to farm the land through most of the 1950s. In 1956, the land was sold to a developer for $600,000. The developer announced plans to build a subdivision of ranch-style houses, and two weeks after the sale of the land was finalized, the old orphanage burned to the ground. The circumstances of the fire were reported as “suspicious.” Again.
Some houses were built on the farmland to the west, but most of the developer’s plans for a subdivision of ranch-style houses apparently fell through. Much of the area around the former site of the orphanage remained untouched and undeveloped until 1969 when ground was broken for Highland Mall and several strip-center shopping districts around the mall. By the time the mall opened in 1971, the remote farmland outside of Austin had been transformed into a sea of asphalt and concrete.
The creek that ran near the orphanage still runs — in a channel under the parking lot. When I-35 was constructed, the forgotten cemetery for the orphaned children of St. John’s was discovered on a hill. The small coffins were removed (rather unceremoniously by some accounts) to make room for the construction of a Denny’s next to the new highway.
Highland Mall thrived through the 1970s and 1980s as one of Austin’s premier shopping destinations, but fell into decline some 30 years later. By the dawn of the 21st Century, stores were closing, and the mall was dying. Austin Community College and Red Leaf Properties purchased the mall, and began working with neighbors and City leaders to redesign and repurpose the mall into a community college, offices, and a vibrant mixed-use community.
As we work with the city and ACC to imagine a new future for Airport Boulevard and Highland Mall, I hope we can also be respectful of the past. A creek that once flowed should flow again. Fields where children played should become park space again. While Austin needs more density and mixed-use development, I think we should also set aside a small parcel of land next to Tannehill Branch Creek for a public green space — I propose we call it Orphan Park.