Blackshear Elementary School: A Case Study of Public Memory Versus Documented History in a Historically African American Public Elementary School Campus

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training

This presentation, transcript, and video are of the Texas Cultural Landscape Symposium, February 23-26, Waco, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of this presentation on YouTube.

Watch a non-audio described version of this presentation on YouTube.
Sydney Landers, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. Watch a non-audio described version of this presentation on YouTube.

National Park Service

Sydney Landers: Thank you for letting me speak to you all about this project. I worked on it last semester as part of a National Register class at UT Austin. It's concerning Blackshear Elementary, which is part of the [inaudible] Austin bus. So, Blackshear Elementary School is a historically African American elementary school and formerly high school and all purposes school in East Austin that kind of presents an intersection of public memory and documented history in uncovering all the layers of the evolution of the campus. It was built in 1902 and every layer of the building kind of shows shells of it. It's kind of like an Easter egg hunt of figuring out when everything was built.

This photo is from a city Boston survey. They had done around circa the 1950s of all the high schools in Austin. So Blackshear, before it was known as Blackshear Elementary, it was actually a Gregory Town school, which originated in 1890 as a wooden shack, probably around four blocks west of its location right now on 11th Street, which you'll see later. And when it was moved to this location in 1902, this little core right here, this core four-room building was built in 1902 and you get this little facade in 1936 with a bunch of landscaping that was done. And we'll get further into that as well.

This is what the school looks like right now. The school serves as a Blue Ribbon Fine Arts Academy for Austin, and it was part of a revitalization effort to make sure that the school was still hitting numbers that it needed to for the city of Austin, since they have been demolishing some schools as of recently.

Blackshear sits on 11th Street. Luckily, two presenters before me have explained the entire city plan to you of 1928 in Austin, which was really unfortunate, but basically allotted all African American services east of I-35 or what was East Avenue. So on this 11th Street corridor you have Blackshear, which sits adjacent to Huston-Tillotson University, which is the oldest higher education institution in Austin, which is also historically black university.

And as well all these little pings are from another project that I did for the historical commission in regard to Green books, which were travel guides for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. And all of these sites are conveniently all located around 11th Street, which kind of shows the significance of having Blackshear sit on the lot of 11th Street where it formally sat around here in the 1890s and now currently here. So it kind of shows the significance of where Blackshear sits in the landscape of East Austin as well.

In addition, this little blue point right here, I'll mention later is the house of the person who kind of spearheaded and brought my interest to this project. Ms. Vonnye Rice Gardner, who also is the daughter of a long-term principal at Blackshear who led Blackshear through all of its formative years for about 40 years as principal and led a lot of restoration and building and construction as well.

In this Sanborn map you can kind of see where Blackshear sat in 1921 so it was originally a high school. It served, I believe, kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. And at the time there's records of saying there around 600 students were served by this high school, which is kind of impossible to imagine by how small it used to be. And all adjacent to it are single family homes, an extension of the school as well sits to the east of it. And then in the Sanborn map, it might be a little bit blurry, but in 1935 to 1960 with all these additions, you see all the build dates for how it's expanded from that original core to how it took over those single family homes into a campus that kind of takes over the landscape and faces that 11th Street corridor and kind of consumes maybe to the driver by a significant portion of their experience.

This little classroom stayed extant until around like the late 20th century. And then it was demolished to fit in another edition that you'll see later. So from this alone, you can see the 1902 base right here and then a 1936 WPA-funded extensions for an auditorium and a prettier facade. And then you have a cafetorium from 1949 done by prominent architects in Austin, Jessen and Jessen Architects, who did a lot of public-school campuses in Austin.

The gym addition and the new library addition were built in the 1960s. And then there's a new pre-K edition that was done in the 2000s when the school kind of shifted more into an elementary because with building codes, obviously most of the pre-K classrooms had to have bathrooms attached, and that actually has become a lot of an issue for hosting classrooms and younger populations in this core building that can't be really changed much but was built in 1902 and doesn't really have the facilities to facilitate that.

Also, in the intersection of public memory and documented history, a lot of this research kind of contradicted itself and I had to find myself plowing through things to figure out what was actually correct. So interestingly enough, the date that the Sanborn says at 1907 is actually incorrect. That's been proven wrong by city council minutes and numerous public memory accounts and as well city directories.

This is what the campus looks like from an aerial view now. It has this sprawling campus that takes up a lot of the 11th Street corridor and then you have a new pavilion and two playground facilities and later a parking lot addition as well. And from this view, you can see the community garden that was instilled by the principal of the school back in the 1930s, Friendly Rice. This community garden is still active to this day. It engages not only members of the elementary school but neighborhood members as well. It was one of the first in Austin as well. And then there is a monument dedicated in the middle of it and some WPA-era fencing that I'll get into later.

Left: Friendly Rice, Principal; Right: Vonnie Rice, Friendly Rice, and Johnnie Rice at a birthday party for Mr. Rice.
Left: Friendly Rice, Principal; Right: Vonnie Rice, Friendly Rice, and Johnnie Rice at a birthday party for Mr. Rice.

Vonnie Rice

This is Ms. Vonnye Rice Gardner. She's very charismatic and very, very sharp in her way. I had interviewed her for a Texas historical commission project, oral history this past summer and while the project concerned the Green books and sites in Austin, she somehow managed to squeeze in 20 minutes about Blackshear because of her dad's significance with Blackshear. She never actually even attended Blackshear, but she had so much of a tie to the school and so much pride in it and what her father did to create a legacy for it that she just had to talk about it. So this is her at an event at the library of the elementary school in dedication to Friendly Rice's birthday. They do celebrations every year to this day.

To the left you have Friendly Rice. He was principal at Blackshear from 1932 to circa the 1960s, 1970s. In this family scrapbook, you have Friendly, his wife and then Vonnye Rice Gardner. And as you can see in the back, you have your classic green blackboard and the white painted bead board from the 1950s, all of this still's strikingly the same. Even though the school has undergone so many renovations, it has so many layers to it that the interiors still have a lot of those. And I'll show those later as well.

In the process to get this on the National Register, I went to the campus and got a tour by the vice principal of the school at the time. And she had shown us this binder and this binder was created by a principal, not knowing how many years past, but this binder was passed on principal to principal so they understood the history and the significance of Blackshear. So it was kind of crowd source of information and history about Blackshear kind of just put all in there so that the next principal would know what kind of legacy and history the campus had.

The Binder served source of information and history about that the next principal would know what kind of legacy and history the campus had.
Facade of Blackshear, photo of the binder, and a photo of multicultural faculty. The Binder served source of information and history about that the next principal would know what kind of legacy and history the campus had.

Vonnie Rice

The most interesting thing out of it was this photo that was attached to the front of the binder, which was believed to be the facade of Blackshear, which is really interesting because it's not the same building. And that kind of ignited my curiosity into the idea of public memory versus documented history. So how people perceive their historic sites and how we can use that to understand their say, biases or how the community, how much it truly values a site and what it sees in a site. So, I was able to debunk that. This is definitely not it. It has the same little pillars right here and same landscaping choices, but the windows and everything are not.

This photo is of the faculty of a high school, I believe in Austin, but not Blackshear or Anderson. The woman to the third to the left right here is Ms. Ida Hunt. She was a principal at Blackshear in the 80s and in some archival information I found that she was accredited to a lot of historic preservation work and trying to document the history of Blackshear. And I've been able to find a lot of documents with this really strange eclectic border right here attached to them. So I'm believing that these might be attributed to her in her historic preservation work in how she perceived Blackshear as a self-made historian.

Here is a photo of the community garden in its current state. This little structure was just actually a couple of months ago and this garden stays remarkably the same. Within it … Oh wait, maybe I'll show that later. Yeah, within it is the monument that'll come up later in the presentation.

Green chalk board painted over with dancing animals.
Green chalk board painted over with dancing animals. Original green board inside the former Blackshear Elementary School painted over by the Fine Arts Academy.

Sydney Landers

Here you can see all the elementary school teachers who taught in 1935 all listed by memory and a lot of this has been done by work of Ms. Vonnye. Whenever we did the oral history interviews, she had a photo of all the teachers and the librarians of the elementary school and she was able to list off every single name without hesitation, which was very impressive. And also you see that original 1935, 1936 facade that was built.

As you can see, you still have that green board, even though it's been painted over for its new role as a Fine Arts Academy and this is now the dance room. You still have those layers of history remnant, even if it's not as prominent anymore, which is interesting to see how even though the school needs to evolve to building code and to what the district wants, it's still chooses to keep certain elements out of respect and understanding of the legacy that the school has.

This is a historic photo from one that the classrooms would have looked like back around in the 50s. And this room right here is the current art room for the Fine Arts Academy. But in doing the tour, I was made known by the art teacher that actually a lot of historic wood flooring is actually underneath these tiles, but haven't been touched at all. And that this room used to be the historic library, which Blackshear was known for having the first African American elementary school library in the Southwest, they claim. Which has been … some archival materials kind of debate about, but I'm not going to argue it.

Speaker 1: Who was the librarian?

Sydney Landers: There is no librarian attributed, there's like a couple. A lot of the teachers kind of took pride as being librarians as well. Yeah.

This is one of the quarters on the second floor. You still have these historic doors probably from the 1936 or 1949 renovation still standing. Even though everything around it may have changed. And interesting thing around when we had toured the building, a lot of the doors had shifted to fit building codes and all that kind of stuff. So you see that evolution of a campus side-by-side and a lot of things still remain the same even if they have new causes.

This is another display of how the campus is evolving and its kind of a shell of what it used to be. So there's like a semi-intact bell from like the 1940 still there, but on the second floor, it's still there but they took off this little area for no reason. And then this bell still remains and it's actually placed within the courtyard garden entrance as well.

Photo of photo of all the teachers and the librarians of the Blackshear Elementary School.
At work in the Blackshear School Library: Photo of photo of all the teachers and the librarians of the Blackshear Elementary School.

Vonnie Rice

I found in my research that it was … in his first year as principal, Friendly Rice had obtained a CWA appropriation for around $1,100 at the time for a beautification purposes. So this was the only project in Austin that got an okay. And as the document states, despite segregation, this was the only school and they take pride in the fact that this was the only school that received appropriation like this. So within this it was documented that they got a rock drinking fountain, a fish pond, rock fences, which are aligned right here if you can see them. And those are still extant to this day. And then the landscaped front, rock flowers. And at the time, this made Gregory School one of the most scenic spots in Austin. And a lot of people used it as a community space outside of school hours maybe to just hang out on the lawn or for children to have fun out after school.

As you can see, as documented right here, these rock fences are still extant even though you have a metal fence right behind them because I guess they're low lying. This monument right here is placed within the community garden. It was made by community members and school members as well. Most interestingly enough, there's still buttons from when they made it and they just kind of shoved them in monuments that are kind of intermittently there. This glass mosaic is newer but you still see in the lower layers that there's odds and ends kind of sticking into the mortar. And then this monument was dedicated to W. H. Passon, who was a significant educator in Austin at the time that had passed away right around when Friendly had taken in as principal.

Colorful mural showing Mr. Rice's tenure, faculty, staff, and students.
Colorful mural showing Mr. Rice's tenure, faculty, staff, and students.

Sydney Landers

Interestingly enough with this same border in this document, this was placed in the school and its little history, little cabinet curio and a monument that's not really the same one was listed as a time capsule in their garden. And I am still kind of grappling with whether this may be true or not because you have an outhouse in the back where this garden would have sat, it kind of is adjacent to what it is even though the monument looks significantly different. And then also the monument was placed in 1932 so it's like 10 years away from its a hundred year anniversary if they haven't uncovered it yet.

And lastly, Blackshear recently in 2019 did an initiative to, or in 2018, made an initiative to put a mural right outside on the 11th Street facade on this corner. Say this corner right here and then 11th Street's right there. And part of their roll call for this was listing all the acclaims that Blackshear had in the community and the neighborhood and attributing it to Friendly Rice's significance.

On the list was Friendly Rice's portrait, of course. The fact that Friendly Rice brought the first hot lunches to students in the 1930s, in all of AISD; the significance of the Fine Arts Academy now; the fact that the school had the first black elementary school library in the Southwest; and someone delivered, and that's what currently sits on this site.

And interestingly enough, they put this on the 11th Street facing corridor because they wanted it to be seen on this bustling 11th Street, which is now encountering a lot of cases of gentrification and displacement, and kind of showing an outward expression of the significance in the community in the neighborhood. And they also made a point to place this on the newer edition of the building. So this is on the 2000s edition rather than anything else, even though there are plenty of corners facing from older eras. And that's it. Thank you.

Sydney Landers, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. Photo of Sydney Landers, the presenter, speaking in front of a microphone.
Sydney Landers, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

National Park Service

Speaker Biography

Sydney Andrea Landers is a first year MS Historic Preservation candidate at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Architecture. In the Spring of 2020, Sydney will be a Teaching Assistant for UTSOA. Sydney’s research and education has been supported by the Texas Historical Commission, National Parks Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation. She received her B.A. in Art History from the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin in May of 2019.

Last updated: September 29, 2021