Montopolis Negro School, a one-room schoolhouse that later became a church, will soon be a museum (Courtesy of city of Austin)
A jury ordered the city of Austin last week to pay nearly $1 million to a real estate developer in an eminent domain case key to the city’s effort to turn the historic Montopolis Negro School into a museum.
In 2015, real estate developer Austin Stowell purchased the Montopolis Negro School site with plans to redevelop it – claiming that he was unaware of the site’s historical value. That value is significant. It is one of the last Black one-room schoolhouses standing in the county. The school served Black residents of Montopolis when Austin schools were segregated, and later as a beloved church. After a storm damaged the original school, St. Edward’s Baptist Church in 1935 donated land next to the church for a rebuild. In 1952, the school became a part of Austin ISD, and 10 years later it closed with the formal integration of Austin schools. After AISD auctioned the property off, the new owner leased it to another important institution: Montopolis Church of Christ, which, beyond church services, offered space for community celebrations and civic engagement.
In the mid-Eighties, the city took the property through eminent domain to allow for a street expansion that was ultimately never built. In 2015, after Stowell bought the property from the Wilhoite family, the Montopolis community pushed back against the redevelopment plan, arguing that the site needed to be preserved. Austin City Council agreed and, in 2018, passed a resolution authorizing the Law Department to seize the land by eminent domain after it was unable to agree to a purchase price with Stowell.
The city allowed Stowell to keep a small parcel of the land and offered $362,000 for the rest of it, well below Stowell’s valuation of more than a million dollars. Stowell filed suit against the city, which led to last week’s jury decision awarding him $983,256. “This has been a long process for Mr. Stowell, and he is very pleased to be at this point,” said Zach Brady, Stowell’s lawyer. “It’s been tough.”
A city spokesperson said that the Law Department is presenting the case for Council’s consideration next week and “will have more to say after Council has weighed in” regarding the possibility of an appeal. But for Montopolis community activists such as Fred McGhee, who has helped lead the effort to preserve the site, the verdict is emblematic of a system that has allowed developers to sweep into the majority-Black and -Latinx neighborhood and make huge profits that longtime residents have not shared in. In an email to the Chronicle, McGhee wrote that it is not “going to sit well with the Montopolis Community” that Stowell was awarded “nearly a million dollars for stolen African American property.” He has insisted that AISD in the 1960s should have returned the property to St. Edward’s Baptist Church rather than auctioning it off. “The million dollars that he made is off of stolen Black property,” McGhee said. “That’s important. That cannot be forgotten. And it’s public money here we’re talking.”
But none of that broader context factored into the court case. All that was at issue was the valuation of the site in the increasingly expensive neighborhood. “I think everything’s exploded in value,” Brady said. “Certainly that area, that Montopolis neighborhood, and specifically this pocket of the Montopolis neighborhood, has certainly become more valuable.” As that trend continues, sites dedicated to preserving Montopolis’ history may become all the more vital. The city has committed to rehabilitating the Montopolis Negro School and turning it into a museum, and held an open house last November to gather community input on the project.
McGhee, meanwhile, is nominating the site to the National Register of Historic Places, which could help fund preservation work. He also wants to ensure that community members are at the forefront of the city’s plans. “There are many lessons to be learned from this episode,” he wrote, “especially about the importance of perpetual grassroots involvement and control in restorative justice campaigns.”
* Editor’s note Friday 5-6 2:55 pm: This story has been updated to correct that Austin Stowell did not buy the Montopolis Negro School property from the city, but from the Wilhoite family. We regret our errors.