Staring Down Development, Neighbors Seek Historical Recognition for Emancipation Park

Jan 19, 2017

Our story begins at a dead end near 13th Street and Walnut Avenue in the Chestnut neighborhood of East Austin, just down the street from where Leslie Padilla has lived for about three years. 

You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but a vacant field just past this dead end is a piece of Austin’s African-American history. About a century ago, this land was home to the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration, which marks the end of slavery in Texas.

Padilla learned about the site’s history when a new condo development was proposed for the land. She and other neighbors have been negotiating with the developer to recognize the historical significance of the site, among other considerations.

The End of Slavery

In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery throughout the nation, but Confederate states didn’t honor the Union order. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and announced a proclamation that officially ended slavery in Texas. Word gradually spread to the estimated 250,000 slaves throughout the state. The next year, June 19 was marked with celebrations and political rallies. 

Austin’s earliest Juneteenth celebrations were held at Wheeler’s Grove, which is now know as Eastwoods Park near the UT campus. But some decades later, Thomas J. White, a former slave, thought Juneteenth should be held on land owned by black residents themselves. He founded the Emancipation Park Association in 1905, and two years later, it completed the purchase of a 5-acre tract near Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street. 

Thomas J. White and members of the Emancipation Association.
Credit Austin History Center, PICA 20862

"To be able to have this site of historical significance for you that you were able to purchase and own as a person who was previously owned by someone else was especially significant for them," says LaToya Devezin, the African-American community archivist with the Austin History Center. "That was one of the reasons why [White] was such a proponent of owning a piece of land.”

But that ownership didn’t last long. About 30 years after the purchase of Emancipation Park, the city of Austin seized the land through eminent domain. It would later house Rosewood Courts, the city’s public housing project, which was at the time specifically for African-Americans. The move was met with much resistance from residents who wanted to continue celebrating Juneteenth there, Devezin said.

“Sense of place and trying to find a sense of home in Austin and in Travis County has always been such a struggle for African-Americans here," she said, "because it seems like once you put down roots, you have to move."

In fact, the site of Emancipation Park has been relocated several times: from Wheeler’s Grove to the property purchased by White’s association and later to Rosewood Park, where Juneteenth celebrations are still held today.

Recognition and Consideration

Ariane Corcoran attended high school in east Austin and recently bought a home in the Chestnut neighborhood. To her, the confusion around this park’s location speaks to a lack of recognition of Austin’s African-American history.

Ariane Corcoran, with her daughter Emme, on her front porch in East Austin. She says confusion around location of Emancipation Park speaks to a lack of recognition of the city's African-American history.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT News

“Most Texans should feel like it’s their history,” Corcoran said. “I am also black, so it is my personal legacy, I feel like, and my family, and I think it’s just really sad when we get so far away from certain populations’ meaningful sites, and we have a really easy time preserving other ones.”

The parcel falls into the city’s transit-oriented development plan for MLK Jr. Boulevard. That means it should ideally allow for easy access to the nearby Capital MetroRail line. Six years ago, neighbors struck a deal with a developer looking to build on the property. They asked that the new construction include a pedestrian walkway to the rail station, a memorial to Emancipation Park, and 40 percent affordable housing.

But before that happened, the property was sold. Padilla said neighbors don’t have a guarantee that the new owner, who wants to put up a five-story condo building, will honor those considerations.

Neighbor Leslie Padilla learned about the land’s historical significance when a developer proposed building condos on it.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT

“We’re in a position of just having to accept that this is all going forward, right?” Padilla said. “There’s really still no consideration that perhaps the property shouldn’t be turned into luxury condos at all.”

The property owner, Shravan Parsi, didn’t reply to interview requests, but a representative outlined his development plans at a recent meeting of the city’s Planning Commission. Parsi doesn’t plan to include a walkway to the rail line, but he’s offered to build a memorial and 20 percent affordable housing -- if the commission loosens a rule that would let him proceed with his plans. When the commission takes up the case, it’ll be the only chance neighbors have to testify about the future of the site.  

“I would love it if more people who do remember using the park actually could have a say in what happens to it,” Padilla said. "That hasn’t happened at all."

History for All

One person who remembers is 86-year-old Scottie Ivory. The former activist has lived in Chestnut for about 60 years and grew up attending Juneteenth celebrations at the former Emancipation Park site nearby.

“I’ve been very, very angry because our neighborhood is completely changed,” she said. “Everybody’s got history except us.”

Ivory said that if the site is going to be redeveloped, she’d like to see it offer some sort of public benefit to neighbors, like better access to public transit. She hopes, at the very least, to get a monument to the old Emancipation Park.

The Planning Commission will discuss the case on Feb. 14.