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What ever happened to the St. John’s Orphan Home?

Baptist orphanage was once the dominant structure in Northeast Austin

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Lee Lewis Campbell, moderator of the St. John Regular Baptist Association and founder of the orphan home.

For years, it stood empty in open fields — massive, hulking, disintegrating — five miles northeast of downtown Austin.

For some kids during the 1940s and ’50s, the three crumbling stories, fronted by columns and balustrades, served as a haunted house, a forbidden place to explore.

For others, it was all that remained of a noble venture, an attempt to raise and educate African-American children in need from across Central Texas.

On Aug. 12, 1956, the once handsome stone building — centerpiece of a 350-acre farm that drew tens of thousands of blacks nearby for St. John Regular Baptist Association annual camp meetings — burned to the ground.

Before or after that fire — the record is unclear — the land where the St. John’s Orphan Home main building had stood for half a century was sold to a developer.

The adjacent land became Highland Mall and parts of the Highland neighborhood, now undergoing yet another metamorphosis sparked by the mall’s purchase by Austin Community College and attempts to revive Airport Boulevard.

Other sections of the old farmland became, first, the St. John (alternately St. John’s) district, once an almost rural African-American enclave, and, according to one history, also parts of University Hills, a postwar development similar to nearby Windsor Park to the south.

Yet for the first half of the 20th century, the St. John’s Orphan Home with its low, fertile fields — along with camp pavilions and agricultural structures — was as much a center of African-American life in Central Texas as any church, school, business or university in better-known Central East Austin.

The long-ago home was founded on high principles.

“For the intellectual and cultural development of young men and women of the Negro race,” reads an undated advertisement housed at the Austin History Center. “Literary and commercial courses; also music, domestic science, agriculture and printing. Owned and controlled by the Negro race, supported by the charitably inclined and endorsed by leading white people of the state.”

Under an oak tree

The orphanage grew out of a robust religious movement. In 1867, four black Baptist ministers met under a giant live oak tree in Wheatville, the freedman’s town located west of what is now the University of Texas campus at 24th and Leon streets.

There, they divided the state into four provinces. Eight pioneer Central Texas churches with a total of 300 members became the St. John Association. Eventually, as many as 125 mostly rural congregations were organized under the aegis of this group.

According to a centennial history published in 1967, the first moderator of the St. John group was the Rev. Jacob Fontaine. While some of the group’s meetings took place outside Austin, particularly at historically black colleges, this city became the destination for huge annual encampments, usually held in July.

Pilgrims, as many as 25,000 strong according to newspaper reports, took part in parades, picnics, concerts, speeches and prayers as well as industrial and agricultural demonstrations.

The rest of the year, the St. John circuit around Central Texas was known as an association “on wheels.”

“‘On Wheels’ is not an indication of rapid pace, but slow pace, horse-back riding, horse-drawn wagons, mules and oxen,” the centennial essay writer explains. “There were those who traveled on foot for miles and miles. It was a little step-up in pace when, in years after, some traveled in buggies, horse-drawn surreys and mules.”

“What do we owe you?” travelers on the circuit asked Central Texas hosts along the way. The customary reply: “Do the same to the next neighbor.”

While mainstream newspapers often failed to cover the daily lives of black Austinites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they copiously reported on the St. John encampments.

They were, indeed, the biggest deal in town.

Not just in East Austin, where the camp meetings often took place before the St. John’s Orphan Home land was purchased and improved. Austin’s total population, after all, in 1900 was only 22,000.

“Negro Baptists Flood City” reads the Austin Statesman headline for Sept. 19, 1904. The article that follows is scrupulously affirmative. During a time when Jim Crow laws divided the races, establishment white leaders looked on the Baptist preachers as forces for “race betterment.”

A June 2, 1916, article in the Statesman listed among the camp activities a rural school exhibit, truck growers exhibit, baby show, temperance show, parade and demonstrations: “Bringing together Negroes from the rural districts for instruction in farming, sanitation, self help, educational improvement and assistance in reducing their cost of living.”

Despite the positive tone, even the comparatively progressive writer of an unsigned 1904 editorial betrayed a dishearteningly paternalistic attitude toward the St. John’s mission.

“I remember it was confidently stated by many persons in a few years they would become extinct,” reads the editorial running under the headline “The Negro Problem.” “It was believed that when the shackles of slavery were thrown aside, the Negroes, yielding to licentiousness and ignorance, would soon disappear. … If the Negro fails to measure up to the requirements of the whites, they, being the weaker race, must be instructed by the stronger.”

On the orphan farm

Texas African-Americans were already taking care of their own.

Lee Lewis Campbell was born in Milam County in 1866. He served as minister and eventually pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church between 1892 and 1927.

According to a short biography written by Nicole Davis — and other sources — Campbell was moderator of the St. John Regular Baptist Association when the group purchased more than 300 acres northeast of Austin in 1894 and when “St. John’s Institute” was founded in 1902.

(Newspaper reports, informal histories and human memories are not always in agreement about the official names of the orphanage, or about the dates that pertain to the endeavor. See explanatory box.)

An undated newspaper story filed at the Austin History Center predicted that the group would purchase land for an orphanage at $6,000 and construct a building for $10,000. The story said of the project: “Credible and inspiring. … All eyes are on the orphan home movement as it is colossal in proportion and must prove an inspiration for the Negroes.”

Another published fundraising appeal notes that “$600 will pay salary of one matron one year; $900 will pay salary one year of teacher in farming; $50 will feed the orphans one day.”

The annual St. John camp meetings moved to the orphanage tract by 1917, according to an essay by Marnett Canada housed at the Austin History Center. The Rev. Campbell, respected citywide, pressed the City Council for street improvements, parade accommodations, concessions on light and water for the encampment there between two small creeks.

For two decades, the orphanage thrived. When Campbell died in 1927, 5,000 people attended his funeral, and the Austin Call newspaper, in the nomenclature of the day, saluted him as “one of the most outstanding race citizens.” Campbell Elementary School on East 17th Street is named for him.

Troubles ahead

In April 1923, students from the St. John’s Orphan Home sang a concert for legislators at the Capitol. The singing was interrupted by robed members of the Ku Klux Klan, who entered the House of Representatives ostensibly to offer a donation to the orphanage.

Like other actions of the newly resurrected KKK, it was meant to intimidate or even terrorize. Lt. Gov. T.W. Davidson expressed outrage at the stunt. He made reference to the recent Schaffner-Bell trial that had raised racial tensions around a street murder in Sealy at the peak of the Klan’s revival in the early 1920s.

It was the Great Depression, not the Klan, however, that really menaced the St. John’s Orphan Home. The association’s new moderator, the Rev. A. K. Black, strove mightily to retire the mortgage on the orphanage. Yet funds were always in short supply. Some published sources say the home closed during the 1930s; others put the final closure in the early 1940s.

Images housed at the Austin History Center show that the land around the orphanage was farmed well into the 1950s. During World War II, the city tried to buy it to build a Navy hospital on the tract. But the city never offered enough money.

Anyway, as the Statesman observed: “The war’s sudden A-bomb end halted plans for the hospital.”

Sale and fire

On Aug. 2, 1956, the Austin Statesman reported that the St. John’s Orphanage tract was to be sold.

A mere $600,000 was the stated price. The land would would be developed with low, ranch-style houses as part of the extended postwar residential boom.

But what to do with the main building?

“The old structure on the tract is an ancient, dilapidated building that once housed an orphanage,” the Statesman reported. “It has long been abandoned. Developers visualize rows of neat homes around a shopping village.”

Less than two weeks after the Statesman story ran, the structure burned to the ground.

The St. John Association used the purchase money to build, in 1958, a modern tabernacle above a creek on Blessing Avenue in the St. John district, as well as a nursing home and child care center.

The main buildings still stand in a wooded field and are used each year for camp meetings. The Rev. G.V. Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin, is the current moderator.

So what else remains on the ground to remind ordinary Austinites of St. John’s noble history of civic improvement and education? Mostly the eponymous neighborhood east of Interstate 35 linked to the Highland neighborhood on the west side of the freeway by St. John’s Avenue.

Today, St. John is a loose grid of streets between the interstate and Cameron Road, U.S. 183 and U.S. 290. Many of the plots were sold, one historian relates, by Rev. Black to former sharecroppers for $50 apiece.

A handy history, published on the neighborhood association’s Facebook page, adds that “some present-day senior residents were part of families who bought these plots from Rev. Black.”

The city annexed St. John in 1951, but amenities were slow to follow. Federal urban renewal projects were proposed in the 1960s and ’70s for St. John as part of the War on Poverty.

Eventually, apartments and big box retail stories — as well as a few hotels — fleshed out the borders of St. John. The residential core, however, grew scruffy and was hit by crime in the 1980s.

Some of those big box stores and their vast surface parking lots now stand empty. The district’s former persistent prostitution problem now plagues the Rundberg area to the north.

Home to more than 20,000 people, St. John these days is mostly Hispanic. The area received a huge boost a few years ago when city leaders unveiled the St. John’s Community Center, which combined in a gracefully arcing structure a school, library and recreation center.

Yet the old orphan home, once the dominant landmark in the area, is long gone, and memories of its mission are fading.

A reader remembers