Friday, June 17, 2016

Black Church

While walking around in my new hood of Zilker, I came across a stark block building in the middle of a huge lot.  It's an odd sight in a part of town where every square inch of land is at a premium and new mcmansions occupy entire footprints of land, interspersed among the modest 1940s bungalows that came first. 

This desirable and expensive zipcode was once "nothing," according to a middle aged native Austinite I flew home from Phoenix next to recently.  "We liked it, but it was a poor area."

It's beautiful, though.  The neighborhood abuts Zilker Park, and is filled with old, old oak trees and big shading magnolias.  Vines and weeds and flowering plants tangle all over each other here, in the Austinian style.  All of the old, gracious parts of the city are full of overgrowth - plants spill onto the sidewalks and streets and grow big and wild.  Pastel paint peels from old houses and fences lean on properties that, as values have skyrocketed, you'd never imagine are worth seven figures.  You cannot tell a home value by its appearance around here.  This is nothing like Phoenix, where properties are pathologically groomed and clipped and repainted and edged, and leafblowers rage at all hours of the day.

But the black church.  This is what the sign said:

I have some comments about the sign.  1. Is it that noteworthy that some of the people buried here beginning in 1866 were born before 1840?  26 was that notable an age?  Or is 1840 a reference to Austin's early days that I didn't catch?  Does it simply mean to point out that they were born in the antebellum slavery period?  2. "In the 1940s, the wooden church burned."  Because this was Dixie once, I feel suspicious at the assumedly intentional ambiguity.  Why did it burn, exactly?





Sealed tightly forever.  Why?  Why not a museum to black culture and churches of this era?  Why not a space to share this completely ignored aspect of early Austin?  This city's interpretation of its own history is so whitewashed.  This building is not only significant because it's still here and the land is still safe, but it's a touchstone for a huge group of people who don't get their story told in these parts very often.


Big, beautiful treeish lot.

But as the sign says, it's a church and cemetery.  Underneath the weeds in the green lot are headstones.  Incomplete headstones.  Stumps and chunks, leaning shards, mounds of local lime melding, very slowly, into the native grass and networks of vines.

Someone mows it sometimes.  It's rained so much lately that it's impossible to keep the greenery down, and it shoots up in uneven patches.  I stepped gingerly in the grass, deep into the shady back area to look at the stones, praying against snakes and cursing that the foliage was so dense and moist that even the big black Texas mosquitos, who normally pass on me, lighted on my bare skin with glee.  I don't know how to hike or walk in backcountry, and although this is in the middle of a dense city, it feels distinctly lonely and untrodden.  I watched the ground for those snakes.




Age 87.



Worn down stone looking like a natural occurrence and not a grave marker.

There were a lot of spots, much bigger than this, where the grass wouldn't grow.  Some of the spots were...grave-sized?  Multiple feet by multiple feet.  Why?  Why would this enthusiastic foliage not grow in certain patches?


Condos to the left, apartments to the right, encroaching right up to the edge of the protected space.  No doubt tens of developers have cruised the big empty space, populated only by that lonely box just one step above a shed, and cursed the city for setting it aside.  A lot like that?  DREAM CONDOS! With a stupid fucking name, like Zilker Commons, or Greenview, or Barton Heights.

I searched for clues about the church and cemetery and came up with little more than what's contained on that historical marker sign.  There's an inventory of the remaining stones, or what remained of them ten years ago.  I couldn't find as many as the website had.  It takes a jaded, weird fucking person, weird beyond any measure I can imagine, to steal a fucking headstone.  When I was a little girl, I thought to linger too long by any old grave would tempt the spirit belonging to it to follow me home, and I worried in the car that an illicit tour of the Pioneer's Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona (it was pre-renovation and closed to the public in the 90s) might have caused some old ghost to follow us home and scare me in my bed at night.  Needless to say, even this morbid ass would not remove a memento like that from a cemetery, not to mention the fact that it's vandalism and ruins historic spaces for the rest of us.  I did take ball moss home from the Texas National Cemetery once (yep, that's a thing, Texas thinks it's a country), but it died.

I mean, seriously.  Where the fuck do headstone thieves put their prizes?  In their herb gardens?  WTAF

Lots to learn about old Texas presidents here in Austin, but there's a distinctive crickety sound when one researches historic people of color around here.  Not to sound too like a social justice warrior (I am; suck it) but it's true.

I'll continue my researches, but this might require IRL reading in an archive.  I must say it was easier to find the dirt I wanted in Phoenix, even about the most obscure of historic properties.

Next on my list of Austin history rambles is the cabin I see on Robert E. Lee Rd (yuuuuuuuup) as it winds beside Zilker.  I have read about very early cabins from city pioneers being relocated to parks and I think that is one.  Looks to be half the size of my kitchen from the road, of wood and pebbley mortar construct.  The banal occupations of just staying alive have kept me from my history stalker status for too long.  Glad to be back at it, unexpectedly reinvigorated by this modest and lonely old church, standing quietly in its field.

I will say that Austin in this early steamy summer is pretty and charming south of the river.  The big tangle of green paired with two years of inordinate rainfall has the lightning bugs out in force, and they're at their densest in unmanaged green spaces.  Apparently the eggs lay in the earth for about a year before hatching upon us, and in heavy rainfall, they germinate like whoa.  They float and twinkle in the dusk all over this area, they flow into my house when I open the door sometimes, they're so thick.  Ugly bugs in the light, but neverendingly charming outside.



The lush greenness, with the magnolias and the occasional willow and the crawling crawling vines does suit the mental image I had of Louisiana as a kid, which was where I thought I'd end up!  Funny to think of it now with New Orleans in such a terrible state and my new awareness of humidity and my desire to personally strangle most religious conservatives with my own ungloved hands, but you never know.

Two more years in Austin, I think.  Barton Springs Baptist Church updates forthcoming.

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