Time for Some Real Talk about MUNY

The subject of this blog post, dear gentle reader, is a May 1, 2017 op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman by Volma Overton, Jr., son of the Austin civil rights icon:

Commentary: Bills would accomplish what UT hasn’t — secure Muny’s value

I have great regard for Volma Overton, Jr. But this opinion piece is not exactly a street fighting civil rights screed that sticks it to the man.

I don’t live in the bubble occupied by Austin’s black bourgeoisie, so please allow me, with all due respect, to point out a few things:

1. The obstacles my nomination of Rosewood Courts has faced at multiple government agencies are an ORDER OF MAGNITUDE more egregious than anything Mr. Overton writes about in his op-ed. If Mr. Overton’s outrage at the political games being played at Muny is sincere, he should be even more outraged at the actions of the Austin Housing Authority, the City of Austin, the Texas Historical Commission, and the National Park Service in the Rosewood Courts situation. He should be just as vocal about the injustices visited upon the effort to preserve Rosewood Courts as he is about what he sees as the injustices taking place at Muny. I look forward to him authoring an op-ed in on the matter in the not too distant future.

2. The historic preservation effort and National Register nomination for Muny has been lavishly funded and supported by prominent members of Austin’s upper class: Ben Crenshaw, Tito’s Vodka, GSD&M as well as many others. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose district does not include the golf course, is also a prominent supporter, although when asked to support the preservation of Rosewood Courts, he demurred.  In contrast, the Rosewood Courts effort has been entirely pro bono, done against long odds, and without the public support of Mr. Overton and other similar Muny supporters.

3. Which is more historic and emblematic of segregation and civil rights in Austin? A segregated municipal golf course or the first African-American public housing in America? Let me be frank: The Lions Municipal Golf Course is not the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The notion that this golf course was somehow iconic in the civil rights history of the United States was always questionable at best, laughable at worst. Supporters of preserving the golf course engaged in an oral tradition fishing expedition and made it stick. Good for them. But please don’t stretch it too far.

The reason why the property was listed in the National Register at its present level of significance and enjoys the support of Austin’s political establishment is simple: some of the richest and most politically influential people In America, not just Austin, support it. The history itself really does not.

The fact that we live in an era of hegemonic neoliberal governance, where the behavior of individual as opposed to institutional actors is king, is also surely a factor.  It permits people who are usually critical of “historical revisionism” to engage in their own projects of historical revision when it comes to subjects such as the role played by the PWA, FHA, VA, public housing and local government in the creation of residential segregation and its relationship to race and class injustice in our own time.  It also permits rich people whose quality of life is often maintained at black and Latino expense to wax self-righteously about golf course civil rights in ways that are psychologically dubious and shamelessly self-serving.  Austin’s African-American hoi polloi do not care about this golf course.

I do not have a dog in the fight to save Muny. Although I enjoy playing the game of golf from time to time, I have never played there. What I do have a problem with is hypocrisy and selective memory, with overstated and dishonestly convenient usage of black history to serve the desires of Austin’s high society at a time when the city’s assorted race and class injustices are in many ways even worse than they were during the Great Depression.

One last thing:  as a historian and the author of a forthcoming book about Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease, I must also take issue with Mr. Overton’s selective reading of George Washington Brackenridge’s credentials as a Civil War unionist.  As with most historical matters, the history is more complicated than Overton lets on.  While it is true that Brackenridge, like Pease, would not swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy at the outset of the war (although Brackenridge’s three brothers all fought for the Confederacy) and had to eventually leave the Lone Star State in 1863, it is also true that Brackenridge earned his fortune as a war profiteer who smuggled Confederate cotton through the union blockade.  While harboring generally sincere anti-slavery sentiments, Brackenridge also held conventionally paternalistic attitudes toward African-Americans; like Pease, he did not consider emancipated African-American bondsmen to be equals, and certainly not deserving of basic rights such as the right to vote, to serve on juries or to serve in governmental positions.

African-American leaders and politicians such as George T. Ruby found such attitudes insulting and deeply grounded in racial prejudice; they worked alongside actual champions of black equality such as governor Edmund J. Davis to implement Reconstruction in Texas on a more egalitarian basis.

Brackenridge was a prototypical Texas businessman who made his money placing his services on offer to both sides of the Civil War; hardly a principled anti-slavery position.  Overton’s lauding of Brackenridge’s extensive philanthropy is overstated and telling; at the time Brackenridge made his bequest to the University of Texas it was a thoroughly segregated institution.

Other iconic Texas business and philanthropy figures such as William Marsh Rice did the same thing.  Want to read about some of that history?  Read the “Lone Star Yankees” chapter of my 2016 book The Black Crop:  Slavery and Slave Trading in Nineteenth Century Texas.

In short, Brackenridge was the prototype of the typical Texas businessman/philanthropist.  It was he, Pease, and other close business partners such as Charles Stillman, that placed the philanthropy mentality into Austin’s political DNA.  Historical efforts to trace Austin’s contemporary race and class inequality will indubitably find much of the cultural source for what has become a non-profit industrial complex of impressive proportions to northerners such as Brackenridge, Pease and others.

Austin in 2017 is one of the most unequal cities in America.  It is the only high-growth city in America to have lost black citizens.  Mr. Overton’s actions regarding the recognition and conservation of the cultural heritage of black Austin shows quite clearly that there is unacceptable inequality within black Austin as well.

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