Pomp and Circumstance is Not Historic Preservation

In a sign of how backwards and behind the times historic preservation is in Austin, the newly installed (permanent) director of Austin’s Parks department issued this memo to the Assistant City Manager about the burials desecration “burgeoning scandal” at Oakwood Cemetery.

Sadly and predictably, the memo does not address the concerns and questions I have raised, namely the issues of 1. Why were qualified African-American archaeologists not placed in charge? 2. Why are African-Americans not performing the bioarchaeology, DNA analysis, and identification of Next of Kin? 3. Will the sewage line be removed and re-routed?

Instead, the memo focuses on the future. It focuses on funerary rites and plays up a “community engagement process” (eye rolls please) supposedly governing or at least influencing city decision making. “Potential” future offerings include signage, an educational symposium, an interpretive plan, and more.

Experts Without Expertise

When I examine the CV’s of the people hired by the city to perform the archaeology at this project, I do not see individuals with demonstrated knowledge, skills, or expertise in African-American culture, history, or archaeology. Nor do I see such know-how in the city decision-makers in charge of this project. Perhaps they thought that they did not need such knowledge. However over 40 years of African-American archaeology conducted at plantations, homes, slave ships and elsewhere demonstrates otherwise. Furthermore, the close proximity of important local and public resources at the University of Texas or in the private sector with firms such as mine, demonstrates how monumental of a conceptual flaw such self-serving chauvinism actually is, and how it can perpetuate systems of institutional inequality and racism.

The inadvertent discovery of these unfortunate souls was never purely a religious or scholarly one, it was also a political and material issue. From a municipal governance perspective, if ever there was a project crying out for minority–not white female–contracting, it was this one. Who did the white women in charge hire? A firm certified as a (white) woman owned business.

I know some of you reading the above paragraph will be doing so with an elevated pulse (perhaps a “warm and moist” one), but the fact that white women have been the primary employment and contracting beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, especially in cities like Austin, is uncontroversial and has been documented in many studies, including the city’s own disparity analyses.

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Of Monuments, Markers, and Ceremonies

If the sheer volume of its monuments, markers, and celebrations are any indications, Texas sure seems to have a lot of history. The lack of historic landmarks in Austin is curious, considering that for many years Texas had more historical markers than the rest of the United States combined. So what has been happening at Oakwood Cemetery is taking place within a context of Eurocentric hubris.

Alas, even Afro-Texans sometimes play this game, especially politicians. Remember the ill-fated Juneteenth Monument that former Houston state representative Al Edwards wanted to install on the capital grounds? The fact that one of the monument’s statues looked rather conspicuously like the representative himself turned into an ongoing joke at the state capitol and among outside observers until former state senator Rodney Ellis finally put the matter to bed in 2011.

I return to some of my earlier criticism of former Austin city councilmember Ora Houston: she should have consulted more experts, not just “the community” whatever that means in Austin these days. We could have educated her about the distinctions between a system that routinely commemorates the banal and the stupid, and genuine heritage preservation that matters.

In 1990 Norman Krumholz and John Forester authored a classic in the library of progressive planning. In Making Equity Planning Work: Leadership in the Public Sector (Temple University Press) Krumholz and Forester wrote that the “practical paradox of professional style” is that “neutral action in a world of severe inequality reproduces that inequality.” It is a travesty that for all the talk about “equity” in Austin that nearly no one has bothered to point out that progressive alternatives were always available. The lack of equity in Austin is a choice. The Oakwood fiasco is just another example.

In order for the Oakwood Cemetery situation to be resolved properly, at least some accountability must be part of the equation. In a gentrifying city that pays ample lip service to “undoing” its decades of racial discrimination (remember the now mostly forgotten “Spirit of East Austin” initiative?), the sulphurous stench of cemetery desecration makes the city council’s “affordability” and equity talk seem contrived and supercilious.