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Austin's last remaining slave quarters is authentically reopening to the public

The Slave Quarters project aims to bring a more well-rounded approach to Texas history. (Tara Dudley)

Austin’s only remaining intact slave dwelling is finally getting the TLC it deserves as it begins a $500,000, 12-month restoration that will take it back to the antebellum period this month.

Located at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, 2310 San Gabriel St., the Slave Quarters will be reintroduced to the public with new programming and an overnight stay from Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, on April 23. It will mostly be open to the public in the 12 months it is being restored.

Rowena Dasch, NCHM’s executive director, and Tara Dudley, historic preservation consultant and UT architecture assistant professor, said since 2016 they have been working to research the building’s history and undo changes made since it was last inhabited by enslaved people. By reverting the dwelling back to its original form, they hope it can show the full spectrum of history in Austin.

The Neill-Cochran House in the 1850s. (NCHM)

“There are many individuals who feel like they don't have agency or ownership of that history and that information and we definitely want to be able to open those doors and have those conversations and to hear those voices from the community,” Dudley said. “That history that is either less known or ignored, but definitely marginalized and continues to be in many ways.”

McGill, a former Civil War reenactor, said he founded The Slave Dwelling Project in 2010 to bring attention to the history that has been swept under the rug. McGill, who doesn’t often visit Texas and said the monument is a rarity, does this by sleeping in these structures and giving fireside chats.

(Joe McGill)

“We, as Americans, are proud and we should be proud because we are members of probably the greatest nation on this planet, but in obtaining this greatness we committed some atrocities along the way,” McGill told Austonia. “Recognizing these atrocities should be what we all do. There's this effort to quash that element of our history by proclaiming it prohibitive to our youth and I think that's going in the wrong direction.”

Dudley said the building was likely built by enslaved individuals working for Abner Cook—a prominent builder behind the Texas Governor’s Mansion—with 14-inch thick walls, four inches thinner than the main house, and packed dirt floors that would be upgraded to brick pavers in the 1960s.

Since the exterior of the building most likely looked very similar to now, Dudley said restoring the Slave Quarters interior to its pre-1865 state required learning about the previous inhabitants:

  • Lam, a 10-12-year-old boy leased by the School of the Blind to teach students to weave baskets in the 1850s.
  • Jacob Fontaine, founder of one of the first Black newspapers west of the Mississippi who worked a block away in Wheatville.
  • Maggie, a laundress whose handmade laundry soap was prized by the Cochran girls.

The lives of the enslaved individuals who inhabited the home revealed that the ground floor would have been a mixed-use laundry room workspace. After stabilizing the foundation, further restoration will include stabilizing the chimney and reintegrating the first and second floors with a trap door.

(Lauren Graham)

(Lauren Graham)

“We've been saying all along that this isn't about replacing a narrative, it's about rebalancing it so that you'll have a real understanding of the experiences of all of the people who have been associated with our site,” Dasch said.

Dasch and Dudley said having McGill visit “is like having the Rolling Stones” come to town, encouraging locals to stop by for a panel conversation from 2-4 p.m. on April 23 and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on April 24 for free programming and educational activities.

“Texas was essentially one of the last bastions for slavery in the United States and Austin was a part of that,” Dudley said. “In many ways, the Slave Quarters building and the Neill-Cochran House Museum site is a fulcrum to being able to turn toward many of these stories of Austin history, particularly as they relate to race relations.”


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