Rediscovered slave quarters in West Campus help tell the story of urban enslavement in Austin
When Joe McGill visits Austin this weekend, he won’t be sleeping in a hotel or Airbnb, as most travelers do. Instead, he’ll unfurl a sleeping bag on the floor of a small 167-year-old stone building and spend the night in what’s believed to be the only intact slave quarters left in Austin.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “I find slave dwellings around the nation, and I ask the owners if I can spend the night in these spaces.”
McGill is the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. He travels the country to sleep in places where enslaved people once lived in order to draw attention to these spaces and the history of slavery in the U.S. He also hosts presentations and discussions on racism and racial equity that are open to the public. The project started 12 years ago when McGill, who does preservation work in South Carolina, noticed how historic sites, like plantations or estates, often leave out the stories of the enslaved people who lived there.
“They would tell the stories of the enslavers, but very seldom would they tell the stories of those they enslaved,” he said. “And when they started telling their story, it was from the angle of the enslavers. … So, The Slave Dwelling Project gives the enslaved people a voice and tells the story from their perspectives.”
This weekend, McGill is staying at the slave quarters located at the Neill-Cochran House Museum, a Greek Revival house built in 1856 that now hosts art and Austin history exhibits. Hundreds of UT Austin students walk by the site daily. Located on San Gabriel Street in the heart of West Campus, the museum is surrounded by student apartment complexes and sorority and fraternity houses.
The Neill-Cochran House is one of Austin's oldest homes, but it was only in recent years that the museum staff discovered the two-story outbuilding behind the main house was originally used to house enslaved people. Now, the Neill-Cochran House is trying to reincorporate that history into the museum’s narrative — and the story of Austin as a whole.
'Reckoning with the Past'
Along with researchers from UT Austin, the museum has launched a project called “Reckoning with the Past: The Untold Story of Race in Austin.” Over the next year, they’ll be restoring the slave quarters to their antebellum appearance and creating exhibits and tours that focus on the structure’s connection to slavery in Austin. McGill’s visit this weekend marks the project's start. The two-day event includes discussions and presentations on historic preservation and racial equity, as well as museum tours and community events.
“Most people don't know [the slave quarters are] here,” said Rowena Houghton Dasch, the museum’s executive director. “It's the last intact slave dwelling in Austin and a resource for all of us who would like to better understand our city's past.”
What is now known as the Neill-Cochran House Museum, which is named after the two families who lived there the longest, was originally an estate built on nearly 18 acres of land. In 1855, Washington and Mary Hill, a young married couple, commissioned the established builder Abner Cook to construct the house northwest of Austin. Cook, who was the architect behind several other historic sites in the city like Woodlawn and the Governor's Mansion, used enslaved labor in his projects.
Like most white residents of the area at the time, the Hills were enslavers. Their property included slave quarters apart from the main house where enslaved people would work and live. The house was an expensive endeavor for the Hills, and they struggled to keep it. They took on loans and sold five enslaved people to help pay for it. But when the house was finished, the Hills immediately sold it and never actually moved in. Throughout the next two decades, the new owners rented out the site to various tenants, who brought enslaved people with them.
After the Civil War, new families who moved in used the former slave quarters for other purposes and the outbuilding's history was lost over time, Dasch said. When The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Texas, the organization that turned the property into a museum, bought the site in 1958, its previous residents, the Cochrans, had been using the outbuilding as storage space. The family thought it might have been an old smokehouse, Dasch said.
Then, around 2016, Dasch was researching and writing about the house when it dawned on her that the original home had no space dedicated to the home’s upkeep — no space for laundry, cooking or storing cleaning supplies. So, she realized, all those things must have been done in buildings outside the main house. And at the time the house was built in the 1850s, a third of Austin’s population was enslaved. That house work would have been done by slaves, she concluded, and they would have lived in the outbuilding.
“Once we realized what we had here, what we were stewards of,” she said, “it became, very quickly, very clear to us that it was a story we needed to be able to share with the public.”
Dasch reached out to Tara Dudley, an assistant professor at UT Austin’s School of Architecture, to help research and tell the story of this building. Over the last few years, the two, along with UT students, have been delving into the structure’s history, determining what it was used for and who lived there.
Urban enslavement in Austin
Dudley says a major part of "Reckoning with the Past" will be telling the stories of the enslaved people and laborers who inhabited the space. One of the enslaved people the researchers have been able to tie back to the site was named Lam. When the estate was used as the Texas Asylum for the Blind in the 1850s, the institute hired out Lam, who was about 10 or 12, from his enslaver, who received compensation. Lam taught the visually impaired students how to weave baskets.
“He didn't have access to his body [and] certainly not the money that his enslaver was given," Dudley said. "But he was teaching a skill to these visually impaired youth … so that they would be able to have financial independence in their own lives, something that he was not allowed to have even in his endeavors on this property."
When the estate was inhabited by the Neill and Cochran families a couple decades later, the slave quarters were used by domestic workers, Dudley said. Many of these workers were formerly enslaved people who lived just down the street in Wheatville, one of 15 freedmen’s communities established in Austin after Emancipation. Those workers will be highlighted in the project, too.
“Being able to find these stories and to repopulate this site with some of those persons and their voices,” Dudley said, “that’s an extremely important part of this project and a practice that I think is helpful for more closely engaging with the history of Austin.”
Dasch says she thinks part of why this building was misinterpreted for so long is because there’s not a lot of remnants of urban enslavement left in Texas to compare it to. Most people associate slavery in Texas with plantations, where small buildings or cabins set far away from the main house were typically used as slave dwellings. But in cities, slave quarters were often closer and aesthetically similar to the main house.
“To the degree that Texans talk about enslavement during the antebellum period … it's been surrounding plantation slavery,” Dasch said. “So the fact that this building still exists opens a door to understanding urban enslavement in Austin that the city has truly never recognized.”
The researchers says a major theme in this project will be highlighting enslaved peoples' contributions to Austin.
"The focus here is on honoring the skill, honoring the work, honoring the people and their lives and the soul value and all of the things that are connected to our site," Dasch said. "And how those people who were human beings, regardless of what agency was or was not allowed them, contributed to making Austin what it is today."