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Transportation

Decades after Texas took part of its historic farm, a family fights again to save its land from a highway expansion

A woman walks beside a gravestone that reads Marcellus Winston Alexander Sr. and Juanita Rosie Smith Alexander.
Lauren Witte
/
Texas Tribune
Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik brings flowers to her parents’ grave at the family cemetery on their land, which has been passed down across several generations. The family is now fighting a highway-widening plan that could call for forcibly buying some of the land.

With a cowboy hat atop her head and fresh flowers in hand, Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik walked from her family farm on a Tuesday afternoon this spring to the adjacent private cemetery where generations of her relatives are buried.

After visiting the graves of her parents and sister, Alexander-Kasparik headed back to the farm that’s been in her family for 175 years. But first, she stopped at the cemetery’s entrance gate, picking up trash blown in from U.S. Highway 183, a four-lane freeway that runs so close to the property that the wind from the vehicles whirring knocked off her hat.

Alexander-Kasparik was 9 when the Texas Department of Transportation used eminent domain in 1968 to forcibly buy 5 acres of the family land just outside Austin city limits to put in the highway. U.S. 183 cut off what had been the entrance to the farm and left a portion of the property isolated on the other side of the freeway that now runs within feet of the farm and cemetery.

Screen Shot 2022-05-31 at 7.40.59 AM.png
Chris Essig
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Texas Tribune

Decades later, history is threatening to repeat itself. TxDOT plans to add more lanes to the highway that already abuts the Alexander Farm and Cemetery. But this time around, Alexander-Kasparik is determined to see a different outcome. Her fight isn’t only about keeping the private property intact. It’s about preserving one of America’s remaining Black-owned farms — and the legacy of her ancestors who founded the farm while enslaved and defied the odds to keep it in the family across several generations.

“They are not taking any more of our historic, hard-fought-for, blood-ridden land,” she said.

The widening project is still in the planning stages, making it unknown how much, if any, of the Alexander Farm will be needed to support the added concrete. The agency is noncommittal on what it may want, despite Alexander-Kasparik asking for specifics for years.

If the road intrudes on the land or cemetery any farther, it could overtake the entrance to the cemetery and demolish two of the farm’s three houses, by Alexander-Kasparik’s estimation.

She remembers watching her grandfather fight to keep their land intact in the ’60s. Milton Everett Alexander enlisted the help of lawyers, but ultimately, TxDOT got its way and built the road that connects State Highways 71 and 45.

“The taking of it was something that my grandfather saw as his defeat,” Alexander-Kasparik said.

Alexander-Kasparik refuses to see another inch of her family property, where she still lives and her brothers raise cattle for beef, removed. The land, nestled between Austin’s airport and the McKinney Falls State Park, has been blighted by the highway’s noise and air pollution for decades, a daily reminder of the battle her grandfather lost.

First image: A smiling woman stands in front of a family grave. Second: The same woman picks up trash at the cemetery.
Lauren Witte
/
Texas Tribune
First: Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik says she feels at home by her sister Jennifer Fern’s grave in a cemetery on the family property. Last: Alexander-Kasparik picks up trash that has flown into the cemetery. If TxDOT’s highway expansion project moves forward, it would intrude into the family cemetery.

She’s hoping that the historic nature of the property will divert TxDOT from forcibly buying any more of the land. Black-owned farms are increasingly rare in America. Her ancestor Daniel Alexander’s founding of the farm in 1847 was almost unheard of because his enslavers agreed to give him ownership even though he remained enslaved. The fact that it has been passed down through the family across so many generations since 1847 makes it a rarity — and a product of carefully maintained history that’s still present and operating today.

“It’s sort of mind-boggling to think about,” said Amber Sims, co-founder of the Imagining Freedom Institute. “Because during enslavement, Black people weren’t protected constitutionally. That didn’t happen until after the Civil War.”

Despite the farm’s historical significance, Alexander-Kasparik knows she could be fighting an uphill battle. After all, American transportation departments have a decadeslong history of utilizing highway construction to forcibly buy Black-owned land, dismantle communities of color and diminish already minimal opportunities to build generational wealth.

“What the government and white officials did was declare these communities not valuable,” Sims said. “They declared them slums. They called the creation of the freeways progress by comparison of what was there and they took the land, oftentimes at less than the value that it was worth.”


The beginning of a legacy

Daniel Alexander was born into slavery in 1810. He was one of many Black people the McKinney family, whose namesake state park is now nearby the Alexander Farm, enslaved to keep their ranching and horse breeding operations going.

As Daniel Alexander grew up, he developed the skill of training and breeding race horses, which greatly benefited his enslavers. According to stories passed down through his descendants, Daniel Alexander became somewhat famous for his abilities. Alexander-Kasparik thinks there’s a possibility that a painting of a Black man with a horse at McKinney Falls State Park’s visitor center could be her great-great grandfather.

Encouraging him to stay and providing a place for his family to be together, the McKinney family made a verbal agreement with Daniel Alexander in 1847 allowing him to own 73 acres of land, even though he remained enslaved. According to stories passed down through the family, when his enslaver was on his deathbed after the Civil War, Daniel Alexander officially bought the land from the McKinney family in 1879, despite already living on the farm while in servitude to the family for 32 years prior.

“There were definitely these dynamics in which enslaved people had to play nice and really have the goodwill of white people on their side to make things happen,” Sims said.

The land granted opportunities that most enslaved Americans didn’t have. For one, it gave Daniel Alexander and his relatives a place to remain together at a time when enslavers separated enslaved people from their loved ones, sometimes out of plain cruelty. It also created a chance for Daniel Alexander to build a legacy for his family — something to pass down along generations.

“That’s what they wanted the most,” Alexander-Kasparik said.

And the cemetery that still sits on the north end of the property — where Daniel Alexander was buried in 1883 — was also seen as a way to provide dignity to generations. The oldest marked grave there belongs to him. But Alexander-Kasparik believes some of the unmarked graves are likely older — and were dug before the Civil War began.

“The best way to make sure that the family stayed together forever was to have a cemetery,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “A family cemetery, not a burial ground for enslaved people, but a place where your family is interred and the remains are part of the earth that is part of your land. That’s why the cemetery is so endemic and why it is so important to the farm and it is always important to the farm.”

Tall, slightly bare leaves sprawl across cemetery land.
Lauren Witte
/
Texas Tribune
Trees decorate an area of the cemetery where the the Alexander family believes there are more than 50 unmarked graves.

Losing in 1968

By the middle of the 20th century — more than 100 years after Daniel Alexander founded the family farm — Milton Everett Alexander ran the farm. The property’s dairy farm thrived and serviced various establishments in the area, such as Superior Dairies, according to Alexander-Kasparik. In 1967, the farm transitioned to primarily raising cattle for beef. The farm completely stopped milk production in 1970, when a fire burned down the dairy barn. The family has always speculated the fire was intentionally set by local Ku Klux Klan members.

Alexander-Kasparik said her grandfather was a kind, stoic yet stern and incredibly sweet man. Though he tried, Milton was unsuccessful at stopping TxDOT from building U.S. Highway 183 through the family’s property in 1968. There’s a piece of Alexander land east of the cemetery that relatives called “the bottom,” due to the land being a low-lying parcel connected to Cottonmouth Creek. Before the road came through, the Alexander descendants would use “the bottom” as a planting area for corn, melons and cucumbers and to grow food for cows.

But the highway separated that piece of land from the farm and the cemetery. It now sits isolated on the other side of U.S. 183.

Alexander-Kasparik grew up in the oldest house on the farm, which sits front and center, directly off the highway. She and her relatives sat on its wraparound porch and watched as TxDOT built the highway next to their front door.

The family is unable to locate documents stating how much TxDOT paid them in 1968 for their 5 acres of land. Neither is TxDOT. But according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center, in 1971, the earliest year listed, the median value of rural land in Central Texas was estimated to be $170 per acre.

Two years after the highway was first built, Alexander-Kasparik said the family suffered another degradation. A street on either side of the highway — that also runs directly in front of the farm — was paved and renamed Colton Road, after a nearby tiny town whose prime crop in the 1800s was cotton.

“It has an undeniable connection to slavery,” Alexander-Kasparik said.

Her grandfather died a few years after that road’s renaming. And even though she was a child, Alexander-Kasparik promised her mother she would fight to get the name of the road changed.

“I’m just speaking personally — it was a slap in the face,” she said.


Trying isn’t enough

Alexander-Kasparik still lives on the farm in the house closest to the highway. She spends her days caring for her calf longhorn — Rosie, Too — and overseeing repairs to the three main houses on the land, which are connected to U.S. Highway 183 by a driveway.

The home sitting closest to Colton Road was the home of Alexander-Kasparik’s great-great-great grandmother Ceny Alexander. A brick house, the farthest home from the highway, was built in 1990 for Alexander-Kasparik’s parents to live in as they grew older.

First image: Two cows stand in a field with a barrier between the two of them. Second: A woman gestures toward a burned down milk barn.
Lauren Witte
/
Texas Tribune
First: Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik’s calf longhorn “Rosie, Too” stays in a separate feeding area from the older cattle to ensure she gets a fair share of food. Last: Standing steps from the gate that separates the homes on the land from the farm animals, Alexander-Kasparik explains the process of the family’s milk production, which ceased after the milking barn burned down in 1970.

Alexander-Kasparik’s brothers, Marc and Gerald Alexander are the main caretakers of the animals on the land.

The two men start the day early, often greeted by the smell of manure and wet grass as the cows wait to be fed. Rosie, Too has to be separated from the other animals in order to get her fair share of food due to her small size. They feed the cows quality grain to increase their worth as beef cattle, preparing them to be sold.

The two brothers are usually accompanied by three fellow farmworkers who tend to goats on the farm, assuring they are eating enough shrubbery to keep the farm maintained. They also check if the farm is safe from predatory animals like wildcats and tend to construction work on a barn.

“My brothers are extremely loving human beings — they were raised to love animals,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “They were raised to continue the traditions of my ancestors who understood the importance of farm animals to life.”

That’s how it’s been on the farm in recent years. Then, in November 2019, Alexander-Kasparik received a postcard in the mail, notifying her of a TxDOT meeting about plans to expand U.S. Highway 183.

At the meeting, the family learned the four-lane highway was projected to widen to 12 lanes. With the road already bordering the farm — and in close proximity to the cemetery and houses near the eastern edge of the property — Alexander-Kasparik realized that any expansion put the family legacy at risk.

In February 2020, family members met with TxDOT staffers to dissuade the agency from taking anymore of the Alexander Farm. It did little to eliminate their fears.

“TxDOT said it would try,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “Try if it was possible to prevent another taking from us. ‘Try if it’s possible’ — that has to be the weakest, least committal statement I have ever heard.”


An uncertain future

Alexander-Kasparik quickly adopted a new life mission: convincing state and regional officials that her family’s land, rich with almost two centuries of history, is important enough to be saved.

She is also working with organizations to guarantee that the farm and cemetery Daniel Alexander founded and left behind will continue to be around for years to come.

The Hill County Conservancy is a nonprofit land trust that helps preserve natural areas and cultural sites throughout Central Texas. Frank Davis, its chief conservation officer, has connected the Alexander descendants to financial resources, including those from the federal government, to help with farm infrastructure upkeep and improving soil health.

“It isn’t necessarily always about some big tract of land with the most majestic creek or river on it and hills and whatnot — sometimes it’s about preserving these cultural, you know, legacies or relics that still exist and Alexander Farm is far more than even a relic,” Davis said. “It’s an intact working farm.”

The family now believes that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 could have helped prevent TxDOT’s use of eminent domain decades ago. Alexander-Kasparik said her grandfather was never informed of this and, thus, wasn’t able to argue that TxDOT should find an alternative route for the highway.

“It should have protected us but it didn’t,” Alexander-Kasparik said of the 1966 law.

They’re now using the act to try and preserve the land now. It requires transportation departments to conduct an investigation and determine if land impacted by projects receiving federal funds have historical significance. But it doesn’t prevent the use of eminent domain if the government agency determines no other routes are feasible.

The farm is historically certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture under its Family Land Heritage program, which recognizes farms that have been in operation for 100 years or more. The Alexanders were also recognized as a founding Black Austin family since 1977 by the Carver Museum. The designation can be seen in a permanent exhibit at the museum.

Alexander-Kasparik said TxDOT promised there would be another open meeting about the project in March 2021 — and that the agency would conduct an environmental evaluation of the farm, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The meeting never occurred. Neither did an environmental evaluation of the land.

Diann Hodges, a TxDOT spokesperson, told The Texas Tribune earlier this year that the project was put on hold in December 2020 but TxDOT will “always try to avoid impacts to eligible or designated historic properties if at all possible.”

Earlier this month, Hodges told the Tribune that planning activities on the expansion project will resume.

“Public outreach and detailed studies should begin later this year and the Alexander family will be notified on any public meetings,” Hodges said.

But Alexander-Kasparik said the agency ghosted her for more than a year. TxDOT reached out to Alexander-Kasparik earlier this month, several weeks after the Tribune began asking the agency about the widening project. But for the Alexander descendants, the lack of communication for so long further stoked their fear and mistrust.

“They’ve already psychologically traumatized us,” Alexander-Kasparik said.

Family members and TxDOT staffers met to discuss the project last week. In an email the day after the meeting, Hodges said the project was still in the early planning process and confirmed that no drastic major decisions have been made about what land will be needed.


Honoring ancestors

To be sure, Alexander-Kasparik sees hope on some fronts. The Federal Highway Administration last year told TxDOT to halt a highway improvement project in Houston as the federal agency investigates civil rights complaints about its impacts.

After spending months lobbying Travis County officials to change Colton Road’s name, Alexander-Kasparik said Travis County commissioners will vote on the matter in June.

Alexander-Kasparik said she’s been told there’s enough support to rename the road Daniel Alexander Way. She said the name is fitting because it represents the legacy, survival and resilience of Daniel Alexander and her family.

“It’s persevering, it’s persistence, it’s all those things that are the reason black people are still in the United States in any number and, culturally, in such a major way,” she said.

Still, Alexander-Kasparik can’t escape the forever feeling of being on edge and knowing at any instant TxDOT can decide to erase part of her family’s legacy. Alexander-Kasparik said her only choice is to fight, the same way her grandfather did and the same way Daniel Alexander did to secure a land of legacy for their family.

“Black people, people of color, the folks whose land was taken for the freeway system in the ’50s and the ’60s [and] the interstate system cannot continually be exposed to this kind of trauma, hurt, pain and taking,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “You can’t just keep beating on the same people.”

From the Texas Tribune

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