St. John Orphanage

St. John Colony’s reach extended beyond its borders in Caldwell and Bastrop Counties. Its founding members were instrumental in building Black institutions throughout Central Texas. Before the actual foundation of the Freedom Colony, in 1867, Black Baptist ministers; Revs. Jacob Fontaine, Jessie B. Shackles, John H. Winn(Founding St. John Colony member and namesake), Calvin Allen Sr. (Founding St. John Colony member), Buffington, and Horace Smith met under an oak tree in Austin and established what became St. John Regular Baptist Association. These individuals committed themselves to creating self-sufficient communities and institutions that would serve the larger community. One of these great institutions they created was St. John’s Orphanage and Encampment grounds.

They purchased over 300 acres of land and built the St. John’s Orphanage and Encampment grounds. During July, the Encampment attracted tens of thousands of Black Baptists to Austin for education events, such as farming, finance, and self-determination lessons. Political figures also addressed the attendees. The Austin History Center noted that Barbara Jordan took part in the events in her youth. Barbara Jordan became the first Black elected to the Texas State Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was good friends with St. John Colony native Azie Taylor Morton.

Trailblazing

Booker T. Washington attended the event and made a note of the superb nature of the school. Under the leadership of L.L. Campbell, St. John’s Orphanage was considered one of the finest Black schools in the country at the time. There were estimates of 10,000-25,000 Black people attending these events. An attendance of that size was substantial, considering that there were only 30,000 residents in the city. Austin was not welcoming of large Black crowds converging on the town. In the act of intimidation, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) disrupted the St. John’s Youth choir signing at the State Capitol Building to make a “monetary donation.” The KKK”s arrival to the State Capitol in their regalia highlights the racial terror that white supremacists enacted in attempts to subordinate Black Americans and enforce a racial order. Black successes such as St. John Colony and satellite institutions such as the St. John’s Orphanage and Encampment grounds in Austin became targeted sites for white violence. Black success and self-sufficiency disrupted falsely created ideas of Black inferiority.

What Happened?

Black successes such as St. John Colony and satellite institutions such as the St. John’s Orphanage and Encampment grounds in Austin became targeted sites for white violence. Black success and self-sufficiency disrupted falsely created ideas of Black inferiority.

The St. John’s Encampment and Orphanage stood where Highland Mall/ACC currently is. Years of White terrorism and institutional neglect forced the site into disrepair and the building burned in the 1950s. Many Black residents have claimed the building arson was the cause of the fire.

Javier Wallace

Photo Courtesy of Bureau of Identification Photographic Laboratory, City of Austin, Texas. St. John Orphanage Track, Proposed Naval Hospital Site, photograph, March 13, 1945; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth124411/: accessed June 22, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.