ALICE EMBREE | AUSTIN HISTORY | Save University Junior High

Portion of ‘Heart and Soul’ mural by Raul Valdez.

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | May 6, 2024

This article originally appeared in Alice Embree’s Substack.

AUSTIN — I attended University Junior High (UJH) as did my mother-in-law and my sister.  I was a ninth-grade student during a pivotal year in UJH history, 1958-59.  It was the year UJH desegregated.  I wasn’t an activist then, but I could sense that the times were changing.

Now the times may be changing again, as the historic structure and it’s landmark murals are threatened with demolition.

I feel fortunate to have maintained a friendship with one of the African American students who transferred to UJH.  It has allowed me a glimpse into what it was like from her perspective.  Saundra Kirk wrote this account:

Top-down integration reached my level in 1958, just in time for me and other transfer students from Kealing Junior High in East Austin to attend the 9th grade at University Junior High School. So, Vicky Kirk (as I was called then) along with friends, Sandra Anderson, James Means, Lois Lyons, and Clarence Holmes became token black students amidst a large student body of white and Hispanic children.

Our ninth-grade experience was pleasant and relatively uneventful, until toward the end of the school year, when our principal, Marshal Ashley, called the black students into his office for a quiet meeting. He told us that we were lucky because we would have a certain day off from school. But, we knew that was the day our other classmates would attend the long-anticipated senior picnic in Zilker Park. At that time, blacks were not welcome in Zilker Park, and Barton Springs was still not integrated. — Saundra Kirk

Saundra remembers the many meetings with the UJH principal to register outrage.  She recounts the activism of the parents of “our token squad.”  Battles were also being fought on behalf of the students who had desegregated Austin High School.  Parents negotiated behind the scene with AISD, the Austin City Council, and the Parks Department.  She vividly recalls the swimming suit she wore.  UJH and Austin High officially integrated Barton Springs that spring.

As a student at UJH, I wasn’t aware that the principal wanted the Black students to “have a holiday” instead of a picnic with their classmates.  Those students persevered.  One of them, James Means, desegregated UT sports in 1964 as part of the track and field team.  He was recently inducted into the UT Athletics Hall of Honor.

As a ninth-grader, I was unaware of the school’s unique origin in 1933 as a collaborative effort of the University of Texas and the Austin Independent School District. More than half a century has passed since I was a UJH student and now the building is on the chopping block.  In an eerie echo of the Waller Creek incident [The Battle of Waller Creek], the University of Texas wants to demolish the building in order to expand its football footprint.  A brief stay of execution has been granted.  The Texas Antiquities Advisory Board recommended the Texas Historical Commission grant landmark status to the University Junior High building in an April 3 meeting.

Time is of the essence.  I urge you to join the fight to preserve UJH by visiting Save the Past for the Future, signing their petition, and learning more from their informative website.

Two former professors of the School of the Social Work, Barbara Anderson and Kathy Armenta, have spearheaded the fight for preservation.  They spell out four compelling reasons:  Cultural Preservation, Historic Architecture, Masterpiece Mural, and Environmental Preservation.

I was guest host for a recent Rag Radio show with both Barbara Anderson and Kathy Armenta, the UJH preservation advocates.  Chicano muralist Raul Valdez, who painted the mural inside the building, was also on the show. 

There is a rich backstory to my alma mater.  The website, Save the Past for the Future, is a goldmine of information on that backstory.  Rather than erase and displace, it argues for the preservation of what is a unique building with a wonderful tree canopy, an exquisite mural, and rich cultural and educational history.  Here are the preservation arguments presented on the website: 

Preservation of Cultural History:  The closure of University Junior High in 1967 coincided with the expansion of Urban Renewal. UT applied for and received an Urban Renewal grant for the intended purpose of expanding UT’s research facilities to the east of Waller Creek.  Instead of research facilities, UT used the money and land to expand Memorial Stadium and adjacent athletic facilities. In so doing, 350 families and businesses, primarily minority owned, were destroyed. These families and businesses received little compensation. The residential area around UJH was destroyed.

With a significant part of its school population displaced, is it any coincidence that UJH was closed? The most harmoniously integrated and innovative academic public junior high was no longer.  With the imminent destruction of the UJH/Social Work building, mural celebrating diversity, and green oasis, will UT athletics continue its land grab to the detriment and erasure of history,

Historical Architecture:  As one of four UT Austin campus buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, UJH holds immense historic and cultural significance. The building was constructed as a result of a local partnership between UT and Austin Public Schools (AISD) in 1933 to create a laboratory school to educate children and train teachers in innovative educational theory and practices. UJH was designed by distinguished architects Greene, LaRoche and Dahl, with Paul Phillippe Cret as consulting architect, and included innovative yet functional architectural features such as split-levels, courtyard vistas and arcades.

Environmental Preservation: The green space that surrounds UJH hosts a myriad trees, including several heritage oaks that are invaluable. Texas Athletics is proposing to raze the building, remove the heritage trees, and level the site in order to construct another football training facility. Recently constructed buildings, such as the Moody Center and maintenance facilities, have increased the impervious cover near UJH. If the current proposal is pursued, the project could adversely affect Waller Creek and potentially create environmental damage. Thus far, there is no indication that an environmental impact study will be conducted.

Masterpiece Mural:  In 1995, a distinguished local artist, Raul Valdez, was commissioned to create a mural in the grand staircase of the school. The mural, “Heart and Soul,” depicts scenes of social problems, injustice, resiliency, hope, and social work’s mission of social justice. It has provided inspiration for generations of social work students, scholars, university staff and visitors of the building. The mural is an artistic masterpiece and is unique among all the art installations on the UT campus.

Help preserve University Junior High.  Football players can walk to the practice field they already have on Red River.  Let’s stop erasing and displacing at the University of Texas at Austin.  Save the past for the future!

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