Last Sat., May 16, a group of residents gathered at Heroes Park, the memorial garden on the corner of Washington and Latrobe, to lay down four bricks. Each year, several bricks along the garden’s circular walkway are taken up, etched with the names of late, great citizens and set back in place.
“We’ve got police, two nuns, four priests, ministers,” said Mary Peery, the longtime Austin gardening activist who helped create Heroes Park. She said a person had to have “really done something in Austin” in order to warrant the posthumous honor. Delores McCain, long the face and the voice of Austin Weekly News, was honored with a brick in 2011 after her death the previous year.
The small ceremony last week was also a chance for Peery and her fellow plant enthusiasts to reflect on their body of work — their decades-long struggle to create areas of agency and ownership in some of the toughest circumstances — on a street corner fertile with collective memory.
Before Heroes Park, there was Paradise, the garden at Latrobe and Huron that Peery and a group of volunteers laid down in 1987. In 2001, Peery brought in students from Austin Community Academy and several local artists to layer Paradise with their creativity. They built three colorful, five-foot-high concrete relief guardian totems, a game table made of cement and a mosaic hopscotch pad.
According to the Community Public Art Guide, the “three-week installation process became a neighborhood affair as local residents developed a sense of ownership.”
Children “tripped over themselves” to help with cleanup efforts. Members of the 600 N. Latrobe Block Club “camped out in the garden until dark to make sure the art was protected as the cement dried.” A high school art teacher assisting with the project said the “family that this work was meant to guard came out to return the favor.”
Perry and her band of volunteers have planted dozens of gardens throughout Austin since the 1970s. After Paradise, “we formed six gardens and now gardens are going up everywhere,” said Peery. In 1990, Peery said, she formed the Austin Green Team, lending an air of formality to their efforts.
Heroes Park was first planted in 1992. It’s various accoutrements — the park bench, the brick flooring — would come later.
Mattie Holmes, a member of the Green Team, said she can recall what this corner looked like before its transformation. Holmes said that hers was the second African American family to move on Laramie and West End, a few blocks up the street from Heroes Park.
“It was absolutely gorgeous,” Holmes said, recalling the first time she moved in the area. “Years and years ago, when the neighborhood was different, you’d come down through here and people would be sitting on their porches and they’d see all these beautiful flowers. It was a fountain and a statue here,” she said, pointing at various spots around the corner.
The change was sudden, said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th), who spoke briefly during Saturday’s short bricklaying ceremony.
“When African Americans came to Austin, it changed from 80 percent white to 80 percent black over a ten year period,” Davis said. “[There was] blockbusting, panic-peddling, everything that could possibly go on,” he said, recalling the process of massive disinvestment and disenfranchisement that occurred in Austin beginning in the late 1960s.
“A lot of people bought homes cheaply, because the other people were running. The real estate people were saying to them, ‘You better sell because the blacks are coming.’ People now have homes that are worth $300,000 to $400,000,” said Davis.
In response to the change, Austin organized, with an array of grassroots organizations evolving out of what has become a decades-long struggle for survival and neighborhood renewal. Davis singled out the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC), the social service and activist organization that serves as something of a parent organization to the Austin Green Team, for its decades-long dedication.
“The South Austin Community Council has been the most effective grassroots community organization in the United State and is still going,” Davis said. “When you talk about community reinvestment, you’re talking about Austin. The Austin community stands as a beacon.”
The four people honored with bricks this year by the Green Team — Clarence Langworthy, Clarence Campbell, Michael Scott, Sr., and James Deanes — were all formed by that post-1960s struggle for revitalization that birthed so many organizations like SACCC.
Both Clarence Langworthy and Clarence Campbell were honored for their work with the Northwest Austin Council (NAC). Langworthy was NAC’s second African American president and an influential member of Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, where he was one of the founding members of its evangelistic ministry. He was married for 71 years before his death last year.
“He would always tell you when you were in his presence, ‘Have a seat,'” said Stephen Robinson, NAC’s current president and a former candidate for 29th Ward alderman. “It was overwhelming to hear him say these words, because you know he was trying to make you comfortable.”
Robinson said Campbell, who was NAC’s treasurer for 20 years until his death last year, “was a really quiet guy, but he was really passionate. Whenever there was an action or vigil in the community, Clarence would [have] to be there.”
Davis said he “really got to know” Michael Scott, Sr., when the latter returned home from college and got involved with the Lawndale Peoples Planning and Action Conference in the Lawndale community. He also knew Scott’s parents.
Scott, who died in 2009, was the former president of the Chicago Board of Education. He also served as president of the city’s park district board and its director of special events.
Dwayne Truss, a longtime Austin education activist, said that Scott’s legacy as park district board president is felt in the overhaul of Rockne Stadium and the capital improvements at Westinghouse High School, among countless other projects.
While Scott ascended to the top of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), James Deanes exerted his significant influence from below. Deanes, who died last year, was among the city’s most outspoken advocates for democratic education. He was partly responsible for the state law creating local school councils (LSCs).
The bricks of each of the posthumous honorees were handed to family members, who then tucked them into rectangular cavities in the ground. Peery looked over the ritual like one of the guardian totems in Paradise. As she’s aged, she’s gotten several steps slower but her passion hasn’t waned.
“I’m on a walker now, but I haven’t always been on this walker,” she said. “I’m used to having wheelbarrows and shovels and rakes in my hand.”