Bastrop backs proposal for rec center, multicultural museum at site of former school for Black students

·4 min read
A photo of Emile School in Bastrop.
A photo of Emile School in Bastrop.

A Bastrop nonprofit is striving to turn a slice of the city’s history that once represented segregation into one that symbolizes unity.

Emile Multicultural Center/Recreation Complex, a newly formed nonprofit, has plans to build the city’s first recreation center. The organization was established in August 2021 with the mission of honoring the area’s historical roots — more specifically, the legacy of former Emile High School, a segregated school for Black students that closed in 1969.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a letter of intent signifying its agreement to collaborate with Emile to construct the recreation center. The letter, City Manager Paul Hofmann emphasized, is non-binding but acts as “an awfully important statement of what the city’s intentions toward making this partnership happen.”

The organization is hoping to build the center on the plot of land on which Emile High School once stood, which is about 20 acres of land the Bastrop school district owns bordered by Texas 95, Pine Street and Martin Luther King Drive.

The land currently houses a few of the district's soccer fields, but the city is offering to swap that land with the district for a 25-acre property along Lovers Lane, which is southwest of where the fields currently are.

The district had not yet discussed the matter Tuesday night when the City Council approved the letter of intent, but Charles Washington Jr., the Emile nonprofit's board chairman, is confident the district will agree to the proposal.

“We believe it’s going to happen because everybody’s been very positive about it,” Washington told the Bastrop Advertiser. “... Honestly, I haven’t talked to a person in any walk of life who has had any negative feelings about what we’re doing to build this complex. It’s been positive across the board.”

The facility is estimated to cost around $15 million — though Washington emphasized that the cost may change as blueprints for the center take shape. The nonprofit would raise funds and collect donations to pay for the the facility's construction, and once the building is finished, the city would then be responsible for running and maintaining it.

Though the details of the recreation center have not been finalized, Washington said the organization has met with an architect to discuss tentative plans for the facility. The building would take around four years to build and be about 42,000 square feet, with a 5,000-square foot multicultural museum.

The museum, Washington told the council, would not only respect Emile High School, but also honor all the cultures that makeup the history of Bastrop’s community.

“I remember growing up when there were three schools here: there was a Mexican school, there was a Black school and a white school,” Washington said. “Now, that history should be captured somewhere and we think this is the vehicle for doing that.”

The facility is also proposed to have a 27,000-square foot gym which would be open for a variety of sports including volleyball, basketball and pickleball.

At the council meeting Tuesday night, several pickleball players from the community expressed excitement for the recreation center. Gary Moss, the president of the city’s Pickleball Association, said he was anticipating the courts the recreation center would provide for the organization.

The recreation center would also have meeting rooms and classrooms for public use and a soccer field outside.

“We think this is going to be a significant thing that brings people together and unites the city,” Washington told the council.

He added that the recreation center would provide an economic boost to the city by bringing people and companies to the area.

“People want things to do when they come in,” Washington said. “And big companies don't like to bring their companies in if their employees don't have anything recreation-wise to do. And so we think this site will provide that.”

Emile High School opened in 1892. Washington said he proudly graduated from the school in 1963. At the heart of building the recreation center, he said, is building a place where people in the community can enjoy each other's presence and honor the history of the area.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to show the 77 years of greatness and all the people who came through Emile and each class and how they turned out,” he said

Chris Kirby, an Emile nonprofit representative, asked the council at the Tuesday meeting to see the potential of the recreational center.

“This is an opportunity for this city to show what it can mean to really grow through, rather than be damaged by, history that created a school that was specifically for a specific ethnic group,” Kirby said. “What this allows us is an opportunity for this city to become one that is a bellwether for all cultures to come together around this.

“This multicultural center is the center of the city, literally physically and metaphorically, in ways that can show what can truly happen in the same way that Emile was such an incredible cornerstone for the African American community in Central Texas.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Rec center, museum proposed where former segregated Bastrop school stood

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