Early example of integrated Texas school threatened


Houston Mod


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The Stephen F. Austin School (SFA) is historically significant as a site associated with the desegregation of Texas public schools. SFA School enrolled its first Mexican-American student in 1946, and was one of nine original sites for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)-backed “Little School of the 400.” The program, initiated in 1958, taught 400 English words to non-English speaking preschoolers prior to entering first grade. The Little School influenced creation of a state-wide program and the national Project Head Start. 

Architect and Houston Mod member David Bucek pointed out that the school was ahead of its time: “Other schools, even schools that had a Little School program, didn't integrate until the late `60s or even `70s in many cases,” he said. “In Wharton, they did the right thing.”

SFA was constructed under the Public Works Administration building program. The dominant 1935 Modernistic Colonial Revival style configuration was designed by prominent Texas architects Giesecke & Harris. The school is located on the former McWillie Plantation and is adjacent to the Wharton Cemetery which was established prior to the town’s founding. Native American Coco Karankawa lived along Caney Creek at the north edge of the school property. Archaeological resources from the Karankawa, cemetery, and/or plantation are likely present onsite.


In August 2018, the Superintendent for the Wharton Independent School District applied for a HUD/GLO federal Harvey recovery housing grant to demolish SFA and construct 34 housing units. The application was made without WISD School Board or public involvement. The grant process included an environmental review that failed to identify the property’s historic significance.

The Wharton County Heritage Partnership (WCHP) formed in 2019 as a nonprofit partner of the Wharton County Historical Commission (WCHC) with the immediate task of preventing demolition and preserving the historic campus for continued educational purposes. WCHP provided in-depth research to the Texas Historical Commission resulting in determination of eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

WCHP and WCHC are advocating for the preservation of the SFA through the relocation of the proposed multifamily housing development project to an alternative site in Wharton. The National Register eligibility prompted a change in the plan from demolition of the school to repurposing the building for housing and constructing additional new residential units on site.

The developer agreed to preserve the shell of the building and use it for housing. Chair of the Wharton County Historical Commission, Patricia Blair, said that’s not enough.“It would be pitiful, I think, or shame if we were to not be able to tell those stories at the site where these things happened.”

The proposed housing project will diminish the historic significance of SFA and its surrounding site and eliminate the option for preservation and utilization of the school for its historic educational purpose (which would require minimal changes to the building).

Redevelopment of SFA School for housing serves a single community need via the loss of another.

Relocation of the project would allow for a superior housing development project on an unencumbered site, and the preservation of SFA for educational use. The resulting new affordable housing and new educational center would promote positive economic growth and recovery in Wharton post-Hurricane Harvey.

WCHP has said it is prepared to oversee the rehabilitation of SFA school as a Multi Institutional Teaching Center. SFA and its site embody layers of Wharton’s history ranging from Karankawa habitation, settlement by the Old Three Hundred, and the integration of Texas public schools. It is the most appropriate place to promote this history while providing much needed educational community services.  

Advocacy Efforts

WCHP nominated the school for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, which it has now been short-listed for. The school has also been placed on Preservation Texas' 2021 List of Most Endangered Places. 

The LULAC Louise Council of Wharton County has issued a letter of grievances to the Texas General Land Office, Wharton ISD, and developer A2J Holdings addressing concerns with the HUD/GLO grant process and disregard for the school’s historical value.

The Mexican American Civil Rights Institute (MACRI) has featured SFA in a virtual discussion, and the issue has gotten local media coverage on Texas Public Radio and in the Victoria Advocate.

The National Register application, submitted by the Wharton County Historical Commission and members of the Wharton County Heritage Partnership, was officially listed by the National Park Service on February 1, 2022.

Houston Mod, which is supporting this effort, is a friend group of Docomomo US and will continue to advocate for the preservation of SFA.