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Over the last 175 years, Alexander’s descendants have fulfilled a pledge to keep the land in the family.

It hasn’t been easy.

In 1968, the Texas Department of Transportation used eminent domain to seize part of their farmland and built U.S. 183 across the southeastern edge of their property. In 2015, the family cemetery was flooded — a result of changes in drainage from subdivisions that surround their land.

TxDOT now is considering a project that would take more Alexander land to widen U.S. 183. The family worries that the expansion — across 400 feet of their property — would destroy two historic homes, one that may have been a Pony Express station, according to family lore.

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Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik places flowers on her mother and father’s grave. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Daniel Alexander is buried on the Alexander farm. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Mark Alexander tends to his cattle on Thursday, June 16, in Pilot Knob. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Mark Alexander tends to his cattle on Thursday, June 16, in Pilot Knob. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

A subdivision is shown that backs up into the Alexander farm. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

A historic home that dates back to the late 1800s to early 1900s operated by the Alexanders which is at risk with the expansion of U.S Highway 183. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain. 

The Alexander Farm has been owned and operated by the Alexander for 175 years. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Most dismaying, they say, would be the destruction of their ancestors’ marked and unmarked graves in the family cemetery.

“We are a 175-year-old presence. That is our home,” said Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik, a fifth-generation descendant of Daniel Alexander who was born and raised on the farm.

“Our lives, blood, dreams and aspirations are here. These acres first acquired by (our) great-great-grandfather and his mother are our identity and legacy as well as everything around us.”

The Alexanders are some of the few Black farm operators remaining in the country. The numbers have rapidly decreased as a result of a history of encroachment, discriminatory practices and weak agricultural laws.

Around the turn of the century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture admitted that many of its services were unavailable to Black farmers who wanted to expand over the last century and a half, forcing many to sell their land and shut down production.

The census reported that Black farms decreased by 98 percent from 1929 to 1997, although disparities in data collected by the Census Bureau and the USDA prevent an accurate count of minority-operated farms over the last century.

“When you put it in perspective, we have endured for 400 years and have not just survived but, as a people, have thrived,” said Deborah Omowale Jarmon, CEO/director of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum.

“It says a lot about tenacity, strength, agility and determination to make a life for ourselves, our heirs and our community. When we talk about land ownership, I don’t know how much we’re telling heirs how important it is to work the land in some sort of way, be it cattle, gardening or farming. The fight needs to be ever-present. We need to keep pushing.”

The Alexander Farm has been owned and operated by the Alexander family for 175 years. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Fighting expansion plans

Alexander-Kasparik said TxDOT sent a postcard about plans to expand U.S. 183 from four lanes to 12 in November 2019. The agency said a study would address mobility and safety concerns linked to population growth and increased traffic.

In October 2020, the family attended a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting and testified that their historic land should be protected. Alexander-Kasparik said TxDOT told them the agency would consider alternatives, such as using nearby FM 973.

“We gave them three options,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “Why won’t they remove us from their route of expansion? The only thing we get is, ‘Yes, TxDOT does this with eminent domain sometimes.’

“It’s unacceptable.”

Diann Hodges, Southwest Texas communications director for TxDOT, said a feasibility study on expanding U.S. 183 had been paused for a while but recently resumed. Public outreach and detailed studies should start later this year.

Alexander-Kasparik said the family also is concerned that an adjacent housing development has encroached upon their property. They have hired surveyors to look into it.

For Black farmers to make a living in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had to live far outside of town. They also had to work together with their white neighbors.

In the late 19th century, Bexar County had a requirement that if farmers wanted a road improved, they had to volunteer for the task.

There are records of Black and white landowners building Old Nacogdoches Road, according to Everett Fly, a landscape architect known for his work preserving historic sites connected to the African American community in San Antonio. They shaped a macadam road, spreading out crushed rocks, up to 3 inches in diameter, so the road wouldn’t wash away when it rained.

“Even though threatening things were going on, they were willing to work and help their neighbors,” Fly said.

One thing was consistent across Black farm settlements: They dedicated land for schools, Fly said. Educating future generations was vital to the newly emancipated settlers.

An 1870s San Antonio newspaper article reported that the Ku Klux Klan burned freedmen’s schoolhouses in the Austin area and across East Texas. Though under threat, the settlers continued to build their communities.

“It took some nerve … for them to do it, but they did,” Fly said. “They went on to have extended families and live their lives.”

Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik tends to her sister’s gravesite in June in Pilot Knob outside of Austin. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Proud history

In an 1880 census, Daniel Alexander reported that he was born in Virginia, as were his mother and father. Accompanied by his mother Ceny, he traveled with the McKinney family to Galveston, where he bred and trained thoroughbreds and quarter horses for the island’s only race track. Later, he continued working with horses outside of Austin at McKinney Falls. Family members said that as a boy, Alexander handled Sir Archy, considered the nation’s first great racehorse.

Alexander, who lived from 1810 to 1883, taught African Americans to ride horses for tasks and racing in an era when it wasn’t unusual to see enslaved people on a horse in Travis and Bastrop counties. Alexander-Kasparik said her ancestor’s training empowered those he taught to flee slavery on horseback.

“That’s among one of the incredible findings about my great-great-grandfather,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “Every facet seems to show the ancestor’s perseverance; it is important to the community, city of Austin, state of Texas and the nation.”

Because of Alexander’s prowess as a bloodline horse breeder and trainer, the gentry afforded him and his peers privileges African Americans wouldn’t have until after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

After their racing days ended, African American trainers — who called themselves racehorse men — returned home and farmed.

While on his deathbed, James Prather McKinney sold the land to Alexander in 1879. The former racehorse man later was laid to rest at the Alexander Cemetery. His descendants are buried around his plot, which is covered with clover and bordered with smooth stones.

Alexander-Kasparik and her siblings’ focus on protecting their legacy tightened after their parents died five days apart in 2014.

Daniel Alexander began his chores at sunrise, a practice that descendants Mark and Gerald Alexander have followed. The brothers raise cattle on the farm, which supports food crops, livestock animal husbandry and a dairy business with six Central Texas distributors.

They were youngsters when they first rose at daybreak to fill milk vats with their father and grandfather. Then it was home to wash up, put on their school clothes and wait for the school bus. Now, they’re training the next two generations.

Alexander-Kasparik said monitoring the reversal of highway projects and encroachment in Black communities across the country gives them hope. In Houston, the African American community has fought expansion of Interstate 45 for 10 years.

The family also noted a recent eminent domain reversal in California. In 1912 and 1920, Willa and Charles Bruce bought two lots and built a resort by the sea for African Americans not allowed on white beaches. The City of Manhattan Beach then seized the private land under eminent domain. In June, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the return of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of the original Black owners.

The reversal came after petitions from family members and changes in state law that removed constraints on land transfers.

“I’m thrilled the family got some activity after more than 90 years,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “It takes so long to claw back what’s been ripped from us.”

Connecting Texas history

Last year, another road was discussed at a family meeting. Gerald Alexander, Alexander-Kasparik’s brother, mentioned that developers were building all around them and that the Alexander name wasn’t present in the area. He suggested they pursue a public street sign bearing the family’s name.

Mark Alexander tends to his cattle on Thursday, June 16, in Pilot Knob. The Alexanders are fighting subdivision developer encroachment and efforts by the Texas Department of Transportation to expand U.S. Highway 183 through their ancestral land under eminent domain.

Alexander-Kasparik remembered that her mother, Juanita Rosie Smith, and father thought it was wrong that an unmarked north-south road that went through their land was named Colton Road in 1970. The move infuriated her mother, who thought it should bear the family name.

Five days before Juneteenth, the family and supporters gathered before Travis County Commissioners Court to request that the road, which older relatives called the “old road,” be renamed “Daniel Alexander Way.”

Winell Alexander Herron spoke of their great-great-grandfather’s legacy in Travis County. The commissioners also heard from Tara Dudley , an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, who studies the contributions of African Americans to American architecture. She said renaming the road would help prevent further erasure of Black history.

Marcellus Winston Alexander Jr. recalled growing up with siblings in the house his grandfather passed down to his father.

“The Alexander family, its farm and cemetery mark a place, an African American cultural landscape that has persisted through slavery, Jim Crow, suburban sprawl and gentrification,” he said. “It’s time the road functions as an anchor to connect our distinct Texas history, rather than divide it.”

Frank Davis, chief conservation officer for the Hill Country Conservancy, said he backed the name change so Alexander would never be forgotten. The conservancy helped the family partner with USDA farming programs, as their grandfather did with agricultural extension services before World War II.

Also expressing support for the change was Katherine C. Mooney, author of “Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom were Made at the Racetrack.” Mooney, a professor of history at Florida State University, said the issue was of national significance.

She said Daniel Alexander worked with thoroughbreds when horse racing was the nation’s sport in the 19th century. Mooney said Alexander was one of the men who came through enslavement to create opportunities for their families and communities.

Rudolph K. Metayer, president and executive director of the Texas Black Caucus Foundation , which seeks to erase racial disparities in health, education, employment and criminal justice, said the name change would help preserve the remaining Black farms in Travis County and Texas.

“To have a working farm still existing in 2022 is astounding on so many different levels and should be humbling and honored in our community,” said Metayer, a lawyer and Pflugerville City Council member.

Several residents who lived along the road opposed the name change.

Three commissioners voted in favor; one abstained.

The road would be renamed.

Alexander-Kasparik said the timing was fitting. She considered the change a present to her late mother, born June 18, a day before Juneteenth.

In the fall, the family plans a celebratory trail ride on the rechristened Daniel Alexander Way . The signs will be placed at three locations: two on the northbound side and one on the southbound side.

Alexander-Kasparik recalled the narratives of enslaved men in Mooney’s book that echoed her family’s experiences.

“The race horse men wanted a place for their families,” she said. “They had high aspirations of leaving something to remember, something tangible and lasting. We’re trying to keep their dreams alive.”

This content was originally published here.

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