When was the last time you were in Montopolis? Many Austinites have a hard time answering the question. Sure, Austin is a big city, but let’s be honest: For those of us who live north, west, or south, chances are that it’s been a while since we’ve frequented an establishment or met up with someone in this southeast neighborhood of Austin, Texas. Established in 1830, Montopolis – “city on a hill” – bested Austin’s incorporation by nine years.
Historically, Montopolis has been home to African-American and Hispanic populations. Bounded now by State Highways 183 and 71 and intersected by East Riverside Drive and Montopolis Drive, Montopolis is no more than a blur for many Austinites as we speed by on our way to and from the airport.
In the early 1950s, Austin began annexation of the large neighborhood. The City of Austin – in this pre-Civil Rights enactments era – did little to improve the quality of life of its new residents. Allison Elementary School was opened in 1955, but neither city-operated electricity, plumbing, nor bus lines, came with the city status given to its residents.
In the early 1960s, Father Fred Underwood arrived from Chicago to pastor Dolores Catholic Church (established in 1940) in the heart of Montopolis. He was a young priest who would wear a tee-shirt while riding around Montopolis on his motorcycle.
But he was more than some Yankee who resembled movie star and rebel James Dean. El padre – he spoke a sufficient amount of Spanish – had a deep desire to serve the people of Montopolis in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, including one named Jesus, who sought not just religious righteousness but social justice.
Father Underwood showed up at Austin City Council meetings and the office of Austin Parks and Recreation with a solitary demand: a community center in Montopolis to help mitigate the influence of youth gangs and rampant juvenile delinquency in the neighborhood. His demand was repeatedly rebuffed by city leaders. Whether this demand was too expensive, too soon for city planners, or not what Austin did (wink, wink) in the early 1960s for tax-paying residents who were mostly black and Hispanic – Father Underwood was not deterred. He was nobody’s fool and, besides, he was connected.
Incredibly, Father Underwood secured permission to use part of Dolores Catholic Church’s property as collateral in order to access sufficient loans to build the desired community center. He also leveraged contacts beyond Austin. A brand new community center sprang up, a most unlikely rising, on Montopolis Drive right across from Dolores church, with no help from elected or appointed city officials. The Montopolis Community Center opened in 1964, and the next year it began to serve community families through one of the first Head Start programs in the nation.
President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” funded Head Start and other anti-poverty programs through the Office of Economic Opportunity. The director of the national office, Sargent Shriver, married to Eunice Kennedy, was a good friend of the new priest at Dolores Catholic Church in Montopolis. With Shriver’s help, Fred Underwood bypassed stubborn City of Austin leaders and councilmembers in order to directly receive federal funding for improvement projects in the Montopolis neighborhood.
As Father Underwood continued in his attempts to sway uncooperative city leaders, he referred to Montopolis as “Poverty Island.” It was his way of shaming them into action. In 1966, Father Underwood, again with the help of friends from Chicago and Shriver from Washington, D.C., brought the first bus line to the unpaved streets of Montopolis. Shriver came to Montopolis to take the ceremonial first ride on the bus with residents. The bus line enabled residents to visit health and welfare clinics outside of Montopolis. It was monikered with the acronym PIT: “Poverty Island Transportation.”
Eventually, Father Underwood’s sway with city leaders had effect. In 1971, through city council action, Austin Parks and Recreation Department took control of the Montopolis Community Center. Childcare, community school, after-school programs, summer youth programs, boxing, basketball, and other activities dominated the center’s calendar for decades.
Father Fred Underwood passed away at 76 years of age in 2000. The story of his compassionate advocacy and good community work is little known outside of Montopolis residents and members of Dolores and San Jose (South Austin) Catholic churches.
Today, the Montopolis “Rec Center” is undergoing long-needed renovation thanks to a city bond passed in 2012. It is scheduled to be re-opened in 2020 with a new line-up of programs sponsored by Austin Parks and Recreation and other entities.
Austin City Lutherans recognizes the groundbreaking advocacy of Father Underwood and those who – whether from their home base in Montopolis or from as far away as Washington, D.C. – worked side-by-side with him. It’s in his and their spirit that ACL endeavors to work with all partners – residents of Montopolis, Allison Elementary School and AISD, Austin City Council, Austin Parks and Recreation, Austin Public Health, Montopolis Friendship Community Center, PODER, and others – for the establishment of its ministry and service plans in Montopolis.
Special thanks to Dr. Fred McGhee and his book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood in the “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing. Much of the information in this post is documented in this book. McGhee is a US Navy veteran, historian, archeologist, and activist who lives with his family in Montopolis.