One of their own

Earlier this month, alarm bells sounded within the small, increasingly skittish world of Texas historic preservationists when they learned that city officials in Waxahachie were planning to raze eight shotgun houses that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The houses, whose owners live in Dallas, have become a den of criminal activity that has plagued Waxahachie cops and nearby residents for nearly 10 years. Because their efforts to persuade the absentee owners to improve the property have repeatedly failed, city officials determined in January that they had no choice but to call in the wrecking crews.

Any decision to demolish historic properties invariably is met with resistance from preservationists, who have learned to be diplomatic when they negotiate fragile compromises between city officials and the often indifferent owners of historic properties that fall into disrepair. But Waxahachie officials are now discovering how diplomacy evaporates when preservationists are in the uncomfortable position of protecting one of their own.

In Dallas, Mamie McKnight is widely known as the city's leading expert on African-American history. She is the founder of Black Dallas Remembered Inc., a nonprofit agency that chronicles local African-American history, and she is the chairwoman of the Dallas Landmark Commission, the agency that oversees the city's preservation efforts. Just this month, Gov. George W. Bush appointed McKnight to serve on the state's most powerful preservation agency: the Texas Historical Commission.

Preservationists say that as news of the impending demolition spread across the state, they were "aghast" when they learned that the homes' owner is Elza McKnight, Mamie McKnight's husband. Together, the couple is now trying to arrange bank loans and financing for a plan to restore the properties, according to a report they presented to the city on May 5, a move that helped earn them a temporary reprieve from demolition.

But the delay has done little to relieve the tension mounting between preservationists and city officials, who suspect the McKnights used their political connections in Austin to try to force the city to abandon its plans to demolish the houses. The trouble peaked late last month, when city officials received a letter from the state's leading preservation officer, F. Lawerence Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. The letter suggested that future federal funds for historic preservation projects might be cut off if the city demolishes the McKnights' properties.

Oaks says his letter was simply meant to inform city officials about federal preservation laws affecting the McKnights' property, but Waxahachie police officer Nathan Bickerstaff, who has coordinated the city's efforts to clean up the shotgun homes, says the message from the governor's office came through loud and clear.

"They were threatening us," Bickerstaff says. "No city wants their federal funding cut off."

Over the years, Mamie McKnight--and, to a lesser degree, Elza--has regularly appeared in news articles or in the society pages, where she is found discussing black history or accepting some award for her volunteer work. In 1994, she won the Dallas business community's prestigious Willow Award for her work in preserving black landmarks. But when she is asked to discuss the shotgun houses, which have been in her husband's family for years, McKnight grows unusually silent.

"I'd rather not make a comment right now. Thank you," says McKnight, who hung up the telephone when recently contacted for this story.

Likewise, preservationists in Waxahachie and Dallas are reluctant to discuss the McKnights' plans for the property, some saying privately they are afraid that any negative comments they would make might upset the couple and spoil the efforts to save the houses, causing a good chunk of African-American history to be lost forever.

Judy Cross, the vice chairwoman of Historic Waxahachie Inc., a nonprofit agency that is working with the city to save the properties, chooses her words very carefully when trying to describe the trouble brewing between the preservationists, the McKnights, and city officials.

"It's a really touchy situation," she says.

Located 30 miles south of Dallas, Waxahachie is home to five historic districts, and the city's love affair with its own history is evident along West Main Street, where visitors entering the shady, placid city are greeted by rows of majestic Victorian and Georgian Revival mansions. In the center of downtown, the Ellis County Courthouse is cloaked in scaffolding as workers painstakingly return the 1896 structure to its original grandeur--the project is part of Gov. Bush's initiative to save the state's courthouses.

Keep going on Main Street, just a couple of blocks past downtown, and the housing stock grows considerably smaller as you enter Waxahachie's east side, which has historically been and still is home to many of the city's African-American residents. There on Wyatt Street, the McKnights' shotgun houses stand in a row; the narrow, wooden frames lean and twist on their foundations while fresh plywood boards cover the doors and windows.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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