History of the Kerr Family and the Kerr Community Center in Bastrop, Texas

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ew The Kerr Family and the Kerr Community Center 308 Walnut Center Bastrop, Texas 78602 The Kerr Family began its migration to Bastrop, Texas within a decade or so following the Civil War. Beverly and Lula Kerr built the historic Kerr Community Center in 1914. More than a century after their arrival in Bastrop, the impact of this remarkable family of educators, public servants, musicians, and community-minded citizens still resonates in the lives of modern day Bastropians. [This story was pub
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  ew The Kerr Family and the Kerr Community Center   308 Walnut Center   Bastrop, Texas 78602   The Kerr Family began its migration to Bastrop, Texas within a decade or so following the Civil War. Beverly and Lula Kerr built the historic Kerr Community Center in 1914. More than a century after their arrival in Bastrop, the impact of this remarkable family of educators, public servants, musicians,  and community -  minded citizens still resonates in the lives of modern day Bastropians.   [This story was publis hed in a slightly different form, as a series of Black History Month articles, in the  Bastrop Advertiser, February 10 -19, 2005.]     2 The history of Bastrop, since the early years of the 19 th century, is very much a story of peoplewho came to this area searching for a better life than they knew elsewhere. In the 1830s, 1 Anglo colonists from the ‘states’ heeded the call of Stephen F. Austin to move to this promising spotalong the Colorado River. After Texas won its independence from Mexico, others from the U. S. and from Europe, particularly Germany, also began to arrive. And in the years following the Civil War, yet another wave of immigrants, primarily from the older Southern states, came to Texas seeking a new start. Life in Texas following the War Betwee n the States, however, was rather chaotic and, for some,downright inhospitable. Many areas of Texas were particularly dangerous places for the Freedmen who lived or traveled there. The old political order was challenged and in flux, and the Texas economy , still greatly dependent on agriculture, did not enjoy the kind of boom experienced by theindustrialized northern states. The emancipation of the slaves 2 meant a radical redefinition of the economic and social relationships between blacks and whites. Yet, despite these troubles, Bastropcontinued to attract many different people to the area.   One of those who saw a future in Bastrop was Robert A. Kerr. He came here from Victoria sometime before 1880 with three younger brothers who either accompaniedhim to Bastrop, orsoon followed. Robert, John, Henry, and Beverly Kerr not only then lived out their lives in Bastrop but also made significant contributions to the community, contributions observable to thisday.   Robert Kerr was the son of a white father and a black mother, 3 who lived his life as an African - American. Presumably his brothers hadthe same ancestry. All four men have been reported as having done much of their growing - up in Victoria, where they “…were given advantages in the white private s chools…” Their father saw to itthat they received “…a very good background in the 3 - Rs and music.” 4 There is some question, however, whether the Kerrbrothers lived their early lives as free citizens or as slaves. 5   Their father, mother or both also apparently instilled in each of the young men a strong sense of confidence and of duty to the community. Such values coupled with their education enabled them 1    Handbook of Texas Online , s.v. BASTROP, TEXAS, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/BB/hg b4.html (accessed December 20, 2004).   2 Kesselus, Kenneth,  Bastrop County 1846  - 1865. ( Austin: The Jenkins Company, and Bastrop: BastropStationers Press, 1987). Kesselus indicates that in 1860, there were 4,415 free citizens and 2,591 slaves living in Ba strop County. 3    Handbook of Texas Online s.v. KERR, ROBERT A, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/KK/fkeqk.html(accessed December 21, 2004).   4    Black History in Bastrop County, document in the vertical files of the Bastrop Public Library believed tohave been prepared by Mr. T.C.Franklin, who was Bastrop County Supervisor of Schools, 1949 -1968. 5 The  Handbook of Texas Online reports that Robert ma y have worked as a free black barber before theCivil War, while T.C. Franklin discusses the point that the young Kerr boys received their educationaladvantages in Victoria “before they were freed”.  Handbook of Texas Online , and Franklin,  Black History i n Bastrop County.      3   to contribute much to Bastrop. Their ‘good background in the 3 - Rs’ clearly set them apart, not   only from many of the white settlers of the period but particularly from the newly liberated black  Texans. In Texas, 95% of the freed slaves were illiterate; and, by the time we know that Robert Kerr was in Bastrop, three - quarters of the black population were still unable to read. 6 Despite the difficulties of the times, however, the Kerrs were able to lead productive and, apparently,rewarding lives in Bastrop. They were able to do so because of their own good sense, skills, and the gift of an education . Robert Kerr was a leader. He engaged in politics in Bastrop and gained election to the TexasHouse of Representatives for the 17th Texas Legislature, which met in 1881. He was one of only fifty - two African - American men who would serve Texas, as either state legislators or Constitutional Convention delegates, during the last half of the 19 th century. Only twelve African - Americans served as legislators in the 1880s, and the number fell to three in the 1890s. 7 Robert Kerr was in very unique company as a key participant in the first significant political achievement by African - American citizens of this state. As conservative white political domination regainedstrength at the end of the century, he was also one of the last of the African - Americans of not only his era, but several to follow, to serve in the legislature. Between 1898 and 1966, no black Texans served in the Texas Legislature. 8   At home, after his legislative service, Kerr, arguably, played an even more significant political role. While, for years following the Civil War, the State of Texas had struggled with the issue of free public education, the situation had begun to improve, although slowly, by the 1880’s. By 1892, developments at the state and local levels had led the people of Bastrop to the brink of a momentous decision.   In April 1892, an election was held in Bastrop that determined that the City would “acquire exclusive control of public free schools and institutions of learning within the city limits”. The following month (May 1892 ), Robert Kerr was elected one of six of the inaugural group of Bastrop school trustees. 9 He then helped lead efforts to adopt a local bond proposition, in June 1892, which enabled the purchase of land and construction of the city’s first public schools.   That fall, the trustees purchased the land for and constructed Emile School, which also housed the first highschool for black students in Bastrop. 10 This was a very significant advancement for the community. Around 1890, there may have been only one pub lic high school for African - Americans in all of Texas; and, only nineteen such schools were known to exist by 1900. 11 With Robert Kerr and his contemporaries in the lead, the construction of Emile School put Bastrop in the forefront of Texas communities wi th respect to the education of its African - American youth. (Interestingly, one of Robert Kerr's fellow board members was Robert Batts who enjoyed an 6 Barr, Alwyn,  Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528 - 1995, 2 nd  ed. (Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), p. 64.   7   Forever Free: Nineteenth Century African -  American Legislators and Constitutional Delegates of  Texas. A Joint Exhibit From the State Preservation Board and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission,http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/exhibits/forever/index.html (accessed December 2 8, 2004).   8   Forever Free.   9    Minute Book of [the] Board of Aldermen of the City of Bastrop , vol. C, pp. 325 -341.   10    Bastrop County Deed Records , vol. 19, p.109; and,  Emile, a compendium of various articles prepared forthe 1980 reunion of the Emile School, believed to have been written, for the most part, by Mr.T.C.Franklin. Copy available at the Bastrop County Museum.   11 Barr,  Black Texans, pp. 99 - 100.    4   extraordinary legal career and in 1930 became Chairman of The University of Texas Board of  Regents.)   Either before or after his service as a trustee for the City of Bastrop’s schools, Robert may havealso served for a time on the Bastrop County School Board. 12 To earn a living, he worked as a barber and as a bookkeeper for the T.A. Hasler Store in downtown Bast rop, a major cotton buyer,buggy seller and purveyor of other goods. Henry Kerr, like his older brother, is also a highly respected pioneer Bastropian. He is credited with founding the first public school for African - American children under the Bastrop County school system, at the Cottonwood community, about 1880. 13 Henry received his degree fromSamuel Huston College (now Huston - Tillotson College) and taught in various Bastrop schools forfifty years. Henry Kerr lived the longest of all the brothers, dying in 1952 at the age of 94.   Beverly Kerr was the youngest of the brothers. A very versatile musician (he could play “all instruments”), 14 he was a band teacher and the bandleader for Kerrs’ Orchestra . Like Robert, hetoo was a barber. Beverly and hiswife Lula, who was also a teacher of music, and who taught in Bastrop area schools for over forty years, were married in 1889. Lula Kerr attended college in New Orleans and was an accomplished pianist.John Kerr was apparently the only brother who was not a teacher or otherwise involved in the administration of the schools. He worked at various jobs in Bastrop, and died at a relatively early age. He was the only brother who did not live to see the 20 th century.   The Kerr brothers and their spouses shared various aspects of their lives in Bastrop, and were well established here by the turn of the century. Robert and his wife Sarah and Beverly and Lula Kerrlived around the corner from one another, at Pine and what was then called Marion (MLK) streets — in the heart of that part of early Bastrop that was the center of activity for black Bastropians. Various members of the family attended Paul Quinn AME Church in Bastrop.Several older residents of Bastrop still remember the contributions the Kerrs, particu larly Henry and Lula, made to so many young lives through their service in the schools. The Kerrs also shared a considerable talent for music. They had their own family orchestra that played for a variety of  functions and audiences in the community.   As with all groups, however, events and the passage of time changed the make - up and dynamics of  the Kerr family. Robert Kerr, who had been a leader of his family and his community, died in1913 and was buried in Fairview Cemetery. 15 In the period following his death, Beverly and Lula Kerr emerged as Robert’s successors to represent the Kerr clan. They, too, were the kind of people who would make a difference in others’ lives.   The Kerrs had arrived in Bastrop during a particularly dynamic time in our history. Much occurred in the first two decades they were here that has shaped even our own lives. In the 1880s, they witnessed dramatic growth in the county’s population; the building of our historic courthouse; 12 The  Handbook of Texas Online . 13 Franklin,  Emile.   14 Franklin,  Emile.   15 Several sources, the  Handbook of Texas Online included, give the year of Robert’s death as 1912. Hisheadstone at Fairview Cemetery in Bastrop, however, indicates that he died on January 7, 1913.  
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