Coming this spring – a new elementary school breaks ground at the Del Valle Independent School District. It’ll be named after someone not many folks know: Newton Collins. Not a president, not a politician, not a Civil War hero. So who was he?
The portrait depicts a young man in uniform, an oil painting that lives in the home of Austinite Ada Collins Anderson.
“He [was] born a slave in Alabama, was freed, came to Texas and was a Buffalo soldier,” Anderson says.
Mrs. Anderson is 95 years old. The young man in the painting is her great-grandfather, Newton Isaac Collins.
“That’s a painting that was done from a combination of pictures,” Anderson says. “We had one of him when he was quite young and one when he was quite old so the artist tried to figure it out.”
Anderson tells me that when her great-grandfather left Alabama and arrived in Manor, Texas, he was enslaved again. But he was different from most slaves – he knew how to read and write and had a trade, carpentry.
At the Austin History Center, Latoya Devezin shuffles through some papers that detail the Collins’ family genealogy. Devezin tells me Collins was biracial. His mother was a slave. His father was their master, an Irishman who ordered Collins be tutored.
“If you remember that one person is enslaved and one person is a slave owner – you don’t know how consensual that relationship is,” Devezin says. “Sometimes in the media that relationship gets romanticized. But we need to remember one person was enslaved and one person was not.”
Whatever the motivation, Newton Collins was given an education, something unusual though not unheard of.
“Thomas Jefferson had a slave who was trained as a French chef,” Devezin says. “He happened to like French food – he spent a lot of time in France – so, one thing we have to remember with the apprenticeships is that slave owners could also hire out slaves to do work for other people and get paid for that.”
Something Anderson knows for certain is that her great grandfather started a carpentry business promptly after he was freed in Texas.
“He built the little white churches when you are going north on I-35 and you look to the right,” she says, “the little white churches. There’s several of them. He built those.”
Collins married a freed slave who also knew how to read and write. Together they built a fortune, literally. As communities of freed slaves across the South struggled to build new lives, many barely scratching enough food from the land as sharecroppers, Collins was doing something almost unheard of. He was buying hundreds of acres of land and building homes for each of his kids. That was not all – he also built a church in his community and a school.
“He not only built it but he furnished it and hired the teachers,” Anderson says. “And we always say he hired the teacher and the preacher – you know? The preacher who came twice a month.”
Education was so important to Newton Collins that during harvest season, when other children were pulled out of the classrooms to work the fields, his children weren’t. He insisted that they stay in school.
The communities are still here. That two room schoolhouse, back when Elizabeth Collins was going to school here more than 60 years ago, it was segregated.
At the family place nearby, Elizabeth and her brother Ernest Collins grew up. It was built by Newton Issac Collins. Once we get inside, more happy memories start flooding back.
“There it is – that’s that famous stairwell,” Ernest Collins says. “The bannister that I would slide down and got in all kinds of trouble – I was not supposed to slide down – it sure looks small today.”
It is small, especially when you consider 11 children and two grown-ups lived here.
“Daddy always told me I could do anything I put my mind to,” Elizabeth Collins says, “and I believed him and I believe it to this day.”
Elizabeth says her daddy gave them three principles to live by:
One – in the Collins family girls and boys get the same opportunities.
Two – every child must strive to achieve the highest level of education possible.
Three – every child must learn to build a nest egg.
Sitting in her living room surrounded by pictures of seven generations of the Collins family, Ada Anderson hopes the kids who will attend the new elementary school will learn these lessons and, perhaps, where they came from.
“I’m a real private person – I don’t brag – except now,” Anderson says. “I’m telling my story because it needs to be told.”
It almost surely will be, in an all-new elementary schoolhouse soon to bear the proud name of Newton Isaac Collins.