San Antonio’s 20th Century History Still an Untold Story

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Courtesy / Rhonda Grimm

Alan Petlin interviews Sheldon Braverman during the production of Impact: The San Antonio Jewish Oral History Project.

San Antonio has more history – and a more colorful history – than any other city in Texas, and more than all but a few cities in the nation. Yet we have a serious dearth of general histories of the city, particularly ones that deal with the 20th century.

I was hoping last year’s Tricentennial would produce more. Former Trinity University environmental history Professor Char Miller did a history of the city commissioned by the Texas State Historical Association, but it was part of a highly formatted, popular series on Texas cities. With only 180 pages, it could only dip into the riches (and poverties) of San Antonio.

Miller is working on a more promising book on the devastating 1921 flood, scheduled to be published by Trinity University Press in 2021, the centennial of the event.

Before that, however, Trinity is publishing a much anticipated work by longtime University of Texas at San Antonio history Professor Emeritus David Johnson, a highly respected scholar. I had the pleasure of reading the first few draft chapters of the book, titled In the Loop: A Political and Economic History of San Antonio. It was fascinating to learn much more about Sam Maverick than the fact that his name survives because he wasn’t much of a cattleman. He was a mayor and a businessman whose activities helped set a culture that would hamper the city’s economic growth and eventually see it slip behind Houston and Dallas. 

Johnson is the kind of historian who buries himself in moldy minutes of government meetings and runs down correspondence of key business and governmental actors. l look forward to the finished product. By contrast, most general histories of the past have celebrated rather than thoroughly examined the romantic stories we thrive on. 

The late Frank Jennings, a retired Air Force civil servant, wrote a readable 400-page history of the city published by the San Antonio Express-News two decades ago, but its title, San Antonio: the Story of an Enchanted City, more than suggests its approach. It was an improvement on a 1934 tome by Frank Bushick titled Glamorous Days in Old San Antonio. In his, um, defense, Bushick was a politician, a longtime city commissioner, not a historian. Before that, however, he was a young editor at the San Antonio Express and in 1901 was instrumental in getting the Legislature to pass its first libel law.

But for the dearth of ambitious general histories of the city, San Antonio has in recent years received great attention through specialized histories. Former journalist Lewis Fisher has made a cottage industry of such books. As the best of these books do, his American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River gives us the context that teaches us much about the broader politics, economics, and culture of the city.

Fisher’s Saving San Antonio: The Preservation of a Heritage was commissioned by the Conservation Society of San Antonio as a history of that organization, but it goes far beyond the workings of that important organization. It also destroys one of the organization’s famous myths: that it used a puppet show to prevent the heart of what is now the River Walk from being filled in and paved over in the wake of the 1921 flood. It is to the Society’s credit that they let Fisher follow the facts as he found them.

There are many more examples, but I’ll mention only two before getting to the non-book that inspired this column. One is Catherine Nixon Cooke’s Powering a City: How Energy and Big Dreams Transformed San Antonio. It’s an authorized account of CPS Energy’s history, but fascinating nonetheless. I especially enjoyed the story of the fight through which San Antonio was able to buy the utility after the breakup by the FDR administration of corrupt national trusts that dominated the industry. It is not something that would happen today.

The other example is The Harness Maker’s Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas by San Antonio native Nick Kotz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for exposés of the meat industry. The book tells the story of his family, the Kallisons, and thereby the story of escape from czarist Russia, migration to San Antonio for its climate, and the growth of and controversies within the Jewish community here.

Which leads me to an excellent documentary screened Sunday at the Alamo Quarry movie theater. Called Impact: The San Antonio Jewish Oral History Project, the slickly produced film sponsored by a number of local Jewish organizations included much more than the charming and at times funny interviews with an assortment of Jewish elders. Like the books I mentioned, it set the broader context.

Courtesy / Rhonda Grimm

A graphic of the Impact: The San Antonio Jewish Oral History Project cover that includes thumbnails of all the interviewees.

One particularly powerful segment regarded the famous pecan shellers’ strike of 1938. Through words and vintage pictures, the film showed the despicable conditions in which Mexican and Mexican American workers, mainly women, sat at long tables shelling for a piece-work pittance. Then it disclosed that the owners of some of the largest companies in an industry that was supplying the nation with pecans were Jews. 

There are some limits to sponsored books and films. The documentary did not name the exploiters. But it did tell the story of how the Rabbi of Temple Beth-el at the time, Ephraim Frisch, took the side of the workers during services, in opposition to some of his wealthiest congregants.

The documentary also discusses the third-world conditions in San Antonio’s barrios, and the polio epidemic, and the civil rights movement. It was not perfect. One section almost seems to say that segregation was heroically defeated here by the efforts of leading rabbis, Archbishop Robert Lucey, and a Protestant bishop. It did mention that a couple of black leaders, Rev. Claude Black and Rev. S.H. James, also played a role.

Courtesy / Rhonda Grimm

Rhonda Grimm

But overall, it is an excellent piece of work by a team of three non-historians, led by Rhonda Grimm, a San Antonio native and Tulane literature major who has developed a career as a computer specialist and web page designer. She filmed all the interviews and expertly edited historic still photographs and brief film clips, acknowledging that her style was inspired by Ken Burns.

Grimm converted to Judaism in 2006, so she said she “knew nothing” about the Jewish community. For that she relied on Susan Butler, a glass jeweler, and Alan Petlin, owner of a flooring company. 

“Between them, they know everybody in the Jewish community,” she said, so they arranged and conducted the interviews. 

So a geek, a jeweler, and a flooring salesman made a documentary that had me thinking that it included the bones of what could be a much bigger project: a series produced with the help of historians that tells the broader history of San Antonio. It could be made for the local PBS station or, even better, for showing in classrooms around the city.

“I’d be all over that,” said Grimm enthusiastically. That’s more than a hint.

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