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On Friday, members of Greater Corinth Baptist Church held a dedication for a renovated mansion that once belonged to one of the most fascinating and colorful figures in San Antonio’s 300-year history.
The house on church property at 500 S. New Braunfels Ave. once belonged to Charles Bellinger, a political boss, entrepreneur, and gambler who had a deep and lasting impact on the city. In the early 20th century, Bellinger forced City Hall to bring much-needed services to the East Side, including paved streets, sewers, and a library. He did this by assembling a reliable bloc of black voters who voted as a group to support Bellinger’s preferred candidates.
“They had something to win by going with Bellinger,” said Herbert Bailey, a former professor at St. Philip’s College who has studied Bellinger and the political machine he built.
Bailey was among those who spoke at the dedication ceremony Friday that drew some of Bellinger’s relatives.
“I had always heard that he was important and influential to the black community here,” said Mary Anne Walker, whose grandfather, Noah Bellinger, was Charles’ brother.
While the family remained prominent in San Antonio, the power of Bellinger’s machine declined after his death in 1937.
In the late 1940s, Bellinger’s son Valmo, who took over many of his father’s businesses and founded the black newspaper the San Antonio Register, sold the family estate to the Greater Corinth Baptist Church.
Over the decades, the congregation has used it for services, offices, and social events like cotillion balls, church members said.
The congregation also used the house and others buildings constructed later on the former Bellinger property for community services such as youth ministry, clothing distributions, showers, and the distribution of free hot meals five days a week.
“There were people in the church that worked at Luby’s, Joske’s, and Earl Abel’s,” church member Mary Roberson said. “Those ladies cooked in that little snack bar and prepared meals for the members who wanted to take food home on Sundays.”
Nowadays, Greater Corinth members still consider practical service like this to be an important part of their ministry.
“With [Valmo Bellinger] selling his property to the Greater Corinth family, who was already doing work in the community, I think it just combines it all,” said Melanie Brooks, a church member who has deep roots in some of Bexar County’s early black families.
“The services that [Charles Bellinger] represented continue through the Greater Corinth family while we are situated on what was formerly his property,” Brooks continued. “I think it’s a great correlation.”
‘Winning, Winning, Winning’
Charles Bellinger never intended to make his future in San Antonio. Born in 1875 and raised in Lockhart, he developed a knack for gambling. He was on his way to Reno when he stopped for a poker game in San Antonio, Bailey said.
“He won $10,000 the first night he was here,” Bailey said. “He said, ‘This is my Reno right here.’ … He kept winning, winning, winning. That’s what made him decide to stay here.”
Starting with a series of gambling dens, Bellinger’s businesses grew to include pawnshops, counting houses, lotteries, and real estate. He also had a bootlegging operation during Prohibition, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
He would often provide credit for black homebuyers who couldn’t get loans elsewhere, Bailey said.
He opened Bellinger’s Café and a taxi service, Bellinger Auto Livery, on East Commerce Street. Roberson recalled riding in a Bellinger taxi as a young girl. The driver’s formal dress made an impression on her.
“With the black cap, the black suit, the bow tie, and white shirt … they looked like chauffeurs,” Roberson said.
Bellinger was instrumental in creating San Antonio’s first black library, which also served as a social venue. Today, the Carver Community Cultural Center offers arts, education, and community programming with an emphasis on its African and African-American heritage.
In one 1993 history of neighborhoods near the Alamodome, a local pastor told historians how as a young boy he would see Bellinger jogging slowly from his house on New Braunfels Avenue down to Houston Street, followed by a chauffeur in a black limousine.
Bellinger would then ride in the limo back to his house at the top of the hill, often opening his door to give the boy a ride.
The Political Machine
Bellinger’s house, built in the 1920s, is on the same tier as luxury mansions from a similar vintage in white neighborhoods like Monte Vista or Olmos Park – places Bellinger would not have been allowed to build.
Denver Heights had a relatively integrated population, with black homeowners living alongside whites. Their new neighbor, the richest black man in Texas, built his home at the top of the hill with what at the time was a clear view of downtown.
Unlike many Southern cities, San Antonio never had racial segregation written into its ordinances. Instead, segregation was a social and cultural norm, enforced by custom.
“I imagine him buying this property might have brought up some angst,” Brooks said.
Bellinger’s political machine allowed him and his family to break many of the racial rules of the Jim Crow South. He started by building a network of black pastors, gaining their support by promising to have the streets in front of their churches paved according to the 1993 report.
Eventually, Bellinger controlled between 5,000 and 8,000 votes, according to one source. That amounted to approximately 25 percent of the total voter rolls.
Though he never ran for political office himself, he became San Antonio’s main political kingmaker at the time.
“He was only a politician in that he helped other people to achieve their goals,” said Valmo Bellinger’s wife Josephine in a 1982 oral history interview. “He was very prominently identified here, very widely respected.”
That kind of power forced San Antonio’s Anglo political elite to respect Bellinger. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, there was virtually no way to win a local political office in San Antonio without the approval of Bellinger’s machine.
“You could tell the outcome of the whole election based on how many people he brought,” Bailey said.
Racism’s Effects Still Felt
Despite his influence, even Bellinger and his family still at times dealt with racist words and actions.
In 1931, a “crudely constructed wooden cross about five feet high, wrapped in cloth and rags” was found burning on Bellinger’s lawn, according to the 1993 report, which cited the San Antonio Register. The burning cross was a sign of the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in the 1920s.
Ironically, one of Bellinger’s biggest political allies was a white former San Antonio mayor with reported ties to the Klan.
In 1936, Bellinger was convicted on federal charges of income tax evasion. He served 18 months at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
After his release, C.K. Quin, a reported Klan member who was also part of Bellinger’s political machine, used his connections in the Democratic party to secure a pardon for Bellinger from then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Because of Charles Bellinger’s conviction and ties to San Antonio’s criminal underworld, some Greater Corinth members are still a bit sensitive more than 80 years later about people thinking the church was affiliated with his businesses or political machine.
“We had absolutely nothing to do with the father,” said retired educator and longtime church member Dolores Lott during an interview in mid-August. She reiterated the point twice more.
The House Changes Hands
In the late 1940s, Charles Bellinger’s son Valmo sold the estate the size of a whole city block to the church for only $35,000, then made a $5,000 donation to its coffers, members said.
Many church members find it a bit strange that the property wound up in Greater Corinth’s hands, especially since the Bellingers did not belong to the church.
“Everybody wants to know: Why did he sell it for $35,000?” Lott said. “We don’t know that.”
Whatever the reason for the deal, the Bellinger property became Greater Corinth’s longest-lasting home. The congregation was founded in 1905, and at the time had been meeting at a location at the corner of Connelly and Dakota streets, said Rev. Stanley Sparrow, its pastor, at the dedication.
“When they moved here, the name changed for the second time from Corinth to Greater Corinth,” Sparrow said. “If we move again, if that should ever happen, I don’t know what we’ll call it – maybe Greater Greater.”
Even before the renovation, the house was in remarkably good shape. On the upper floors, stained-glass windows, a brick fireplace, exterior molding designs, and vents that move with the wind are some of the features that remain.
Downstairs, contractors remodeled and repainted the interior to arrange space for the church’s administrative offices. The upstairs bedrooms remain relatively unchanged, with Bellinger’s original fireplace, bathtub, and sink still in place.
“If one of us owned a home like this today, we’d be pretty impressed,” said former Mayor Ivy Taylor, a Greater Corinth member who spoke at Friday’s dedication.