Melanie Brooks stands in the cemetery of her relatives. "We want to forget" she says in response to the lack of taught history of the African-American population.
Melanie Brooks stands in the Northside cemetery where her relatives are buried, her family's story and others are the subject of ongoing research by members of the San Antonio African-American Community Archives and Museum. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When a small group of San Antonians interested in local African-American history approached the City’s Tricentennial Commission, its members hoped it would be their chance to share with the whole city the rich trove of stories they had uncovered.

After two meetings with Tricentennial officials, they came away feeling unheard, although the Tricentennial’s new director, Carlos Contreras, says the commission is working to be more inclusive in its presentation of San Antonio’s diverse communities.

It was another disappointment for members of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, a small group of residents focused on unearthing hidden historical information and presenting it to the public. 

While the group has found some allies – including the San Antonio Conservation Society and officials at Texas A&M University-San Antonio – members said the Tricentennial Commission and two other local universities they earlier approached showed initial interest but no follow-through.

At the center of the museum group is Everett Fly, a local architect, landscape architect, and historian. Fly, who is African-American, grew up in San Antonio and, since 1983,  has been delving into public archives, interviewing descendants of historical figures, and visiting forgotten cemeteries and other sites.

Local historian Everett Fly
Local architect, landscape architect, and historian Everett Fly Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“The point is, this [research] is not in any textbook,” Fly said. “It would take a different approach and a different strategy to excavate it, bring it to the surface, to format it, and present it.”

In the end, the group did get support from a state university the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – 1,300 miles from San Antonio.

The group of community leaders began meeting about two years ago, talking about the stories Fly and others were helping bring to light. In late summer 2017, they filed the paperwork to become a nonprofit.

The group’s board includes Hope House Ministries President George Frederick; educator and motivational speaker Sallie Frederick, a former principal of Meadow Village Elementary; SNAP News Publisher Wayman Griffin; Sheryl C. Womble, an expert in parliamentary procedure and president of the Texas Association of Parliamentarians; and Claiborne Gregory, a longtime San Antonio business attorney who is general counsel, executive vice president, and secretary of One Cypress Energy.

Their goal is to create a digital archive and physical museum of San Antonio’s African-American history and culture, much like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.

For the past two years, they have been working to weave the stories they have discovered into the rich tapestry of San Antonio’s 300-year history. Their research has further illuminated ways in which people of African descent have been part of this region since the early colonial days.

They explored with the Spanish, settled near the San Antonio River, and fought in the Texas Revolution. They owned farms and ranches and built communities, not just on the Eastside but all over the city. They founded schools, churches, and businesses.

Excited to tell this story, Fly and other members said they met with former Tricentennial CEO Edward Benavides in July 2017.

“We were told to go to the website, just fill out the form on the website, and they’ll get back to us,” Fly said. They did, he said, but they never heard back from the commission.

Benavides resigned as the executive director of the Tricentennial in November, and from the City staff in January. He did not return a phone call seeking comment about the museum group’s meeting with him.

Benavides’ replacement, Carlos Contreras, met with the group in January, along with commission members Joe Linson and Mario Salas.

“They did point out in that [meeting] opportunities that we can have going forward to be more inclusive, and I think that’s valid,” Contreras said, adding that the commission is “going to empower the [Tricentennial] board to go into the community and tell the story of what’s happening in 2018.”

Salas, a board member, longtime civil rights activist, and former City Council member, said in January the group’s archives and museum are “sorely needed” to counteract “half-truths, omissions, lies, distortions, and erasure” of African-American history.

When asked if the Tricentennial Commission can work with the museum group, Salas said, “I’m hoping so.”

Asked about the group’s concerns, the commission’s staff shared with the Rivard Report a list showing that 20 of the 80 official Tricentennial events spread throughout 2018 focus specifically on African-American history and culture.

One such event is a Feb. 22 talk by Fly himself at Texas A&M University-San Antonio about preserving African-American landmarks, efforts for which he received a National Humanities Medal in 2014. Fly said he arranged this event through the university.

Others include an upcoming exhibit at the McNay Art Museum – Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African American Art – and multiple celebrations put on by the Alamo City Black Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Juneteenth Association, among others.

For Fly, this is not enough. From his perspective, San Antonio should be sophisticated enough to have multiple, diverse voices speaking about the city’s history all at once.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not adequate,” he said. “At every phase, African-Americans were there. The story needs to have every voice at every time. Don’t segregate the groups because the general public won’t understand it.”

Fly and the board members were particularly upset by January’s edition of Texas Highways, the travel and tourism magazine published by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Inside, there’s a timeline with milestones in the city’s history stretching from before the year 1500 to 2015. The timeline, which includes 34 entries, includes the names of many notable Anglos and, to a lesser extent, Spanish, Tejano, and Mexican figures.

Only four of the entries mention African-Americans. Three of the references are to “slaves” or “slavery.”

George “The Iceman” Gervin, former San Antonio Spurs player, is the only African-American mentioned by name – in an entry for 1973.

“It’s just like, ‘Is that all we did?’” Fly said. “That’s been the tradition for 300 years.”

In an telephone interview, Texas Highways travel and events editor Jane Kellogg Murray, who wrote the story and created the timeline, acknowledged that while they worked hard to include stories from some groups, others did not get the space they probably deserve.

“Of course, it’s important, it’s really important,” she said of the history group’s concerns. “I like these kinds of conversations. … We could have done better”

As part of her reporting, Murray said she spoke with San Antonio’s Tricentennial employees, a detail confirmed by City Communications Strategist Laura Elizabeth Mayes. Murray said the staffers emphasized the inclusion of the city’s indigenous, Tejano, and Mexican-American communities.

Besides the Tricentennial, the group said it also had trouble getting traction with two local universities.

Fly said that four or five years ago, before the group had officially formed, he spoke with former University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo about a collaboration on the research Fly was doing. Fly said Romo expressed interest and put Fly in touch with his assistant, but nothing ever came of the interaction.

Contacted Friday morning, UTSA Chief Communications Officer Joe Izbrand said it would take time to figure out exactly what happened, because of staff turnover in the president’s office. (Romo resigned from his position at UTSA in March 2017 amid a sexual harassment investigation.)

Izbrand said that current UTSA President Taylor Eighmy “would welcome the opportunity to meet with the research group going forward.”

In an email Saturday, Romo wrote that he knows Fly and has “great admiration for his community work” but that he has not spoken with Fly or other group members about their project for at least two years.

Before approaching UTSA, Fly said he had spoken with Trinity University history professor Carey Latimore, an associate professor and chair of the history department who is also African-American.

“Dr. Latimore was helpful, but when you’d send a proposal, of course it has to go to an academic dean or vice president,” Fly said. “When we’d get to that level [they would say] ‘It’s not the right timing, we’re changing curriculum, we’ve got a new president, we don’t have the money.’”

In a statement sent to the Rivard Report Friday, Latimore said he and his students have worked with Fly on multiple occasions, and he has attended several meetings about the museum specifically.

“However, I am not aware of having received a formal proposal from Mr. Fly for Trinity University to provide funding for a museum,” he said, adding that he and his students “are always willing to assist researchers as interns for projects that are underway and clearly defined.”

(Fly said he did submit proposals to work with Trinity faculty and students, but never asked the university for funding.)

In the end, the most follow-through came from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its Southern Historical Collection. The collection has a three-year grant of $877,000 from the Andrew Mellon Foundation that it is using to help the group and three others across the South get training and materials to archive historical information and tell their own stories.

The grant funding will give the group access to equipment like digital recorders for interviews and a flatbed scanner for historical documents.

In an email, Bryan Giemza, director of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, wrote that they are serving as a “consultant, resource and advocate” for the museum group. Giemza has visited San Antonio several times to meet with them.

“UNC followed up,” Fly said. “We didn’t have to keep begging [Giemza]. He got it from the beginning.”

Fly did credit two local institutions for supporting the group’s work: Texas A&M-San Antonio, where the group has helped uncover the graves of former slaves buried on university property, and the San Antonio Conservation Society, which gave grant funding to support its work.

Awareness Brings Respect

During a January interview at Hope House Ministries on the city’s Eastside, members of the group explained why they are so devoted to their work.

“Something this museum is going to bring to the community is a respect for who we are,” said George Frederick, the group’s president. “You can only get respect when you have respect for yourself. I think it’s going to filter into all sorts of areas for people who stereotype black men and women. Once they know this, they won’t stereotype us.”

George Frederick, Hope House Ministries President, stands next to Hope House Ministries.
George Frederick, Hope House Ministries president, stands next to Hope House Ministries. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Hope House building was formerly home of the Suttons, an African-American family whose members achieved national prominence. Just one example was Percy Sutton, a former Tuskegee Airman who became a civil rights attorney, at one point representing Malcolm X. He owned radio stations across the U.S. and purchased the Apollo Theater in New York.

Frederick, Fly, and the other group members said the Suttons’ story is simply one of many that have contributed to what San Antonio is today.

They described several others they would like to highlight. Take Felipe Elua, a black man of Creole descent from Louisiana, who was mentioned in the diary of a visitor to San Antonio in 1833 as being born a slave who bought freedom for himself and his family. He owned land at what is now Alamo Plaza and fled to Nacogdoches during the Battle of the Alamo, Fly said.

“He’s in cannon range,” he said. “So of course he says, ‘I’ve got to get out of the way.’”

Sam McCulloch, Jr.
Samuel McCulloch

There’s also Samuel McCulloch, a free half-black, half-white man who came to Texas from Alabama and was the first person wounded fighting for Texas in its revolution against Mexico.

After joining Sam Houston’s army, McCulloch was shot in the shoulder during the Battle of Goliad, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

“There are still living descendants of his walking around in Bexar County,” Fly said.

One of the misconceptions the group is trying to correct is that San Antonio’s black community has always been confined to the Eastside. Fly said he has been able to identify 35 black enclaves in all parts of the city from 1865 to the present.

“It was just a matter of if that landowner or speculator wanted to sell to black folks,” he said. “Usually they were marginal-sized lots, they were sold with little or no amenities. Streets weren’t paved, they didn’t necessarily have water or sewer, but it gave folks a chance to own a piece of land.”

One of those enclaves was in La Villita, he said, the historic neighborhood just south of downtown.

That put them within walking distance of a vocational school that once existed in the chapel on Villita Street that still stands today. In 1902, a woman named Artemisia Bowden came to San Antonio from North Carolina to teach at the school, founded four years earlier by the Episcopal Church. She later campaigned to keep it open during the Great Depression.

It was at the time one of few educational options for black youth in San Antonio, Fly said. The school went on to become St. Philip’s College, and the Episcopal Church canonized Bowden as a saint in 2015.

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As part of his research, Fly has also uncovered 42 cattle brands registered by African-American ranchers starting in the mid-1800s, many of whom went from being slaves to being property owners in only a few decades.

Fly has had some of these brands with their squiggly designs printed on hats.

Like the enclaves, the farms and ranches owned by some of these people were scattered all over Bexar County. On the northeast side of town, between what is now Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Loop 1604, black farmers and ranchers at one point owned 1,300 acres, he said.

Ellis Griffin sitting in the family farm yard in north Bexar County, now Thousand Oaks Drive. Ellis is holding the fiddle that he used to play blues music at dances and social events in the Wetmore area.
Ellis Griffin sits in the family farm yard in north Bexar County, now Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Credit: Courtesy / Griffin Family

They left behind remnants, including cemeteries. One belonged to the Griffin family, whose ancestor Ellis Griffin ended up with 300 acres, said Melanie Brooks, his great-granddaughter.

“He had many different irons in the fire,” she said. “He could handle cattle, he could handle horses, but he was also a fiddler. … Whenever there were any cotillions or parties, he would be the person they would go to.”

Gravestones marking the resting place of Griffin and other family members still stand behind a metal gate in a park at the entrance of the Oak Ridge Village subdivision.

Knowing these and other stories will help the entire community appreciate its full history and the dignity and worth of black lives, some group members said.

“You are inspired and enlightened to the point where you no longer see yourself as a victim, but rather you are a victor,” said Griffin, the group’s vice president. “That is the story of the African-American experience … we are people who achieve, we overcome, and we do excel.”

Melanie Brooks wipes at the headstone of one of her ancestors at her families cemetery near the entrance to Oak Ridge Village neighborhood.
Melanie Brooks runs her hand across a grave of one of her ancestors, now at rest in the Griffin family cemetery in a neighborhood off of Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.