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The history of San Antonio depends on perspective. Though usually centered on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, the events preceding that fateful moment run much deeper into colonial history and include a complex mix of cultures.
Tricentennial-themed events and celebrations have told us that indigenous peoples, Mexicans, Franciscans, Canary Islanders, and Tejanos built a society here long before the Texan Republicans arrived, who adopted many long-established Tejano laws and traditions.
Africans are usually left out of these stories despite their fundamental role in early Atlantic exploration and settlement in the Americas, a history long told in oral traditions but only beginning to reach mainstream awareness.
Walk On The River: A Black History of the Alamo City, a locally produced documentary film by Logic Allah and Aundar Maat, begins to tell that story, unearthing 100 years of San Antonio history from the perspective of African-American community builders.
The film premieres Friday, Aug. 17, at the Carver Community Cultural Center, with its filmmakers and many of its interviewees present.
Walk On The River focuses on black community leaders who built the East Side from the scraps of the post-Reconstruction era, suffered segregation under Jim Crow laws, and thrived despite the significant challenges of enduring racism.
Allah and Maat made the film, they said, due to a deep sense of responsibility to record this history before crucial stories are lost to time.
“That is a responsibility of any people,” Maat said, “to record their story and to tell their story.”
In conversations as the idea for the film developed, Maat and Allah realized time was of the essence. Their interview subjects were community elders and scholars, who acknowledged they won’t be around much longer to tell the history of San Antonio’s East Side.
“At the same time, the community is changing so quickly,” Maat said, with historical sites at risk for redevelopment, and buildings and streets named for historically important figures changing as well.
“We talked about the importance of not always waiting for someone else to come and tell the story,” Maat said. “But we’re at a great time in history where we still have a connection to the past, because we still have the people to tell that oral tradition.”
The filmmakers began by talking with Ed Glosson, whom they spotted on the steps of the Carter-Taylor-Williams Mortuary across from the Carver Center. With camera in hand, they recorded Glosson recounting tales of the old East Side, including one-time local hero Charles Bellinger, as notable for his political prowess and good works as for his purported houses of gambling and prostitution.
“Legend has it he was the richest black man in Texas,” Allah said.
With the political influence of the black community behind him, Bellinger played a large role in building the East Side. His son, Valmo, founded the San Antonio Register, which grew to become the most popular black newspaper in the community and “throughout the South,” Allah said. Glosson was editor and publisher of the Register from 1979 until its closure in 2004.
Anti-black voting laws diminished Bellinger’s political power, and he was eventually indicted for tax evasion, only to be pardoned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.
“His story could be a movie in itself,” Allah said.
Mexico and Black History
“I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins,” Hughes wrote as a precocious 17-year-old, purportedly while on a train to visit his expatriate father in Mexico.
Mexico plays as prominent a role in black history as San Antonio’s own river has in the city’s founding, according to scholars.
In an essay for 300 Years of San Antonio and Bexar County, the official Tricentennial book, civil rights activist and former City Councilman Mario Salas (D2) writes that “Vicente Guerrero, a black of mixed ancestry, became Mexico’s second president and abolished slavery on September 15, 1829.” Thus, Salas says, Diez y Seis, or Mexican Independence Day, is “as much a black holiday as it is a Mexican holiday.”
Salas quotes scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. as writing in Life Upon These Shores, “Mexico contained the largest free black population less than a quarter century before the Texas Revolution.” Black freedom in Mexico played a role in the Texas-Mexico wars of 1836 and 1846, Salas writes, and a regiment of free blacks from Vera Cruz “killed many of the Alamo fighters who escaped from the southern and eastern walls.”
In They Came Before Columbus, scholar Ivan Van Sertima asserts that African explorers predated Spanish colonialists in “discovering” the Americas and may have brought with them the cotton, maize, and tribal traditions and names that would help establish the economies and cultures of the New World.
Despite these important roles in local and regional history, people of color were relegated to the east side of the San Antonio River by early colonial segregation, including darker-skinned settlers from the Canary Islands. Still, they built a thriving community.
“One of the things that stands out in the film,” Maat said, “is self-determination.” When people are denied opportunities, they create their own, he added.
“You made your own community. You made your own world,” says D.L. Grant in the film, speaking of segregation-era San Antonio.
Grant, branch manager of the Carver Library, cites a list of black-owned businesses including funeral homes, cab services, hotels, entertainment establishments, schools, and churches. “Black people did it all,” he said.
“It really speaks to the creativity and the determination of the community,” Maat said.
Another thing that stands out in the film for Maat is the prominent role of powerful women. He lists a litany of names including Mary McLeod Bethune, Mattie Landry, Vera Williams-Young, Artemisia Bowden, Myra Davis Hemmings, Ella Austin, and even a relative youngster like poet Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, all of whom have influenced the black community in San Antonio.
“Knowing your history and realizing that we have accomplished a great deal, and part of what has made San Antonio great, is what we have contributed to that,” prominent community activist Nettie Hinton says in the film.
A Thriving East Side
What stands out for Allah is the contrast between the thriving East Side of the past and the economically depressed neighborhood of today.
“This part of town was nothing like it is now,” he said. “This was a very bustling community” with homes, businesses, and social opportunities.
Segregation is a quick explanation for the neighborhood’s downturn, he said, but the corrosive effects of such laws are more complex. When segregation ended in the 1960s, Allah said, those who could afford to move to other parts of the city did so, including doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other prominent members of black society. With them went their wealth and influence.
Segregation “created a slow vacuum effect that sucked out some of the most valuable resources in the form of people,” he said.
Leslie Komet Ausburn, president and chief executive officer of Komet Marketing Communications, became interested in Walk On The River in part because of her experiences as a newspaper reporter. Now promoting the film, she appreciates its perspective beyond negative characterizations of the East Side, and its educational focus on “telling a story that many people here don’t know, that’s never been captured” before, she said.
Learning about the rich history, good people, and strong roots of the community should give neighborhood kids “a sense of pride in who was here over 100 years of history,” she said.
Connecting with youth who might not have access to oral history traditions within their own homes, or histories which have not been written, means reaching them at their own level, and with mediums with which they are familiar, Allah said.
“You have to use every medium available to you for education, because not everybody’s going to read a book, not everybody’s going to listen to a podcast, but they might watch a movie,” he said.
The movie will function as a teaching tool, he said, an effort that will begin in theaters but move to YouTube and other formats, with DVDs for sale and eventually a free, downloadable version online.
“We feel this is a community project. We want to make it accessible so people can gain from what we’re producing and the story we’re telling,” he said.
The Aug. 17 premiere at the Carver, an official Tricentennial event, starts at 7 p.m, but is sold out. Organizers are encouraging those who could not obtain tickets to add their names to a waitlist for first dibs on the next screening, scheduled for Sept. 23.