The Sutton House gave black visitors a place stay when hotels were off-limits.
By Michael Smith
Three panelists discussed seven questions on the history of African-Americans in San Antonio and the contributions they have made during a discussion Feb.19 as part of Black History Month.
Moderator Yvonne Turnbull-Campbell, research specialist and member of the Black History Month Committee, recited the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson.
Panelists were George Frederick, president of Hope House Ministries; Mario Salas, president of San Antonio radio station KROV; and Baba Aundaar Maat, author of “Kwanzaa Tales of Africa.”
The first question was “With the San Antonio demographic being predominantly Hispanic, how important is it that African-Americans know the importance of their history here in the city?”
“It is very important because much of it has been erased,” Salas said. “Most people do not know just the simple stuff.”
“There were slave cults in this city. They rang a bell in the middle of downtown in San Antonio at 9 o’clock meaning that every black person had better be off the streets 15 minutes after the bell.”
He said that during the mid 1800s, three mayors owned slave auctions or blocks in San Antonio.
“This town was as racist as any Southern Mississippi town at one particular time in history.”
The second question was about the possibility of a museum being dedicated to the preservation of African-American history in San Antonio.
“We do have a museum already that is preserving black history here in San Antonio,” Frederick said. “It will not be your typical museum, but we will be able to record, store documents and materials by doing it digitally so that we have no limit on the amount we can collect.”
The museum is the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, 430 N. Cherry St.
This is a nonprofit organization formed to “collect, maintain, disseminate and interpret authentic African-American artifacts related to San Antonio history, in a community-based digital archive.”
Frederick elaborated on why obtaining so much information is important.
“Our idea was to not look at only the prominent people in San Antonio, but as well as the common man,” Frederick said. “That man that came by and cut the grass at the cemetery. The man that came by and cleaned up the funeral homes.”
The third question was about sharing information about African-Americans who served in the military, specifically the battle of the Alamo.
“Every one of those Alamo defenders were slave owners,” Salas said. “Santa Anna was made out to be the worst man that ever lived, but everywhere Santa Anna went he freed slaves.”
The fourth question was on the discovery of the North Side African-American cemetery near Northern Hills Elementary School.
“Here in San Antonio, to uncover that cemetery is to uncover an aspect of truth and history about us as people here,” Maat said. “It showed that we owned land, that we were living here and making our mark.”
The fifth question was how having black businesses, schools and organizations impacted the black community.
“Where we go, we put our foot prints there,” Maat said.
Maat mentioned examples such as Myra Hemmings, founder of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and Hattie Briscoe, the first African- American woman graduate of St. Mary’s University.
The sixth question was about the misconception of blacks being confined to the East Side.
“A large portion of the original Canary Islander families were black. Totally erased from history,” Salas said.
Salas said the Spanish had a “casta system,” which determined where settlers would be placed based on their physical appearances.
Casta was a term used to describe mixed raced individuals in the Spanish colonial society.
“They put you in certain parts of the city depending on your skin color,” he said. “So if you were dark you had to go to the Eastern Side of the river. That’s how San Antonio’s eastside became the black community.”
The last question was about the importance of the Sutton House in African -American history.
The Sutton House was a home owned by Lilian V. and Samuel J. Sutton in 1896. They opened their home to African-Americans during a time blacks couldn’t stay in local hotels.
It was visited by well-known African-Americans such as scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, American educator and advisor Booker T. Washington, and civil rights activist and humanitarian Mary McLeod Bethune.
Frederick said the house birthed the San Antonio African-American Community Museum.
“That building, once we found out the significance of it, was what spring-boarded this group of individuals who are attempting to bring this museum here and accomplish this task,” Frederick said.
In a Feb.18 interview, Campbell elaborated on the importance of the panel.
“We have a history too,” she said. “It is very important to enlighten people by continuing to put African- American history in the city on the map.”
For additional information, contact Dr. Barbara Knotts, Black History Month Committee chair at 210-486-0593 or visit www.alamo.edu/sac/BHM19