New Film Seeks to Capture, Preserve Black History in Majority-Hispanic San Antonio

This is Robert A. Dawson, a Tuskegee airman who was killed in a training exercise during World War II. His portrait is captured on the brick wall of a community center in San Antonio, Texas. Mural artist unknown. Photo by Lily Casura.

San Antonio, now the nation’s seventh-largest city, is one of many cities in America known as “majority minority” cities. Here, Hispanics predominate, making up almost two in three inhabitants (63 percent), followed by whites (26 percent) and blacks at fewer than one in 10 (seven percent), according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the relatively small numbers obscure a rich and colorful history, which takes more digging than usual to uncover, given it not being one of the two dominant cultures in the city.

“You don’t hear a lot about the history of blacks in San Antonio,” said one of a handful of white audiences members to his friend, a Hispanic historian. “That’s why I’m really glad they’re doing this.”

A new film, “Walk on the River: The Black History of the Alamo City,” is making an attempt to document that history and make it available to others. Over the weekend, I was able to see a 30-minute preview of the film at a screening at the Carver library in San Antonio, attended by some of the people interviewed in the film, along with a number of community members, eager to see what movie was all about. The ensuing discussion afterward was impressively as lively as the film itself. It seemed like almost everyone who commented wanted to express their appreciation for the film being made at all — along with wanting to offer suggestions on how to add elements to the film, or other local experts to interview, or other places to look for and secure copies of historical documents from the past to include. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Wall design in a meeting room at the Carver library, on San Antonio’s East side. The quote is by the branch library’s namesake, George Washington Carver. Photo by Lily Casura.

As San Antonio’s focus lately has turned to exploring “equity” in the city, many residents have realized — including some not for the first time whatsoever — the long-time history of residential and economic segregation in the city. While blacks make up seven percent of the population, almost 30,000 (22.5 percent) live below the poverty line, again according to recent Census figures.

An interactive data visualization on Tableau Public shows where Blacks are concentrated in San Antonio, Texas — several ZIP Codes on the city’s East side. You can see the full data visualization here. Data map by Lily Casura.

While residents and experts interviewed in the film talked about a time “before integration” when blacks lived and owned businesses in many parts of the city, today blacks are more heavily concentrated on the city’s East side, where the film was shown.

A map from the Home Owners Loan Corporation from 1936 shows historical “red-lining” for property investment purposes in San Antonio, clearly marking the area designated for blacks on the map. Underlying map from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s (UTSA) library collection.

As conversations about equity have abounded lately in San Antonio, residents who maybe never knew are becoming more aware of the history of residential and economic segregation, including property restrictions by race and ethnicity. (To be clear, the same history exists in other cities across America.)

A slide from a presentation on racial equity tools makes clear the racialized language and intent of deed restrictions from San Antonio’s past. While the judicial force of the restrictions was later ruled unconstitutional, the language remains. The event was January’s “Advancing Equity in San Antonio: Tools for Taking Action,” put on by The Thrive Advisory, LLC.

But it’s in the midst of this conversation about “equity” that this film emerges, with its focus on the hard-to-uncover but vitally important history of San Antonio’s “non-majority minority.”

Curley Mays performs at Eastwood Country Club in San Antonio, circa 1963. Photo courtesy of UTSA’s library collection.

Audience members at the film’s screening, for instance, chimed in with many stories of the legendary “Eastwood Country Club,” located just outside the city limits, which was a regular stop on the so-called “Chitlin Circuit” in the mid-twentieth century. The club was a regular stop for many of the greats, from Fats Domino to James Brown — and apparently comedian Redd Foxx even tended bar there.

Fats Domino and “Miss Wiggles” (the stage name of Velma Patterson) are shown before or after a performance at the Eastwood Country Club in San Antonio, circa 1963. Photo courtesy of UTSA’s library collection.

One audience member claimed she got to see James Brown unexpectedly as a child, when her parents couldn’t get find a babysitter, and decided to take her with them.

Another audience member who said he grew up black in racially segregated Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had been introduced to San Antonio during his time in the Air Force (San Antonio is home to the Air Force’s version of basic training). While he was there he said he played in a band, including one that played at the Eastwood Country Club — and after he retired, he came back to San Antonio to live. Local luminary Netti Henton, featured in the film, also shared her memories of the club, which she said her cousin owned.

Suggestions poured in from the film’s screening audience about where to find more material for the film — everywhere from District 2 Senior Center, on the city’s East side, to predominantly and historically black churches in the area, to many people’s parents and grandparents, who were thought to still be keeping “clippings and obituaries” that document the past. One teacher suggested that the film be accompanied by some educational materials that could be shared with classrooms as well — something that might make a good joint project with the city’s public television station, KLRN.

(Note: The filmmakers are still raising money to complete the film, and undoubtedly would appreciate your considering donating to their cause. The crowdfunding link is here.)