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Solving a Neighborhood Mystery Reveals Forgotten African-American History

An abandoned lot in San Antonio turned out to be an important part of the city’s story

By Augustus Koch (1840–?) - Amon Carter Museum Texas Bird's-Eye Views [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9140425 ()
smithsonian.com

A vacant, abandoned lot in the middle of a residential area normally inspires ghost stories among neighborhood children. But for one San Antonio, Texas, man, it sparked curiosity, and a quest, which recently led him to uncover a nearly forgotten history of a African American settlements started by emancipated former slaves in the mid-to-late-1800s, reports Vincent T. Davis for the San Antonio Express-News (via Star-Telegram).

Retired Air Force Maj. J. Michael Wright's plot of interest was next to an elementary school. The lot, Wright noticed, overgrown with trees and thorny brush, was the only space that had been left undeveloped in his subdivision. Wright set out to learn why, and with the help of Bexar County archivist David Carlson, deeds, census records and other documents, Wright stumbled on the story of a community of African Americans who settled in Wright's area a century and half before.

The settlement, he learned, was one of several in the area started by former slaves, who were finally emancipated on June 19, 1865. That day, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, was when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War had ended and that all people enslaved were free. Now, June 19 is marked and celebrated every year as Juneteenth.

When Carlson and Wright wrote to Everett L. Fly, a San Antonio native, landscape architect and preserver of historic sites around the country, big pieces of the story fell into place. The families that established the communities, with surnames Hockley, Winters and Griffin, still have descendants in the area. Oral and family history records also added details. Davis' account is riveting and here are some highlights from it:

  • The Winters family has the emancipation letter that marked the freedom of their ancestor Robert Winters. Robert, or "Bob," owned one of five cattle brands registered to African-American owners in Bexar county. He also set aside land in the community he founded for a school, a church and a cemetery. "When I was a young girl, I didn't appreciate the family unit for what I understand now," says descendant Melanie Winters Brooks. "The civic duties and how they helped established the African-American presence in this community for the time that they did and the progressiveness of this family is overwhelming."

  • The overgrown lot that sparked Wright's interest is Hockley Cemetery. Records show that it was once owned by Jane Warren, who owned 107 acres in the area. She also had her own cattle brand, "YOK." She "must have been a maverick of her era," Davis writes, as having land and a brand would have been rare for an African-American woman at the time.

  • The community cemetery, the Griffin Family Cemetery, in the Oak Ridge subdivision of San Antonio is still maintained. Now that the Hockley family is sure of their connection to their own cemetery, there are plans in place to restore and preserve it.

These communities were like many established across the American South during the Reconstruction and its aftermath. Many historically African-American neighborhoods were the successors to those established when people were enslaved. Others grew around families who moved or were forced to move to find a place to live.

Some former slave owners helped buy land for the newly emancipated people, but the communities would soon face mounting discrimination as opponents to African-American progress rallied. For example, some neighborhoods in San Antonio explicitly forbad deed holders from selling or leasing their property to African-Americans, writes John Tedesco, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News on his personal blog. San Antonio grew with most of its African-American residents living on the East Side and White residents on the North side, he adds.

Without effort, the finer details and personal stories of this kind of history could be lost. "As [our ancestors] died off, the history started disappearing, and the next thing you know, you don't have nothing," Clifford Griffin tells Davis. "Now that we're getting all of this information back to us, it's great stuff to know we were a big part of San Antonio in the 1800s."

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