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African American Experience in Bexar

Historical Context and Arrival of African Americans

Societal Dynamics and Enslavement

Resistance and Progress

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In Bexar County, a minority of individuals openly opposed slavery. German and Mexican Americans, suspected of abolitionist sentiments, were notably less likely to be slaveholders. In 1854, during a singing festival, Germans passed a resolution condemning slavery. Adolph Douai, editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, wrote against slavery's conflict with democratic ideals, facing threats and relocating to New England in 1856. Observers noted that local Mexicans associated freely with African Americans, defying racial barriers. This opposition to slavery contributed to San Antonio's narrow vote against secession in the 1861 referendum.

Many of Bexar County's most prominent citizens ownedslaves. The list included the rancher Asa Mitchell, Mayors Samuel Maverick and Juan Seguín, and businessman John Herman Kampmann. [Courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and Wikimedia Commons]

This item appeared in a San Antonio newspaper on May 9th of 1865; a month after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the sheriff of Bexar County was still busy rounding up and jailing “runaway slaves.” [Semi-Weekly News (San Antonio) May 9, 1865]

In the process of digging the San Pedro Creek Cultural Park in 2020, construction crews came across the foundation to the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church dating back to 1868. It was only the second African American church opened in the city. It can be found at the intersection of West Houston and Cameron Streets, across the creek from the Alameda Theater. [Photo by J. Reynolds]

The historical narrative of African American presence in San Antonio, Texas during the 19th century reveals a complex interplay of social, economic, and political dynamics. From the dispersed pattern of housing reflecting occupational realities to the political struggles within the Republican Party and subsequent alliances with the Democratic machine, African Americans navigated a landscape shaped by racial attitudes, economic opportunities, and political forces. Despite facing challenges such as residential segregation, violence, and political disenfranchisement, the African American community in San Antonio demonstrated resilience, organizing efforts, and adaptation strategies that laid the groundwork for the development of distinct neighborhoods and the pursuit of social and political advancement.

Individuals seeking to escape slavery were sometimes apprehended in Bexar County and sold back into slavery if their master was not prepared to pay for costs incidental to their capture. A “quadroon” might be a person with one grandparent -- most likely a grandmother -- of African origins and three grandparents who were white. [San Antonio Weekly Herald, July 26, 1862]

Early Bexar records reveal a significant presence of individuals with African ancestry, notably documented through baptismal registries. Between 1790 and 1820, children of African descent represented 5.6% of baptisms at the San Fernando Church, primarily classified as 'mulato' or 'lobo' (African and indigenous Native American mix). This reflects a prevalent practice of interracial mixing in the Spanish period. Despite classification as 'Spanish' due to military service, many individuals of mixed ancestry contributed to Bexar's diverse community, highlighting the complexity of racial dynamics in 18th-century San Antonio de Béxar.

Bexar County during the 1860 census did not support a planter aristocracy typical of other regions. The majority of slaveholders possessed only one or two enslaved individuals, primarily serving as farm hands or domestic workers. Only a small fraction, representing less than one percent of slaveholders, held twenty or more individuals. Despite smaller holdings, a significant portion of enslaved African Americans lived in households with four or more individuals, indicating their likely involvement in outdoor labor rather than solely domestic tasks.

In 1860, a majority of enslaved men and women in Bexar County were employed by farmers or ranchers, with the cattle trade being a significant industry. Many slaveholders listed as 'farmers' were actually ranchers, utilizing enslaved labor to manage livestock rather than crops. Additionally, a notable portion worked in commercial establishments or skilled trades, while some were contracted out by their owners for various tasks. Female slaveholders, often widows, and professionals such as lawyers also employed enslaved individuals, though their specific roles are less clear. Overall, enslaved African Americans in Bexar County held diverse occupations, including household servants, farmhands, and workers in urban settings.

In the 19th century, residential segregation was not enforced in San Antonio, leading to a dispersed pattern of African American housing across the city. The distribution was influenced by the proximity to workplaces, as urban dwellers needed to live near their jobs. The 1870 pie chart illustrates the equal distribution of African American population across the city's wards. By 1897, the pattern persisted, with occupations for women predominantly in domestic service and men in more diverse fields. African American neighborhoods often clustered around churches, schools, and key institutions, contributing to the emergence of distinct communities. Politically, African Americans aligned with the Republican Party post-enfranchisement in 1867, facing opposition from the Democratic Party. Internal party disputes led to divisions within the African American community, with some supporting the local Democratic machine for political representation despite challenges in making their electoral impact felt due to their dispersed housing.