La Villita museum tells history of trailblazing African Americans that shaped San Antonio

San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum readying for river tour, new exhibit space, outdoor movies

The March 20, 1959 issue of "SNAP," a magazine in San Antonio. SAAACAM's opening exhibit in the rotating gallery, called “SNAP,” will document Eugene Coleman, who co-founded the “SNAP” magazine that served the African American community. (Image courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections / San Antonio Black History Collection)

SAN ANTONIO – For the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the goal is simple: to “collect, preserve, and share” African American history that may often go untold.

The museum’s new space at La Villita and a new boat tour on the River Walk will help them in that mission.

Deborah Omowale Jarmon, the CEO and director of the museum, said that while the winter storm delayed the opening of the museum during Black History Month, an array of events and features are still in store for the spring and summer.

The new exhibit space at 218 South Presa St. will open on Thursday, with a member preview taking place prior to the grand opening.

On Saturday, the new Black History Tour focused on “one hour of rich history” will cruise the River Walk, Jarmon said.

The desegregation of lunch counters, the Texas Theater that required African Americans to sit in the top balcony, and the use of Alamo Plaza and San Pedro Springs as a training site for Buffalo Soldiers are among the events, groups and places the river tour will touch on.

An image of segregation at the Texas Theater shared by SAAACAM. (Courtesy)

Jarmon said docents will also discuss Charles Bellinger, who established his own saloon in 1906 after securing loans from Howard and the Pearl Brewing Company.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, Bellinger later opened a pool hall, cafe, real estate company, construction company and theater, as well as a bootlegging operation during the Prohibition.

He entered politics in 1918, TSHA states.

“Those kinds of things, I think, speak volumes for the climate of the city, even though African Americans, even though the city was segregated, still there were a number of opportunities once slavery ended, for African Americans to be a part of the city,” Jarmon said. “So it’s not like all doom and gloom.”

An image of Charles Bellinger shared by SAAACAM. (Courtesy)

The river tour is debuting in the heart of the Alamo City as the nation continues to grapple with racism, inequality and racial injustice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

And it’s coming at a time when activists and the Black Lives Matter movement push for the teaching and better understanding of true history — especially the events that aren’t told to youth.

“We want to make sure that all the history is told,” Jarmon said. “History needs to tell the truth, and not just for African Americans, but for everyone, and typically people of color, our history has not been a part of the story because we didn’t write the books.”

“We’re trying to uncover that.”

Just last year, at least 160 Confederate statues and symbols were taken down or moved from public spaces across the country amid the nationwide movement to shed light on Black history, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

SPLC chief of staff Lecia Brooks told the Associated Press that the “racist symbols only serve to uphold revisionist history.”

What’s in store for SAAACAM this spring and summer

SAAACAM will have two exhibit spaces when it opens to the public on Thursday. The museum will be open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays.

The more permanent exhibit called “Their Contributions” will feature 43 African Americans and events that shaped the African American community in San Antonio, Jarmon said.

The opening exhibit in the rotating gallery, called “SNAP,” will document Eugene Coleman, who co-founded the “SNAP” magazine that served the African American community.

Jarmon said the “SNAP” exhibit has a number of items that belonged to Coleman and were brought forward by the community.

He was a civil rights activist who co-founded the magazine along with G.J. Sutton and the Rev. Claude W. Black. He was also the editor of the magazine that published “news that was often neglected by mainstream media,” his obituary stated.

He died in 2019.

“It was so gratifying to see people bring things, and tell their stories about Mr. Coleman, and then be able to put that into an exhibit,” Jarmon said. “(We’re) really excited about how that exhibit has come together.”

Both exhibits will have interactive elements.

Jarmon added that the exhibit space is community-curated, even the museum shop that will have items selected by local African American artisans.

SAAACAM will also have a spring day camp for 5th-6th graders on March 8-12, and will debut a passport for kids that will connect museums along the river and the exhibit at the Carver Community Cultural Center.

The passport “gives those museums an opportunity to showcase their African American exhibits,” she said, adding that they’re in the process of finalizing that feature.

The museum will show six films at the Arneson River Theater that will be free and open to the public. A discussion will follow after the movies, Jarmon said.

“When I Rise,” a film about Barbara Smith Conrad, who attended the University of Texas at Austin as a music student and was expelled from an opera, will be shown in March for Women’s History Month.

The museum plans to also show “Tulia, Texas,” “Walk on the River,” “The Tuskegee Airmen,” “43″ and “The Great Debaters” at the Arneson.

Jarmon said it will partner with the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley for a program on the African Mexican connection and the journey to freedom, which is told in the documentary “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom.”

New home in the center of San Antonio

SAAACAM left the historic Sutton Family Homestead at 430 N. Cherry St., which is owned by the Hope House Ministries due to the time and space needed for a major renovation.

It’s possible the museum can return to the Sutton home, Jarmon said, but she’s unsure when that would be.

The Sutton Family Homestead is well known in the African American community.

The Sutton Family reached prominence in San Antonio in the time of Jim Crow–era segregation. Samuel Sutton was one of the first Black teachers in Bexar County, and his son G.J. Sutton became the first Black elected official (aboard member for the San Antonio Union Junior College District) in Bexar County, according to TSHA.

An image of the Sutton Family provided by SAAACAM. (Courtesy)

Prominent figures in San Antonio, it is known that people such as Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Thurgood Marshall visited the homestead.

But with a major renovation looming, SAAACAM had to put a call out for another place to house the museum.

Jarmon said space opened up at La Villita after a tenant who was going to move in decided not to due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

“We had to bid on that space like everyone else,” she said, adding the property received about 10 bidders. “The evaluation team liked what we had to offer (and) that’s how we ended up there.”

Now, she said, the museum is researching where African Americans lived near La Villita.

The continuous research and teachings will help youth and adults gain a new perspective on the foundations of the city, she said.

“When we all understand that everyone here played a part in making history, played a part in making our city, then we can respect each other better, and it also garners self-respect. That’s huge,” she said.

A special titled “Family Value” was scheduled to air on KSAT this Saturday. It will air later. A date has yet to be announced”

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