New findings reveal San Antonio’s role in slave trade, historians say

Captured freedom seekers often jailed, sold in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO – Little do many know that behind what’s considered San Antonio’s old city hall and the nearby historic Spanish Governor’s Palace, freedom seekers, who’d been captured fleeing their enslavers, were being sold to the highest bidder.

“San Antonio plays this role in collecting enslaved freedom seekers and trying to return them to bondage or auctioning them off,” said Dan Ott, the western district coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom of the U.S. National Park Service.

Yet Ott said he’d only recently been made aware of San Antonio’s role in the slave trade after talking with history students at St. Mary’s University, researchers from the San Antonio African-American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), and Dr. Maria Hammack, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who is considered a noted authority on the borderlands and slavery in Texas.

Local researchers said they’ve been able to build on Hammack’s extensive research.

“I have to give her a shout-out,” said Sandra Ogogor, a museum guide at SAAACAM. “We have been very blessed to have Dr. Hammack help us.”

Ott said there’s been a lot of revealing new research focused on Texas and San Antonio.

“We’ve been blessed here with a bunch of historians in Texas in the last 10 or 15 years,” Ott said.

He said they’ve been scouring “state archives, county archives, federal archives, Spanish archives, Mexican archives, to wind up documenting that full history.”

Ott said their research has piqued the National Park Service’s interest, especially regarding the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Instead of heading north, Ott said many freedom seekers were trying to reach Mexico, as told in the 2020 documentary “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom.”

One of them may have been a young pregnant woman named Roda, who it’s believed wanted her child to be born free.

An old newspaper article found by Dr. Hammack, dating back to the mid-1850s, describes how Roda had fled her enslavers in Missouri, disguised as a man, only to be caught in D’Hanis and brought to San Antonio.

The clipping said she had “a boy child” while being held in the city jail. However, their fates are unknown.

Roda’s story puts a human face on what was happening back then.

“This opens a whole new chapter of history that is not well known,” said Deborah Omowale Jarmon, SAAACAM’s executive director. “The story of the self-emancipated enslaved in San Antonio brings a new meaning to our community’s diverse culture.”

Ott said to help tell more of that story, significant sites like Military Plaza could be eligible for federal historic designations and federal funding.

Once the application is approved, Ott said, “We can then provide grant funding to support projects that are associated with preservation and interpretation and exhibits and signage.”

Although there are any number of historical markers in and around downtown and Main Plaza, Jayden Evans, a senior and history major at St. Mary’s University, said the freedom seekers deserve recognition as well.

“You have to acknowledge both the good and the bad,” Evans said. “We have to look at both sides of history.”

About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

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