SAN ANTONIO – There is often a misconception that the East Side is only home to the black community or that its population is majority African American. Both are incorrect.
But it is true that segregation led to African Americans forming communities east of the San Antonio River hundreds of years ago.
The first Spanish settlers who arrived in San Antonio in the 1700s were from the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.
Nearly a third of those settlers were Black. But they were not seen as equal in the eyes of the Spaniards.
Black settlers were separated by racial lineage once they arrived.
People with dark skin were segregated to the East Side of the river.
As communities formed, St. Paul Square became the epicenter for San Antonio’s African American community.
Churches became pillars
Then, as now, churches were a pillar on the East Side.
Historic churches that still exist today, such as St. Paul Methodist and Mt. Zion First Baptist Church, became safe havens as racial tensions in the south remained high.
Mt. Zion was founded in 1871 by five formerly enslaved people and a white minister.
“After slavery is over and you look for leaders, it’s the church that becomes that space that can bring people together,” said Carey Latimore, Ph.D., “And so many of the leaders, the first political leaders, many of them were ministers or deacons because these are people that have the ability to read, people who had the ability to write. And they were literate. They were in a position where they had the authority to speak.”
Latimore passed away after giving this interview. He was a professor at Trinity University, an author, and an associate pastor at Mt. Zion.
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Centuries later, the church still holds high status among community leaders.
“The most influential people were in the church -- the doctors, the lawyers, the schoolteachers, the nurses -- and we had a sense of community,” said Sharon Crockett-Ray, Ph.D., with St. Philip’s College.
Crockett-Ray grew up on the East Side within walking distance from St. Philip’s College, where she used to take swimming lessons as a child. It’s also the place where she’s made a decades-long career.
Today, she serves as St. Philip’s director for institutional advancement with a focus on scholarships, alumni grants and fundraising.
It’s a mission not unlike that of Artemisia Bowden, the founding president of St. Philip’s College.
The school is known as a historically Black college today, but it started as a sewing school for girls. It became St. Philip’s Normal and Industrial School with the mission to educate and train recently emancipated slaves.
Bowden joined the school as an administrator in 1902.
Under her leadership, St. Philip’s became a junior college. But it wasn’t easy.
“Mrs. Bowden used to barter with chickens and eggs to help keep the doors open,” said Crockett-Ray. “She formed a choir, and they would go around the state of Texas singing to help raise money to support the college.”
In the 1920s, the East Side saw significant growth during the great migration.
That was a time when thousands of African Americans were driven from their homes by a lack of economic opportunity and harsh segregation laws in the rural South.
That growth in the city led to the creation of San Antonio’s NAACP chapter -- only the second chapter in Texas.
That gave rise to local Black leaders like John Grumbles, who served as NAACP president.
Then there was a man named Charles Bellinger.
“He owned a construction company, a barbershop, a theater and a newspaper eventually,” said Crockett-Ray.
While many East Side leaders were born from the church, Bellinger’s legacy is not exactly squeaky clean. He was known as a gambler and a political boss, but he used his influence at City Hall to get the East Side recognition and the services his community needed.
“Mr. Bellinger used to purchase poll tax and give them to people, minorities, to allow them to vote,” Crockett-Ray said.
A poll tax was created in the 1890s in the U.S. It was basically a fee to vote and a way to keep African Americans from voting in southern states.
“So, in my opinion, he gave many people their voice because your vote is your voice,” said Crockett-Ray. “A lot of people couldn’t afford to purchase the poll taxes.”
Just 59 years ago, in 1964, the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution got rid of poll taxes.
Today, the Bellinger mansion is part of the Greater Corinth Baptist Church campus on South New Braunfels. It’s one of many things that have changed on the East Side, including who calls it home.
Take a look at U.S. Census data comparing the percentage of Blacks or African Americans who lived on the East Side in 2015 compared to 2020.
Three out of those 4 ZIP codes saw a decrease in the Black population in that five-year span.
The numbers are backed up by anecdotes.
Father Kevin Fausz has watched his congregation change in the 14 years he’s been the pastor at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Nevada Street.
“We are still a predominantly African-American parish, the only such parish in the archdiocese,” said Father Fausz.
Still, in the pews on Sunday, you’ll find a diverse congregation.
Some of the change Father Kevin has seen on the East Side has come with challenges.
“It’s great to see new condos and homes being built on empty lots or some of the buildings being torn down that maybe were drug havens. But, also, there’s many people who lived here a long, long, long time. And prices go up, taxes go up,” he said. “How do we keep the poor and the elderly from being displaced from their homes? That’s, I think, a real key thing for me.”
There’s more to the East Side
Despite the growth, Father Kevin says there is a misleading generalization about the East Side he’d like to clear up.
“I think the narrative about the East Side is that we are all poor, that we are all Black, that we are all crime=ridden over here, that this place is just so dangerous,” he said. “And in reality, I don’t find any of that.”
Changing minds is challenging, and so is preserving history and culture.
“There’s something to the East Side other than driving through it to get to the AT&T Center,” said Father Kevin. “There is a life and a richness and a culture and good people who live in this area.”
“I know there we are -- this is transformational,” said Crockett-Ray. “But there’s rich history and legacy here on the East Side of San Antonio that needs to be always preserved and revered.”