Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio

Black Leaders of 20th Century San Antonio: Bellingers, Suttons, and James

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When historians speak of the most influential of San Antonio’s Blacks, they never fail to mention the Bellinger and Sutton families. Valmo Bellinger published the weekly Register newspaper for 38 years. It chronicled the life of the Black community on the East Side. Bellinger, like his father, Charles Bellinger, who died in 1937, was a powerful influence in city politics. As a result of his precinct organization and political power and that of his father, the city officials saw fit to provide comparatively good street paving, light, water and sewer service, public schools, parks and playgrounds, fire and police stations and a public library that became the Carver Community Cultural Center.

A leading national magazine in the 1930s, Collier’s, featured a story about Charles Bellinger in its issue of September 18, 1937. Written by a native Texan, Owen P. White, it was titled “Machine Made.” It told how Bellinger could be depended upon to deliver from five to eight thousand votes for the Democratic Party machine--a quarter of the votes normally cast in San Antonio. Referring to Bellinger in his book, San Antonio, City in the Sun, Green Peyton says that the Black voters of “the Negro politician and numbers operator held the balance of power in San Antonio’s elections. He was the real heir of Bryan Callaghan.”

Charles Bellinger was convicted of income tax evasion in 1936 and sent to prison, but his son, Valmo, continued to influence the Black vote and to contribute to betterment of the entire city with support of projects such as the Olmos Dam and the Municipal Auditorium.

A major economic and industrial survey for the City of San Antonio prepared by Industrial Director T. N. Picnot in 1942, reported that seven percent of the population of 275,000 were Negroes. The report said that “this group is a unit, has leadership by professional men of its own race, has better economic and health conditions than any other city in the South and exercises political power in proportion to its numbers.”

Valmo Bellinger, who retired from the newspaper business in 1979, told Express-News columnist Paul Thompson during his heyday in 1959: “I don’t tell people how to vote, I suggest. Nobody can be a political boss anymore--those days are over.”

Another strong influence for improved Black living was G. J. Sutton, who was the first Negro elected to a college board in the South and the first Black state representative elected in Bexar County. Another leader was Rev. S. H. James, pastor of the Second Baptist Church for 48 years, who died in October 1992. When he was a member of the City Council in the 1960s, he pushed for a fair-employment ordinance and joined in peaceful civil rights sit-ins.

The names of Sutton and James were brought together in an article by Express-News columnist Roddy Stinson soon after the death of James. Stinson provided these keenly drawn sketches of each man, beginning with Rev. James:

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of San Antonians who know more about the clergyman’s spiritual insights and oratorical gifts than I do. But I doubt that any of them could recall a sermon more riveting and more powerful than the eulogy Rev. James delivered at the funeral of G. J. Sutton.

Sutton, a longtime East Side political leader and civil-rights activist died in June 1976, and nearly 3,000 people (including this columnist) filled the Second Baptist Church sanctuary, balcony, fellowship hall, chapel and foyer to pay last respects. Mourners included then Gov. Doiph Briscoe, local and state officials, civil-rights leaders and other notables....

Sutton and James were members of the generation of black leaders who fought--and sometimes bled--for the cause of human rights. Sutton was the first black from San Antonio elected to the Texas Legislature (in 1972). James was the first black elected to the San Antonio City Council (in 1965).

So on that June day in 1976, when Sutton’s pastor and friend stood to eulogize his fellow soldier, a spirit that is hard to describe gripped the crowd. The feeling was, at once, holy and electrifying

Slowly, deliberately and eloquently he praised a man “who refused to sit on the sidelines” when justice was challenged, when courage was required. He was speaking of G. J. Sutton. But everyone in the audience who knew both men recognized that the words also described the life of the dynamic, courageous preacher who said them ....

Courageous and imaginative men and women among San Antonio’s African-Americans are continuing the unfinished work of these community leaders--aware of Alexander Hamilton’s words in the Federalist: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it is obtained or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

See:

San Antonio Express News, March 10, 1991.

San Antonio Express News, October 28, 1992

Bellinger, vertical files, Texana Room, San Antonio Public Library

-Frank W. Jennings, 1992