Blacks in Civil War Era San Antonio - Journal of San Antonio

Blacks in Civil War Era San Antonio

Part I: Antebellum San Antonio and Runaway Slaves

For the Blacks of San Antonio, slave life meant suffering, deprivation and injustice. Escape to freedom was a widely felt dream, frequently realized. There were 600 slaves on the Bexar County assessment rolls in 1849. They were valued at $70,150 on which their owners would pay property taxes [San Antonio Light, September 27, 1906]. According to Alwyn Barr, author of Black Texans, A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528-1971, an increased flow of escaped slaves into Mexico prompted the slave-holders of San Antonio and nearby towns to hold meetings in 1854 and 1855. They raised $20,000 for an expedition to go after the runaways.

They tried first to negotiate with Mexican authorities, but when that failed, they sent James H. Callahan and 130 men into Mexico to attack the Indian-Mexican-Negro forces of a Seminole Indian chief named Wild Cat in order to bring back runaways. Wild Cat had led a band of more than 150 Indians and Blacks from the Indian Territory of modern day Oklahoma into Mexico in 1849. The Mexican government permitted them to live along the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

Wild Cat welcomed Blacks from Texas and Indian Territory, and according to Alwyn Barr, an estimated 3,000 slaves made good their escape into Mexico by 1851, and another 1,000 reached the relative safety there between 1851 and 1855. The troops under James H. Callahan crossed the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass in October 1855, but they were driven back into Piedras Negras by a combined force of Mexicans, Indians and Negroes. Callahan’s forces partially burned the Mexican town of Piedras Negras to cover their retreat.

In 1860, according to the count of the City Assessor, San Antonio had 7,643 whites and 592 slaves. In 1870, Bexar County had “whites, 14,753; colored, 3,366.” Of the 14,753 whites, 3,090 were reported as “Mexicans” and 1,829 “born in Germany.” In 1876, the City Assessor reported 2,075 “Africans” in a population of 17,214, which included 3,750 “Mexicans.”

Part II: The Freedmen’s Bureau

Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds, a West Point graduate, arrived in Texas as commander in March 1867 and established his headquarters in Austin, although the Army depot remained in San Antonio. Among his other functions, he was the agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the United States Congress in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. It wasn’t long before the Freedmen’s Bureau was involving itself in educating Blacks, providing medical treatment, supervising labor relations and effecting legal protections for freedmen—despite the fact that the law specifically spelled out none of those activities. Congress had been vague in its directions, saying chiefly that the Bureau should have “control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen in the rebel states.”

General Reynolds deposed the civil government of San Antonio and appointed a new City Council made up of Unionists. He established a local Freedmen’s Bureau and a school for Negroes. Registration was required of all who desired to vote. The San Antonio Express of July 3, 1867 said: “There are two classes in the community, those who still cling to the Confederacy and those who are radically in favor of the U. S. Government. A large class of the former must be rejected [for registration] for their participation in the rebellion.” Some Confederate sympathizers away moved from San Antonio; some joined ex-Confederate secret organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan. Typical of the tense feelings was the time that Taylor Thompson witnessed a young woman “accosted by a Negro.” She shrieked the “distress word” of one of the organizations and immediately the Black was shot down. As Taylor Thompson said: “Twenty-four bullets had struck him. Fifty or 60 of us were arrested and arraigned before the local agent of the Freedman’s Bureau, but nothing came of it.” [Seymour V. Connor, Texas pg 228-229 ; Quadrangle: The history of Fort Sam Houston: Eldon Cagle, pg 22; WPA Pg 33; The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans, by Barry A. Crouch Pg 3,]

The U. S. Congress passed legislation in 1869 to end the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In its five years of existence it had laid the foundation for Negro education in Texas--more than 20,000 Blacks had been provided with some form of education. ( Medallion, Texas Historical Commission, February, 1992)

- Frank W. Jennings (1992)