Partnering with The San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAAACAM)

The San Antonio African American Community Archives and Museum (SAAACAM) is in the process of developing a vibrant and much-needed community memory 501(c)(3) devoted to African American history, culture, and experience in San Antonio. They say it best in their Mission Statement:

“The SAAACAM mission is to collect, maintain, disseminate and interpret a digital database of authentic community based African American history; encourage and promote interdisciplinary education of shared history at all levels; practice stewardship of the broadest range of resources; and produce creative and innovative programs to heighten public awareness and self esteem.”

SAAACAM volunteer and Dr. Karida Brown during an oral history training.

Just a month into our jobs in late 2017, the Southern Historical Collection’s Oral Historian and Documentarian Bernetiae Reed and I were on our way to San Antonio, along with our colleague and Mellon Community Liaison Dr. Karida Brown, to visit with SAAACAM.

So what is Chapel Hill doing in San Antonio? The SHC’s role at SAAACAM is to share and develop resources and tools that help SAAACAM succeed in its goal of becoming a self-sustaining, self-directed, empowered archive and museum. We want to share what we know and cheerlead as SAAACAM finds a path that makes sense for its own community. We do this through training and discussion modules, consultation and research assistance, a small technology budget that aims to get projects familiar with oral history and preservation work, and backup repository support when deemed useful by SAAACAM.

SAAACAM is in an exciting phase in their development. The board, consultants, and volunteer base are beginning to set the foundation for their archive and museum. They are drafting a collection development policy and gift agreements, training in and practicing  oral history and field recording techniques, beginning to evaluate collections in the field, and working with faculty at local and regional universities to develop meaningful service learning projects. We look forward to working with SAAACAM as they think through the process of physical space, digital infrastructure, and long-term funding. Our next trip is scheduled for April 2018.

WHAT WE DID

Our trip to San Antonio had several purposes:

  • Bernetiae and I wanted to get to know the SAAACAM stakeholders, and Dr. Brown was looking forward to continuing to deepen her relationship with the community.
  • In consultation with SAAACAM staff, we had prepared some training materials related to oral history methods and technology, collection policies, and working with donors.
  • And finally, we conducted this trip to support SAAACAM as they begin the work of telling stories about Black San Antonio through oral history interviews and relationship-building.

Our generous hosts for this trip were Mellon Community Liaison Everett Fly, SAAACAM board members George Frederick, Wayman Griffin, and Sallie Frederick, and SAAACAM volunteers and friends like Tracy Watts. Right off the plane, George and Everett took us to see the Griffin family cemetery. It was the best possible way to be introduced to what is unknown about the African American legacy of San Antonio.

As we drove, Everett told us about his discussion with Melanie Brooks, a descendant of the Griffin and Winters extended family. “[John Coker] had come from Alabama. . . . He had so much land that he sent for his brothers . . . to help him work the land and tells them to ‘bring your slaves.’ ” Over time this land was cultivated and parceled out to others. “. . . eventually, again in the land records, we see sales from some of the Coker descendants to some of the black descendants of the Griffins, the Winters and the Jacksons.” Melanie’s descendant, Horace Griffin, “was brought to Texas from Florida in about 1850.” Horace was a “wagon master or teamster. Of course, he drove freight wagons pulled by horses and mules and would carry different goods and material between San Antonio and West, there is a small community called Uvalde.”

Everett Fly, George Frederick, and Josephine McRobbie on the grounds of the Griffin Cemetery

Everett spoke about the moment when “a lightbulb went off in my head. There had to be three settlements of black folks out here, not just one, And that each one, each group had a cemetery  . . . I began to find land where they set aside land for churches, set aside land for a school, . . . the one far north ‘the negro graveyard.'” Everett recalled the story of discovering the Griffin cemetery. With an architect’s logic, he utilized landmark clues from members of the Griffin family to find the plot. Then after other searches, he came to this development and spotted the common area with the cemetery on the right, near the front of a modern residential subdivision as described. What a moment! It was being respectfully maintained by the homeowner’s association with no knowledge of those who lay at rest.

The next morning we joined the talented and energetic SAAACAM volunteers for a training session. Bernetiae led participants through exercises in evaluating oral history snippets to determine technical or methodological issues. After this, we broke into groups with some Tascam recorders provided to SAAACAM by the Mellon grant and a few brave volunteers took turns interviewing each other in front of the group. As Dr. Brown mentioned during this training “One thing that makes oral histories so special is that they go from stories, that live between people or within a family, to history. You are literally making history by recording and repositing a body of stories in an archive”.

Bernetiae Reed trains with SAAACAM volunteers on using audio recorders for oral history interviews.

SAAACAM volunteers will use the Tascam recorders to begin telling the stories of their neighborhoods for inclusion in the SAAACAM archive. During this training, we also ran through some donor scenarios using fictionalized case studies (“A valued donor wants to donate a room-sized museum item that falls out of scope – what do you do?”) to get the volunteers thinking about how to handle donor relationships as they begin to operate as “faces” of SAAACAM in San Antonio.

We were fortunate to be hosted by the Provost, Dr. Michael O’Brien, at Texas A&M San Antonio for a meeting and lunch where we met many community stakeholders including Texas A&M and Northwest Vista Community College faculty members, the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, the San Antonio Conservation Society, and Visit San Antonio. To see the momentum and interest surrounding the success of this project was inspiring. As Everett Fly said during this meeting: “There is so much potential … in July of 2018, the NAACP National Conference is going to be here. What are we going to show them? We have the opportunity to show them a much broader and much deeper history and culture of San Antonio.”

On our second day, Bernetiae conducted a number of oral histories, with SAAACAM volunteers observing and learning. The interviews were conducted at Texas Public Radio (interviewees: Dorothy Price Collins, Ronney Stephens, Clyde P. Glosson and Edwin N. Glosson), at the Alamo Music Center (interviewee: James C. Edwards), and in the homes of some community members (interviewees: Julie Carlson, Julie Carolyn Norton Keidel, and Minnie Applewhite). The interviews were a chance for these potential oral historians in the African American community of San Antonio to have experience observing questions and answers they may encounter in the field. For the Mellon team, it was an honor to collect these family histories and recollections in collaboration with SAAACAM.

It was a busy trip, and we spent much of our time at Hope House, the emotional heart and homebase of SAAACAM. We were able to break bread during our final night, as our hosts sent us off with generosity and care – with home-smoked brisket and a Regina Belle concert at the Carver Community Cultural Center.

TAKEAWAYS AND REFLECTIONS

For Josephine and Bernetiae, it was a first venture in their our roles. It was a joy to learn about San Antonio’s strong African American history and to spend time with the passionate, dedicated, and reflective SAAACAM leadership.The unknown and untold history of San Antonio’s African American descendants is just beginning to be uncovered, and the potential is vast and urgent. This known legacy reaches back to the early days of the republic with Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and battles with Mexico.

WHAT’S NEXT

As SAAACAM moves forward in its development as an independent archive and museum, we at the Southern Historical Collection look forward to serving as collaborators, supporters, and friends. In April of 2018, we will return to San Antonio to assist SAAACAM with a History Harvest event, and to help set up the archive’s appraisal and accessioning workflows. We look forward to watching this vital community memory project flourish over the coming years.

-By Josephine McRobbie, Community Archivist, SHC

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