Martha James’ family tree is adorned with significant figures in Texas history.
Her great-great-great-grandfather was Asa Mitchell, a Texas colonist who came to the state as part of the original Old Three Hundred families along with Stephen F. Austin.
James was flipping through an old family booklet one day and noticed a photograph of a black man named Burl Ross. Who was this man, she wondered.
“There was a community of black people on the farm, something we really didn’t discuss as a family,” James said, remarking on what she has since learned about Ross.
James showed the picture to Everett Fly after he gave a talk on the history of black communities in the area at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago. She left the photo with Fly along with her contact information, but she didn’t know whether he would find it historically significant.
It turns out he did.
Ross, a farmhand at Mitchell Ranch in what is now part of the Texas A&M University–San Antonio campus on the South Side, lived to be 106 and was likely among Bexar County’s oldest living former slaves when he died in 1953.
That photograph kicked off discovery after discovery and added more proof to Fly’s broader thesis about black communities in the Alamo City: They weren’t confined to the East Side as has been incorrectly asserted previously, Fly said.
Researchers also uncovered a slave cemetery on the former Mitchell land, although the names of those buried there remain shrouded in mystery. The gravesites are difficult to reach because of the steep and uneven terrain, and overgrown weeds and brush stand several feet tall, obscuring the burial ground.
Fly, a landscape architect and local black history expert, and researchers at A&M–San Antonio will attempt to find out how many slaves are buried there as well as the exact locations of the graves. In the coming weeks, the overgrown plant life will be mowed. Texas A&M University–College Station researchers will visit the site and employ ground-penetrating radar to take images below the surface. The images, they hope, will answer the questions that remain about the gravesite.
“I don’t want to overstate it, but this is a major discovery for several reasons,” Fly said. “Up until the last three or four years, the myth has been that all of San Antonio’s black history is only on the East Side. So this discovery in conjunction with others completely dispels that myth. It’s just not true.”
Such findings include the unearthing of a historic black cemetery by Fly and a team of archaeologists in northeast Bexar County. The bodies that lie there were ancestors of Bexar County’s black farmer and rancher communities.
History professor Philis Barragán-Goetz, who teaches at A&M–San Antonio, has worked alongside Fly in many of the research projects that have brought African-American history in Bexar County out of the shadows. Though not intimately involved in the study of the Mitchell ranch house and gravesites, Barragán-Goetz has been investigating the history of black social and political activism as well as the earliest recorded instances of their involvement in religious organizations.
She has also deputized an intern over the past year and a half of the research project. Moriah Torres, an A&M–San Antonio student, has pored through archives at the First Presbyterian Church showing that black people were elders in the local parish as early as the 1860s.
“One thing I’ve picked up from this whole experience,” said Torres, “is that everyone’s narrative is extremely important.”
In conjunction with Fly, Barragán-Goetz, and the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, Torres has been compiling a map of where black people lived in Bexar County based on her research. Every quadrant of the city is dotted with former black residences. It wasn’t until redlining practices – the systematic denial of financial services, such as home mortgages and insurance policies, for people of certain races or ethnic minorities starting in the 1930s – that black communities in San Antonio migrated to the undervalued East Side, where they could ostensibly qualify for a home loan, Torres said.
The exploration of the Mitchell ranch home and cemetery bears historical significance because it sheds new light on slavery in San Antonio, said Amy Porter, who teaches history at A&M–San Antonio.
“A lot of people don’t think of slavery as being important in San Antonio,” Porter said. “I think the Mitchell story changes that.”
Mitchell’s slaves were carpenters and masons, according to the team’s research. They built the ranch home that still stands today – albeit as a one-story structure after a fire in the 1940s destroyed the second level – and were also loaned to other landowners in Bexar County for their construction skills, Barragán-Goetz said.
In addition to the Anglo and ethnic Mexican settlers who lived in San Antonio around the time of its 1845 annexation into the U.S., Mexican and American ranch hands lived on the Mitchell land along with his slaves. The Mitchell property provides a microcosm of the city’s “multiethnic and multilayered” past, Porter said.
A&M–San Antonio wants to preserve the site and make archival material available to the broader public, Provost Mike O’Brien said. Texas law requires access to anyone who wants to visit a cemetery or private burial ground. Conversations will take place after the radar analysis of the gravesites, he said.
“It’s a chance to preserve a chunk of history – not only physical remains, like the house or the cemetery, but to showcase the fact that we want to work with great researchers who are working to preserve the past and to make the history available to people on the South Side,” O’Brien said. “That’s why we’re here. It’s projects like these – especially one in our backyard – that allow us to do that.”
James never imagined the kinds of discoveries that Fly and his team would make after showing him the photograph in her family booklet.
“It’s a whole other chapter about our history,” she said. “By ‘our’ I mean not just our family but to me, the county.”