The San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM) has found a home at La Villita, ending a years-long search for an easily accessible place for its documents and other materials that together tell the story of Black San Antonians through history.

The 3-year-old organization plans to open to the public Feb. 25 with a special exhibition and selected archives on view and present the first film in a series of screenings Feb. 27 at the Arneson River Theatre.

The museum sought a new home after losing its lease in July at the historic Sutton homestead on North Cherry Street, a space it shared with Hope House Ministries. Its new location in Building 20 at the corner of Nueva and Presa streets will allow daily regular hours and an accessible location, said Executive Director Deborah Omowale Jarmon.

“It’s such a great location” that will allow both locals and tourists a glimpse into the dynamic Black history of the city, Jarmon said. Asked what specific audiences the museum hoped to attract, she said, “our intent is to attract curious children of all ages.”

Jarmon’s own curiosity as a child led her toward a path of exploring Black history. Each Saturday she would join her father to watch the old movie westerns he loved, but she noted a distinct absence.

“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me,” Jarmon said. “So actually it was kind of boring, because I couldn’t relate.”

After later seeing the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Los Angeles in 1991, she would learn that Black cowboys played a significant role in the development of the West, making their exclusion from popular depictions of the time deliberate.

“When I see myself in history, then I know that I matter. Then I know I have a place,” she said, emphasizing the importance of representation in histories, whether popular or scholarly.

The materials collected in the museum’s archives will serve as family-friendly educational material, with programs specifically designed for children, but will also inspire youth and adults from San Antonio and beyond, she said.

The first special exhibition will chart the life of Eugene Coleman, the civil rights and community activist who published SNAP magazine intermittently from 1949 to 2009. A permanent exhibition will present a timeline that illustrates Black history in the city through photographs and documents from the archive, including the cattle brands of Black ranchers collected by landscape architect Everett Fly. Walk on the River, by local documentary filmmakers Melaneyes Media, will be the featured film Feb. 27, followed by screenings throughout the year to include films on the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson, and “Bronze Buckaroo” Herb Jeffries, who sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared in a series of race films made in San Antonio and directed by Spencer Williams of the Amos ‘n’ Andy television show.

While SAAACAM archives are also housed at Texas A&M University San Antonio and its Race Ed education programs are available online, Jarmon said having a physical space that’s accessible to the public for free admission will make the experience more tactile and engaging.

The new 700-square-foot space is not enough to contain the whole archive, so the museum will continue its search for what Jarmon ultimately hopes becomes a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot permanent museum location. Even if that day arrives, she said, SAAACAM would hope to keep its La Villita space in operation because of its potential to reach an audience of visitors to the nearby River Walk.

Jarmon noted that the benefits of the downtown location include partnerships with the Arneson for its film series, with Go Rio riverboats for Black history tours on the river, and with nearby neighbor the Briscoe Western Art Museum for the film series on Black cowboys. SAAACAM will also partner with the Witte Museum, where it was headquartered temporarily this summer, on a future exhibit – planned for 2022 – exploring the same Black cowboys that were a turning point in Jarmon’s education.

The La Villita location puts Black history squarely in the heart of the city, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and continues the tradition of a Black educational presence downtown. The vocational school that eventually became St. Philip’s College was once located behind what is now the Little Church at La Villita building just around the corner on Villita Street.

"The chapel at La Villita was once home to an Episcopal congregation, whose church brought Artemisia Bowden to San Antonio to teach black girls home economics.
The Little Church at La Villita was once home to an Episcopal congregation, which brought Artemisia Bowden to San Antonio to teach Black girls home economics. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The fact that they’re going to be at La Villita is a wonderful thing,” Treviño said. “This is a way for the city to continuously show its diverse history.”

Treviño said the project of finding a downtown location for the museum has been years in the making “and shows that when when we have a good direction moving forward in the city, that good things will happen because of it.”

SAAACAM is one part of “that bigger history puzzle that we have in our city, in telling … all our history,” he said, which includes the Alamo Plaza redevelopment, and the African American Civil Rights Institute coming to the Kress building as two examples.

Deborah Shipley, a fellow La Villita tenant and treasurer of the La Villita Tenants Association, said she is excited to welcome a new neighbor.

“The more activation there is in the village, the better it is for everyone,” Shipley said. “We attract a larger group of visitors to the village when we have a variety of different types of museums and shops, and I applaud that.”

In advance of its February opening, the museum will offer walking tours of Eastview Cemetery, where notable Black San Antonians are buried, on Jan. 16 as part of its Dreamweek activities, Jarmon said. Information on the tour and tickets are available here.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...