Dr. Ruth Simmons, Prairie View A&M University president, is the keynote speaker at San Antonio's Eastside Tricentennial Celebration.
Dr. Ruth Simmons, Prairie View A&M University president, is the keynote speaker at San Antonio's Eastside Tricentennial Celebration. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For those gathered at St. Philip’s College Thursday night, 2018 signified more than one historic celebration. This year marks both the Tricentennial of San Antonio and the 120th anniversary of St. Philip’s, an institution that started as a technical school for girls in 1898.

On Thursday, City leaders and Eastside community members celebrated both occasions with performances by the San Antonio Symphony, the St. Philip’s College Choir, and a one-woman play depicting Artemisia Bowden’s contributions to the evolution of St. Philip’s.

In a keynote speech, Prairie View A&M University President and longtime education advocate Ruth Simmons addressed the packed auditorium to reflect on the role education has played, and will continue to play, in the city’s and nation’s history.

She said 300 years is “nothing to sneeze at,” explaining that a lot has changed to get San Antonio to where it is today. Simmons asked the audience to think about what the world was like three centuries ago, recounting transformations in technology, science, and social structures.

And now, she said, “San Antonio has become a model city for culture.” A lot of that has to do with St. Philip’s, Simmons said.

The Eastside community college campus first opened at a different location in 1898 to offer a weekend sewing class to recently emancipated slaves. One of the school’s early influential leaders depicted in the one-woman play, Artemisia Bowden: Savior of St. Philip’s, came to the school in 1902.

Bowden, portrayed by actress and playwright Antoinette Winstead, worked at St. Philip’s for more than 50 years. She oversaw the school’s transformation from an industrial school for girls to a high school, and later to a junior college in its current location on the Eastside.

Throughout her time at St. Philip’s, Bowden advocated for the education of black students at a time when education of minorities was often threatened.

“One cannot imagine … what this country would have become without compassionate, civil-minded men and women [coming forward] to provide education for the disenfranchised,” Simmons said. “Where would we be as a country?”

Actress and playwright Antoinette Winstead performs Artemisia Bowden: Savior or St. Philip's alongside vocalist Michelle Burnett and musician Vanessa Allen.
Actress and playwright Antoinette Winstead (right) performs Artemisia Bowden: Savior or St. Philip’s alongside vocalist Michelle Burnett and musician Vanessa Allen. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Simmons recounted her own challenges on her path to higher education, having been the 12th child born to sharecroppers in Grapeland, Texas. Simmons said some of her brothers and sisters struggled to obtain an education due to sharecroppers’ strenuous labor and duties. Her family eventually moved to Houston, where Simmons attended school and met influential educators who encouraged her to go to college.

She said some of her teachers sought out scholarships so she could attend Dillard University in New Orleans, while others gave her clothes and sent money when she was away at school so she could continue her studies. Simmons’ teachers gave her access to an education that put her on a path to eventually becoming the first black woman president of an Ivy League university.

“Access is just one aspect,” she cautioned, turning her attention to challenges current and future students face in their own educational journeys. Simmons addressed affordability, elitism, and unrelated course requirements.

She said educators must nurture students who don’t think the same way as everyone else.

“The one thing we can recognize is people who have enabled this institution to stand were the people who would not sit down and shut up,” she said to applause. “Let’s vow in this Tricentennial to take a lesson from that past to make sure we make room in society for people who dare to challenge what we are doing, who dare to speak for the rights of others. Let us make room for that and more importantly, let us protect it.”

St. Philip’s College President Adena Williams Loston told the audience at the beginning of the evening that the school intended to “go big” with Thursday’s celebration. At the close of the event, when members of the Sam Houston High School drumline marched onto stage and the audience stood to clap and dance along to the drum beats, it was clear Loston had achieved what she set out to do.

Eastside San Antonio native Dina Branford said she thought the whole celebration was amazing “from the beginning performance by the Symphony to the end speaker.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.