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Nettie Hinton and I have been allies for 15 years. We do not agree on which of the times our paths crossed before that and we actually met. But since the now-defunct Neighborhood Resource Center neighborhood leadership class of 2002, Nettie – from District 2 – and I – from District 3 – have shared many common concerns and allowed each other to vent to a sympathetic ear.
Nettie is not a person who readily accepts – or easily asks – for help. A year ago, I was concerned about her, and she graciously and assertively let me know that a right-minded woman such as herself did not need anyone else to worry about her. A week later, as we sat across the table from each other at an event, she asked me to guess where she had been the day before, then told me in a determinedly casual manner that she had been to the emergency room.
I asked if someone else had called an ambulance or she had. She explained that she had decided there was no reason to go to a hospital where people would not be familiar with her. She had gone to her doctor, and the doctor gave her the option to get herself to the emergency room or go by ambulance. Nettie concluded that if the doctor thought she could drive to the emergency room, there was no reason anyone else needed to be called. I knew better than to say anything.
No, Nettie is not a person who often asks for help. As one of the first black graduates of the University of Texas at Austin, she has doubtlessly sailed through many uncharted and often turbulent waters. So when she told me that she needed my help at her Night In Old San Antonio (NIOSA) booth, it was noteworthy. She was the person who first sponsored me to join the San Antonio Conservation Society, which hosts NIOSA each year. This was the first time a voting member had asked me to do something other than things they could not get anyone else to do, and it sounded like a great adventure.
I went to the NAACP office during Nettie’s volunteer shift to pick up my credentials. She said, as if an afterthought, “Oh, and you’ll have to wear a floweredy dress.” I knew the type she meant, but had no idea where to get one and no time to search thrift stores.
“I have dresses from Mexico embroidered with flowers,” I offered.
“No, Rachel,” she replied. “You’re not going to be Mexican. You’re going to be African-American.” Then she explained how the sight of the sharply dressed men volunteering would “stop traffic,” wooing customers to Froggy Bottom where Mama Sweets (Nettie) would have New Orleans-style pralines waiting. We were to wear “floweredy” dresses and appear to be drinking tea.
In addition to locating a “floweredy” dress, I was worried about finding one that wasn’t polyester. Wearing synthetic material makes me sweat. The original “floweredy” dresses must have been cotton, but I suspected that they were all polyester now. At 4 a.m., just 12 hours before the shift started, I clicked “pick up at store” on Target.com to reserve a sheer 100% polyester flower print too sheer to wear alone, and ordered a non-polyester dress to be shipped in case I did this again next year.
I arrived late for the shift. The volunteer parking at CPS Energy opened at 4 p.m., but the guard said my NIOSA volunteer credentials were not enough. I had to have something for my car other than a state-issued placard.
Walking from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center parking garage, I observed the VIA park-and-ride buses unloading where the Convention Center used to be. As each bus emptied, a plainclothes officer with a dog inconspicuously entered each bus to clear it. One of the passengers diverted her path toward me and greeted me with, “You are a very courageous woman.”
The woman told me she knew how difficult it was for someone with mobility limitations to go to a Fiesta event. Her first NIOSA had been in 1954, and for many years she volunteered in the German section. This was her first return since moving to Bulverde several years ago. The woman dropped behind the hurried Fiesta-goers to keep pace with me. When we part, she promised to come buy a praline.
Nettie and the other volunteers were at the back of the booth where there was shade. The gates did not open until 5:30 p.m., and a little after 5 p.m. the lower level of Froggy Bottom was filled with lines of volunteers getting chicken on a stick with a jalapeño before taking up stations at their booths.
The Mama Sweets booth was near the Froggy Bottom command center. Nettie introduced me to Mary Ellen, Judy, and Walter. The three of them, like Nettie, live in the Dignowity Hill Historic District.
I told them I am also a neighbor.
“Rachel, you are [not my] neighbor,” Nettie said. “You live clear across the interstate. You are my colleague and my friend. These are my neighbors.” I argued that we all live east of downtown, and Nettie conceded to that.
I realized that Mary Ellen is the neighbor whose husband came to Nettie’s rescue and made temporary doors when the original antique doors of Nettie’s historic home were stolen from their hinges on Labor Day in 2016. We are talking serious neighbors. Judy also has a very special connection to Nettie: together, the two frequent The Friendly Spot, where Nettie spends a substantial number of evenings during UT and NFL football seasons and Spurs basketball seasons.
Walter was the designated sharply dressed man for the A shift. Nettie told me to place a chair in front of the booth opposite where Walter was to welcome people to Froggy Bottom, and she instructed me to add that this is the African-American Heritage section.
Mary Ellen was aggressively friendly. She held a praline in her right hand and leaned over the lavender-painted cart with yellow flowers. If she caught the eyes of a passer-by, she dropped her voice and said, “You know you want it.” She followed up by twirling her left index finger above the praline and saying, “Your name is written on it.”
Judy supported Mary Ellen and was always right there, moving between the refrigerator and the cart to refill the pralines as they were sold. The pralines were displayed on the brims of four hats sitting on the cart. Several people asked if they could buy the hats and were disappointed that only the pralines were for sale.
Walter’s style captured my attention. Like Nettie, he had a practiced ability to look at a person and establish immediate rapport. As people passed by, Walter slightly stepped forward and spoke to them in confidential tones. He engaged men of every age and every passing ethnicity or race with a conversation. A few purchased pralines. Most did not, but they slowed down enough to listen to the music in Froggy Bottom.
I wanted so much to ask Walter about how he got all these people to talk with him, but the traffic kept flowing. Some people thanked me for welcoming them to Froggy Bottom. When I said that it is the African-American Heritage section, it was usually the older white couples who responded. Several thanked me for volunteering. A few young black people laughed in a polite way as if we were sharing a funny moment. The sight of my ultra-sheer polyester dress over my day clothes – the dress being too sheer and low-cut to wear alone – must have been pretty funny.
The first hour, I realized just how difficult it is to sell pralines. My German heritage friend from the sidewalk kept her word and showed up to buy a praline. After consuming it, she told me that her own recipe adds buttermilk, very different from the New Orleans style. Most of the people walking past had at least one chicken stick in hand. A few were eating two or even three as they walked. They had to wait in line a long time for the chicken and did not seem particularly interested in other food.
As the sun set and quite a few people had consumed some beers or margaritas, more people gathered to listen to the music on the stage in Froggy Bottom. Walter’s shift ended and Nettie took his place. Nettie asked me to send people who wanted to learn more about African-American history into the booth to talk with her. But no one asked.
As she took her seat, Nettie told Mary Ellen that this was about much more than raising funds for the Conservation Society; it was really about heritage.
“Remember, you have this music because of African-Americans,” Nettie told any older white people who danced by. To the black men, she instructed them to go listen to the music and “shake your booty before you leave” in the same tones as if she were instructing a child to brush his teeth.
To every young black person, she extended her arms upward in appeal. Two of them shunned this elderly, disabled black woman who was reaching out to them. But all the others reached their hands out to clasp hers, enchanted by this stranger who asked them “Do you know why you’re here?”
Nettie told them.
Nettie asked the young black women in college shirts what they knew of their heritage. She told them any time they hear music like the music in Froggy Bottom, they should know that it originated from their culture.
She was gentle with those who had nothing to say. “This section is all about you,” Nettie said.
I sensed something very strong, very urgent in the way my friend was appealing to these passers-by. The week before I had vented to Nettie about San Antonio leaders not understanding that urban blight was about humans and not just buildings, and she had shared her concern that all the people moving to San Antonio because of its rich cultural heritage might inadvertently destroy it because they don’t know its history. “But I don’t think they are unwilling to learn,” I said.
“But who will teach them?” Nettie lamented. It is this Nettie I was seeing, a woman who knows of the richness of her cultural heritage and quietly worries about it not being passed on. This is what is important to her, and has been her affinity with the Conservation Society — to be informed about the present by understanding the past.
I contemplate my own life when elders such as Nettie, who have so richly blessed me, are gone. It is a thought too terrible to hold. And Nettie is a very tenacious person. Perhaps she will outlive me. Yet I know the issue she raises. The urgency to pass on the heritage to those who will inherit it is very real for San Antonio as a city.
And as a person with an urgent message, she gets straight to the point. She doesn’t ask to tell her experiences transferring from a historically black college to a previously all-white university, or say her family owned the legendary Eastwood Country Club, or share the current statistics on crime and race in the United States.
At NIOSA, Nettie looked each of the young black people in the eye and shared her true message: This is your heritage. It is important because you are important.
And so as the night set in and the B shift volunteers did not arrive, I sang out to those who passed, “Welcome to Froggy Bottom, the African-American Heritage section.”