San Antonio is currently having a dynamic conversation about the history of our city in the time leading up to Texas becoming the 28th U.S. state. Particularly at issue is the narrative surrounding the Battle of the Alamo, especially in the context of the current-day evolving Alamo restoration story.   

During the public discourse surrounding the Alamo restoration project that began around 2016, the significance of the Woolworth building, bordering Alamo Plaza, came to light as an important and early African American civil rights movement site where one of the first integrated lunch counters in the region was established on March 16, 1960.

More recently, the issue of enslavement has been raised as having been excluded from the historical narrative of our local and state histories. For example, see Ruben Cordova’s commentary “Remember the Alamo for What it Really Represents.” In past weeks, local and national media have covered the controversial book Forget the Alamo, culminating in an incident where the Bullock Museum in Austin canceled a speaking event by the authors. 

In her new book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, Alice Baumgartner, an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California, pulls the spotlight back from the Alamo to widen our view of this mythic historical event. Her book, like Forget the Alamo, is part of a new wave of historical writing that is putting Texas’ relationship with slavery front and center to our nation’s current discussion of race and history.

South to Freedom tells the story of what happened, from east to west, between Louisiana and California, as northern Mexico’s territory bordering the Deep South began to be colonized and primed for slavery by the norteamericanos; and from north to south, between the United States and Mexico, as the United States laid claim to the northern third of Mexico in the mid-1800s.  

Baumgartner expands our view by showing us how Tejas, and then Texas, was central to the aggressive westward expansion efforts of slave-owning interests in the southern United States at that time. She also documents the escape of fugitive enslaved people from Louisiana to Mexico via Tejas and later via Texas, both by land and across the Gulf of Mexico, including the story of the Black Seminoles, a tribe that helped defend the northern Mexican border. 

She expertly weaves first-hand accounts with extensive research from Mexican and U.S. archives to tell these stories, and under the lens of slavery takes us through the colonization of Texas, to the tensions fueling the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

The book also provides an often disregarded and discounted view of Mexico by illuminating its opposing stance on slavery, which deeply threatened anti-abolitionists and profoundly affected the discussion and development of slavery in the United States. The pressure of Louisiana against Mexico’s northern territories along the border with Tejas is palpable, as is the sandwiching pressure in Mexico’s northern territories once Texas was occupied and the U.S. reimagined its southern border with Mexico. 

Baumgartener describes in great detail how, as early as 1828, American colonizers were able to gain a foothold in Tejas by disregarding Mexican laws that regulated settlement and forbade the importing of enslaved people. By 1835, Tejas was home to 30,000 colonists, 5,000 enslaved people, and 4,000 Mexicans, and colonizers were preparing to defend Tejas in a move toward independence.

The transition of Tejas to Texas was an intricate process in which San Antonio was attacked or occupied several times. First, in December 1835, after Mexico made a show of strength by occupying San Antonio de Bejar, the Americans used the Alamo as a diversion by staging a mock raid. As the Mexicans moved toward the Alamo, the Americans took their real target, the presidio of San Antonio. 

Wanting to lure the Mexicans further into the province “where the terrain was unfamiliar and the people hostile” General Sam Houston ordered James Bowie to dismantle the Alamo. But Bowie disregarded the orders. “By defending the Alamo, Bowie and his men could keep the Mexican Army far from the plantations of eastern Texas — and the enslaved people who worked on them,” wrote Baumgartner. “The salvation of Texas depends in great measure in keeping Béjar out of the hands of the enemy,” Bowie wrote to Governor Henry Smith in a letter. “It serves as the frontier piquet guard.” William B. Travis was assigned by the governor to assist, as Santa Anna moved toward San Antonio with his troops. 

Baumgartner tells that at the ensuing Battle of the Alamo in March 1836, among the fighting, Travis’ slave, Joe, was assigned to load his guns as Travis fired at Santa Anna’s troops. After Travis was shot and killed, Joe retired to a hiding place in the barracks. When the Mexicans came upon him in the aftermath, they let him go rather than executing him. Baumgartner summarizes the battle with the statement: “The Texians claimed to have taken up arms in defense of freedom and democracy, but they had, in fact, been fighting for something other than liberty.”  

The Texians finally achieved victory at San Jacinto in April 1836, which led to the end of the war. That fall, the Republic of Texas drafted the following passage into its Constitution of 1836, as quoted by Baumgartner:

All persons of color who were enslaved people for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude. … Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their enslaved people into the republic with them and holding them by the same tenure by which such enslaved people were held in the United States. 

Soon after, President Andrew Jackson, fearing unpopularity, recognized Texas’ independence in a political move short of annexation. And with that, the Mexican Congress in 1837 unanimously and fully abolished slavery. “That Mexico’s Congress abolished slavery in the wake of the Texas Revolution was no coincidence. The loss of Texas eliminated one of the largest slaveholding regions in Mexico. Because the Anglo colonists had revolted, the national authorities were under no obligation to compensate them for any loss,” wrote Baumgartner, citing Mexico’s Decree of April 5, 1837. “Enslaved people escaped in droves to the south.” 

Even though the people of Texas voted for annexation as early as September 1836, it took nearly 10 years and three attempts for the United States to annex the state. Much of the discussion and hesitance around independence and annexation was over the issue of slavery and how annexation would affect future policy toward slavery in the U.S. 

As late as 1841, Mexico was still asserting its objections to slavery in the Republic of Texas, taking the position that it would refuse to “ratify any treaty with Texas ‘except on the basis of reannexation and the abolition of slavery’” as “fourteen hundred Mexican troops seized the city of San Antonio and the nearby towns of Goliad and Refugio.”  Though this incident was presumably short lived, “the threat of the Mexican Army marching across Texas also struck fear in the hearts of norteamericanos” on an ongoing basis, suggests Baumgartner. Abel Upshur, a Virginia politician successfully used that threat to argue (falsely, according to Baumgartner) that foreign powers, namely Great Britain, were unduly influencing Mexico in violation of the Monroe Doctrine, which elevated the issue of annexation to a matter perceived as national security.

When Texas was finally annexed in 1845, it was under President John Tyler, who with only one day remaining in his term, decided to annex the state. The annexation led to the Mexican-American War. 

The book also chronicles the years leading up to the Civil War, as annexation of more abolitionist states, Mexican policy, and even world opinion tipped the scales toward anti-slavery sentiment, putting pressure on the South. “Twenty-six years after General Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered his generals to free enslaved people during the Texas Revolution, Lincoln threatened to use the same policy against the rebels in the United States,” says Baumgartner. 

South to Freedom provides detailed documentation of the decades-long process of acquiring Mexico’s northern lands, beginning with the state of Texas, and the central role that the gamesmanship of annexation played on the future of slavery in the U.S. By shedding light on this little known history, Baumgartner helps us to better understand our past as a city, and reveal new ways of thinking about how we want to tell our story. 

Elise Urrutia

Elise Urrutia is a long-time San Antonian and writes on a variety of topics including history, art, and music. She is the author of the book Miraflores: San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory, forthcoming...