“We’re here today to celebrate the work of those who took Ellis Alley from buildings on the brink of demolition to a treasured landmark with renewed purpose for the historic Eastside and the greater San Antonio region,” said VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt.
The project refurbished six historic buildings in what was San Antonio’s first post-Civil War African American “freedom colony.” It was a place where freed slaves could own property for the first time and served as a major hub for the community for many years.
The site is now home to the Ellis Alley Park and Ride, established in May 1999, the Charles B. Shannon Customer Information Center, established in 2002, and a private dental office. The historic Beacon Light Lodge was also restored in August 2014 and the two remaining structures were completed in September 2014.
VIA joined with the City’s Department of Planning and Community Development Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and the San Antonio Conservation Society as investment partners for the project, and several architecture and engineering firms, contractors, and San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) played a hand in the restoration process.
The new SAGE offices are now located in the area.
Arndt was joined by VIA Board Secretary Lester Bryant, who shared remarks on the historical importance of the site and honored its three “founding mothers” — Artemisia Bowden, former principal at what is now St. Phillip’s College, Myra Davis Hemmings, a former English and drama teacher at Phyllis Wheatley and Douglas School, and Hattie Briscoe, a teacher who became the first female African-American student to graduate from St. Mary’s School of Law.
“Their contributions helped shape the foundation of our community and they are among those who we remember and celebrate with this award,” Arndt said.
The likeness of the three “founding mothers” is depicted on a mosaic art piece at the site.
Receiving the award during Black History Month was especially poignant, Bryant added, since this year’s theme is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.”
Bruce MacDougal, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society, said preserving San Antonio history in this way makes him emotional.
“(The Ellis Alley buildings) represent a really important collective history here especially for the African American community,” he said. “These are true landmarks and its wonderful to know that they’ll be here for many future generations.”
Sue Ann Pemberton, principal at Mainstreet Architects, Inc., echoed the community’s support for the restoration of the Ellis Alley enclave and similar historical sites in town.
“The area is extremely significant in the development of San Antonio and the development of the African American community,” she said. “It was the first place African Americans could own property, so keeping these buildings as that link to the past, explaining how people did live here and that there was a thriving community is important.”
*Top image: A mosaic art piece dedicated to three influential African-American women; Artemesia Bowden, Myra Davis Hemmings, and Hattie Briscoe. Photo by Scott Ball.