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African Americans in South Texas History
By Bruce A. Glasrud
Texas A&M University Press Copyright © 2011 Bruce A. Glasrud
All rights reserved.
Defending the Unnecessary
Slavery in San Antonio in the 1850s
LARRY P. KNIGHT
THOUGH SAN ANTONIO IS USUALLY PERCEIVED AS A Mexican or Mexican American city, from 1845–61 it was an antebellum southern city. Its location and the domination of the city's government by Anglos caused the city to embrace that most distinctive of all southern institutions, slavery—which, though neither numerically large nor economically significant, was important in San Antonio. This fact raises two questions: Why was slavery important in San Antonio? And what did slavery look like there?
The importance of slavery in San Antonio was due in part to the status of the slaveholders. Although a small minority in the city, they were generally wealthy and powerful people and their ideas about slavery carried great weight. Gross wealth (in real and personal estate) given in the 1860 census for the seventy-nine identified slaveholders was $2,969,469, or $37,588 each. Nonslaveholders averaged only $1,548. So while slavery was of little economic importance, slaveholders in the city had great economic importance.
Another important aspect of slavery in San Antonio (though difficult to prove) was that immigrants from the free states were listed among the slaveholders, and by becoming slaveholders they seemed to admit that the South, in its most controversial difference with the North, was correct. While it is true that not many nonsouthern natives owned slaves, the percentage of nonsouthern heads of household who owned slaves was slightly greater in San Antonio than the percentage of southern heads of household who did, and the percentage grew during the 1850s. Nonsoutherners in 1850 composed 57.6 percent of slaveholders, and in 1860 they composed 58.3 percent. The San Antonio Herald interpreted these numbers, initially proclaiming the impossibility of Yankees becoming southerners: "It is useless to say that Northern men become Southernized after their removal. It is impossible for them to feel as we do. They are not to the manor born. They cannot feel hostile to their old homes, to their relatives and friends. They must always be strangers to that sectional, Southern love and enthusiasm which would constitute the all-important element in the great crises."
However, the writer left the door open by admitting that there were "some worthy exceptions to these rules." By the next year the door was wide open. J. H. French, who later become mayor and was a Yankee immigrant, remarked that most northerners were ignorant about life in the South. The editor of the Herald now agreed and believed that if Yankees ever came to Texas, they would never leave: "If they would come among our people and see the freedom of thought and action, the general intelligence and thrift characteristic of our giant young State, the scales would fall from their eyes, and they would bid adieu forever to the land of flint rocks, freezing winds, and 'free negroes' and end their days among the beautiful savannas of Texas."
In another article the Herald writer noted that "the great majority of Northern men who have come among us, and have made the South their permanent home, have become the advocates of slave labor, and many of them among the largest slave holders." The Herald's assessment was that immigrants from free states had been transformed into slaveholders and advocates of slavery. It was not a far stretch, then, to assume that since the South was correct concerning the greatest difference between the sections—as evidenced by the Yankee slaveholders themselves—it was also correct in all other differences between the sections.
Though not noted with the same interest, immigrants of foreign birth were also numerous among the slaveholders. They hailed from such diverse countries as Scotland, England, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Italy, France, Poland, Mexico, and Germany. Among the groups most associated with animosity to slavery, the Hispanics and the Germans, six slaveholders from each were found in the 1860 census. Included among the German slaveholders was state senator Gustav Schleicher.
Further evidence of slavery's importance was the inordinate amount of time and effort given to slavery by the city government. Beginning in 1850 and continuing until 1860, numerous slave codes were enacted to control the city's few slaves.
The first city ordinance aimed at the slaves, passed in 1850, actually placed few restrictions on them; it was merely a curfew, which could be avoided if the slave had a pass from the master. Slaves had to be in their homes by 9:30 P.M. from October 1 until April 1 and by 10:15 P.M. from April 1to October 1, although the term "home" was not defined. To insure that slaves were not caught unaware, a warning bell was rung fifteen minutes prior to the curfew bell. The fifteen minutes was no great imposition since there was no point in San Antonio that could not be reached from any other point on foot within fifteen minutes. Slaves caught outside after curfew were to be kept "in the calaboose" until their master paid a $5 fine. If the fine was not paid, the slave would be worked by the city as payment. The clause was not stringent, especially since a slave need not obey it if the master allowed an exception.
This ordinance was followed a few months later by one that defined "home." Home was the place so designated for the slave by the master. However, even this restriction allowed the slave to sleep outside the home if the slave's master provided a pass designating the place and duration of residence away from home. The punishment for violating the first part of the code was a fine of $5 to be paid by the master, or the slave would pay for the infringement by being whipped. The second section of the ordinance prohibited, without exception, the right of a slave to rent his own place. In case of a violation of this section, punishment, a fine of from $10 to $50, was assigned to the master. The third section of the ordinance prohibited slaves and free blacks from opening eating or rooming establishments unless given express consent to do so by the city council, an event so unlikely that no instance of it was recorded in the city council minutes in the entire decade of the 1850s. Violations of this section of the ordinance were punishable by a $10 fine to be paid by the master.
No further slave ordinances were passed for more than a year, when the city added three further restrictions to the lives of the slaves. No one was allowed to sell them liquor, they were not allowed to sell anything, and they could not carry weapons in town—all with the exception that these things could be done with permission from their master. Punishment for violations was a fine of $5 to $20 for anyone selling liquor to the slave, $5 to $25 for buying from the slave, and $1 to $10 levied against the master of the slave carrying a weapon without permission, or a thirty-day incarceration for the slave.
The slave codes of San Antonio remained unchanged for the balance of the 1850s, good evidence that the citizens of San Antonio saw no need to change them. And, in fact, nothing within the confines of the city occurred that warranted changing them. Yet, changed they were, and severely, when the tension-filled decade of the 1850s gave way to the 1860s. The 1850s, which opened with a compromise designed to solve all past, present, and future problems of slavery, saw the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the "Bleeding Kansas" conflict, the Dred Scott decision, and John Brown's raid. These events were followed by the presidential election of 1860, which kindled fears of a black Republican's attaining the presidency of the United States. Though all these events affected Texas, what caused the leaders of San Antonio to create a more severe slave code was the "Texas troubles." These consisted of a number of fires presumed to be acts of arson, and a number of well poisonings in the summer of 1860. All were attributed to slaves acting under the influence of abolitionists.
Because of these troubles, a new slave ordinance was enacted that year. It lengthened the number of hours when slaves had to be off the city's streets. The curfew now began at 8:15 P.M. instead of 10:15 P.M. from April to October and at 7:15 P.M. instead of 9:30 P.M from October to April. Any slave outdoors after that time was to be arrested, and the master was to be fined $2.50 per day from the time of the slave's arrest. If the owner refused to pay the fine, the slave was to receive up to twenty lashes with a whip or to provide labor for the city for up to five days. If the master arrived and wanted the slave whipped, the fine was dropped, but the master had to pay $1 for the whipping. The only exception was that a slave could be out during the hours of curfew if he had a pass from the master. Unlike the 1850 ordinance, however, the pass was good for only one day and had to state the purpose of the slave's outing.
The lives of the slaves of San Antonio became more severely restricted in other ways as well. Slaves could not live separately from their masters, and no provision was made for the owner to give consent for an exception. Nor could a slave visit or even "hang around" a liquor-selling business. Both of these offenses were punishable by fines of up to $50 for the master, and the slave could also receive up to thirty-nine lashes.
Other provisions were focused on the master, though the slave might still bear the punishment. A slave was not allowed to "hire his or her time, or to go at large and trade as a free person." The master of a slave caught in such action was to be fined up to $50. Although a slave could not hire himself out, he could be employed by other than his master, but only with the master's written permission, and the permit was valid for no more than a week. Those wanting to employ a slave had to do so through the master or an agent, but if through an agent, permission in writing from the master had to be obtained.
Previously there had been no restrictions on slaves' assembling, but under the new ordinance no more than five slaves could gather, except with the permission of the owner or at worship services. For a dance to be held, the owner not only had to be present but also had to secure written permission from the mayor. Punishment for a violation of the proscription against assembly could be as much as $20 for an owner or twenty lashes for the slave.
Two sections of the ordinance included free blacks as well as slaves. No one from either group could keep a weapon; nor could he or she play cards. The punishment for carrying a weapon was thirty-nine lashes or a fine of $10. The punishment for card-playing was twenty lashes or $10. More severe monetary punishment was reserved for a white person who played cards with a black person; the fine could be as high as $75. One section of the ordinance remained the same as the previous ones—the city would provide the service of administering a whipping that consisted of up to thirty-nine lashes for only one dollar.
Not only were the slave ordinances made stricter, the city council also established a night watch for the city, and citizens were warned to secure their property at night. A night watch had been established once before, during the political conflict of 1856 between the Know-Nothings and the Democrats, but it had met with such opposition that it was repealed. The fear of fires and poisonings, however, insured that there was no such opposition this time.
Only two of the eight councilmen owned slaves, and nothing had occurred in San Antonio to warrant the new slave codes. No fires had been set, no wells poisoned, no secret slave societies uncovered, and no abolitionists unearthed. Such extreme action with so little provocation in itself suggests the fundamental significance of slavery to the city leaders.
Further evidence of the importance of slavery in San Antonio was its frequent discussion in the city's newspapers; regular reading about slavery made it an important aspect of the lives of the citizens despite the fact that few of them owned slaves. Shortly after the firing on Ft. Sumter, the editor of the Ledger and Texan noted that the "question of slavery is the only question between us, all others are incidental and subsidiary.... It is the negro and the negro alone that underlies our undying hostility." His statement was merely the culmination of years of articles about slavery in the newspapers. In the mid-1850s the papers had noted the runaway slave scare that swept through Texas, reported the formation of a Vigilante Committee of ten of the city's leading citizens, and reported the notice of a reward offered by three of the city's slaveholders "for the apprehension and conviction of any free person who may be guilty of enticing away or stealing any slave from the County of Bexar." The runaway scare—that produced no runaways in San Antonio—was followed closely by the political fight between Know-Nothings and Democrats previously mentioned. Though both parties had the same stand on slavery, each flailed away at the other on the issue. The Democrats accused the Know-Nothings of softness on slavery, and the Know-Nothings tried to prove that the Demo crats were abolitionists by linking them to the Germans while linking the Germans to abolitionist newspaper editor Adolf Douai. Throughout the decade the San Antonio Zeitung also carried advertisements by owners seeking runaway slaves, and the Texas troubles were also widely carried in the papers. Thus slavery as a topic was seldom absent from the city press.
Another aspect of slavery that enhanced its importance was the opposition to it, though that opposition was more perceived than real. The most outspoken opponent of slavery in San Antonio was Douai. His importance was due not so much to his opposition to slavery as to the assumption that he represented many other Germans who, though too afraid to speak openly against slavery, were nevertheless ready if the opportunity arose to help in a slave escape or join a slave revolt, and who might quietly increase in numbers until they were powerful enough to establish a free state of Western Texas.
In 1852, Douai moved to San Antonio and became the editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, which was the city's first German-language newspaper. In 1854, he used a Sangerfest (singing festival) held in the city as his launching pad for an abolitionist campaign. The campaign was a failure from its inception. Only fifty-four of the one thousand Sangerfest attendees were present at the antislavery meeting. Despite the poor showing, the meeting convinced many San Antonians that the German citizens of the city were abolitionists, a belief that maintained its currency throughout the decade despite the paucity of evidence. The attention paid to this event and to Douai, who left San Antonio in 1856, attests further to the significance of slavery in San Antonio.
Allied to the Germans in their opposition to slavery were, it was believed, the majority of Hispanic citizens. Though they did nothing overt to help the slaves, they wanted to see slavery end and would support the Germans in establishing a free state with San Antonio as its major city; at least, that was the belief. It was enforced by the Hispanics' penchant for making no distinction based on race. Abolitionist Benjamin Lundy noted this in the 1830s. In speaking to a free black in San Antonio who was a blacksmith, Lundy learned that the Hispanics gave him "the same respect as to other laboring people, there being nodifference made here on account of color." Frederick Law Olmsted, also an abolitionist, observed the same thing in the 1850s. He noted that the Hispanics of San Antonio "consort[ed] freely with the negroes, making no distinction from pride of race." Their "intimacy with the slaves" caused the slaveholders to hold them in "great contempt and suspicion." That few Germans or Hispanics opposed slavery strongly enough to take any action against it, and may have not opposed it at all, was of little importance. The perception of opposition made slavery, and the need to protect it, more important.
The final factor that made slavery important in San Antonio was simply the southern mentality: slavery was good and blacks, free or slave, were inferior. The Herald demonstrated this mentality in its attitude toward the disposition of Africans aboard the ships of slave runners that had been captured by the U.S. Navy. Though opposed to the reopening of the slave trade, the paper nevertheless disapproved of the government's policy of sending the Africans back to Africa. The question was not one of economics but of morality. What was best for the Africans? Returned to Africa, the slaves would be condemned to a life of subsistence and savagery whose end then led to a worse existence in the fires of hell. Life in the South, which the Herald thought should be the destination of the captured Africans, would, however, provide material wellbeing and civilization, which would be followed by the eternal bliss of heaven for the Christianized slaves. Why was this course not followed by the federal government? Because those in charge of the government were opposed to slavery; but their misguided opposition did not alter the goodness of the institution of slavery.
Excerpted from African Americans in South Texas History by Bruce A. Glasrud. Copyright © 2011 Bruce A. Glasrud. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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