St. Philip's College: A Point of Pride on San Antonio's Eastside

St. Philip's College: A Point of Pride on San Antonio's Eastside

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ISBN-13: 9781623490010
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 01/06/2013
Series: Peoples and Cultures of Texas, Sponsored by Texas A&M University-San Antonio
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

MARIE PANNELL THURSTON has been coordinator of the Oral History Project for St. Philip’s since 2002. Her PhD is from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

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St. Philip's College

A Point of Pride on San Antonio's Eastside

By Marie Pannell Thurston

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2013 St. Philip's College
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-001-0


1898 and Before

The seeds of St. Philip's history were planted many years before the story actually began, for they were sown in the bowels of the ships that took the first Africans against their wills and brought them to the New World to labor without financial compensation. These seeds took root with the indignities, scorn, and hatred that the prisoners suffered as the ships docked in the South, where they were sold as chattel and ended up as slaves. More than a hundred years later, these roots, along with other events that occurred in San Antonio, had a major influence on the history of St. Philip's College.

We begin this history with a look back at some of the events in San Antonio and in the nation that influenced the history of St. Philip's College. Many Africans, brought to America as slaves, suffered extreme hardships and deprivations. Central to the indignities suffered was the denial of their right to practice their native religion. They were, however, allowed to attend the churches of their masters, but even then they were required to sit in special sections set aside for Negro worshippers. In 1786, as the number of Negro worshippers at St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, increased, some of the white congregation became uncomfortable with the arrangement. Absalom Jones, a Negro worshipper who attended St. George's, was "almost dragged from his knees," as he prayed. Richard Allen, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, was with Jones at the time. Tensions arose from this incident, which ignited flames of racial hatred.

The incident began when Negro worshippers were told to vacate the seats around the wall where they usually sat and to move to a gallery that had been set aside for them. Misunderstanding the instructions, the Negro worshippers sat in the wrong section and, in the confusion, were forcibly removed. Bishop Allen explained:

We had subscribed largely toward furnishing St. George's Church, in building the gallery and laying new floors; and just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshipping therein.

Because of this indignity, they left that church and founded churches more suited to the needs of their congregations. As Payne explained, they then held their own services, which were more in accord with their style of worship. Their determination to erect a house of worship, where they could worship God as they wished, came as a result of their unhappiness with their treatment; but the discontent among the Negroes did not end in Philadelphia. It continued in churches across the nation, including Texas, and in 1895, more than one hundred years later, the situation repeated itself in a San Antonio congregation of Negro worshippers. Unhappy with the services in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and feeling unwelcome in the white Episcopal Church, they sought a place of their own to worship. Worship in the Episcopal tradition was important to them; but like the Pennsylvania worshippers, they wanted to worship as they pleased, in a church of their choice.

In San Antonio, the discontented congregants took their petition to Rev. Robert Woodward Barnwell Elliott (Rev. R. W. B. Elliot), first Bishop of the Missionary District of Western Texas. The bishop, sympathetic to their request, outlined a plan of consideration for the Church. As far back as 1877, the bishop recognized the problems created by the growing numbers of former slaves and freedmen living among the white population and he often spoke about the problem of racism and the challenges it presented to the Episcopal Church. He also made mention of the important role the slaves played by providing their physical labor.

While the bishop, as a representative of the Episcopal Church, was known to be supportive, not all the church members shared his compassionate attitude toward the former slaves, now freedmen and freedwomen, who were struggling to survive in an era in which Southern sentiments and prejudices continued to constrain their lives. There were members who believed that attempting to improve the condition of the Negro was a waste of time and money. The bishop, on the other hand, disapproved of this uncharitable attitude, explaining that it was a question of whether the church could survive refusing to do its part to elevate, educate, and develop the Negro. He believed that the average American would think that the church had given up on the Negro race, regarding it as a decaying branch of the human family.

Bishop Elliott considered the role of the church to be reconciliation, and he suggested that it was a waste of time and money for it not to try to educate Negroes. Plans for spearheading education for the Negroes in San Antonio might have ended with his untimely death in 1887, were it not for his successor, James Steptoe Johnston.

Bishop James Steptoe Johnston, Founder, St. Philip's School

James Steptoe Johnston, born on June 9, 1843, in Church Hill, Mississippi—a state committed to maintaining separation of the races—succeeded Bishop Elliott. Though reared in the South, Johnston brought to San Antonio a zeal for improving the conditions of the Negro citizens of the community. Much like Elliott, he believed that the only way to make productive and moral citizens was through the education of the whole person, the mind and the soul. And just as his predecessor's feelings for the Negroes' situation did not reflect those of the majority in the South, neither did Johnston's.

As a child, Johnston attended the local Episcopal church, a congregation that served persons of all denominations. This afforded him opportunities to meet and mingle with people from other religious congregations and where he was exposed to a doctrine of inclusion, principles he passionately espoused as an adult. As bishop of West Texas, on more than one occasion, he wrote to the pope encouraging unification. Johnston served as a priest in the Episcopal Church until 1888, though he had never completed college, nor attended seminary. In 1888, he was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree by the University of the South and, in June of that same year, became the second bishop of the missionary district of Western Texas. Johnston constantly stressed the themes of education and stewardship and under his leadership, the Western District of Texas applied for, and, in 1904 was granted, acceptance from the General Convention in Boston as a financially independent diocese (a district containing Christian churches under the authority of one bishop). The clergy in this new diocese unanimously elected Johnston as its bishop.

During Johnston's time as bishop of the Western District, the themes of education and stewardship distinguished themselves in his work. He established two schools in San Antonio: West Texas Military Academy and the Saturday Evening Sewing Class for Negro girls that became St. Philip's College. Additionally, he further expanded the existing St. Mary's Hall, a school for white girls. West Texas Military School later became Texas Military Institute (TMI), a prominent school, initially only for white boys. The first graduating class of West Texas Military School included Douglas MacArthur, the same Douglas MacArthur who, during World War II, became a highly celebrated general and Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theatre.

In 1895, Johnston admitted to the district, at their request, a congregation of black Episcopal Methodists calling themselves St. Philip's Church. Under Johnston's sponsorship, the members found a place to worship in a room above a hardware store on West Commerce Street. St. Philip's Church was now officially organized for the Negro congregants. This location was not meant to be a permanent home for the church and, before two years had passed, the district purchased a new home for them in the former German Methodist Church on Villita Street. With the move to the new location, St. Philip's Church experienced renewed vitality and growth as the members became well established in their new home. The following year, Johnston started the sewing class for girls and the students from that sewing class, held in St. Philip's Church, were the beginning of St. Philip's College.

From a Place of Worship to a School for Negroes

When James Steptoe Johnston arrived in San Antonio, he found the Negroes in the city largely uneducated and enduring a hard life. Not only were they deliberately and regularly excluded from participation in educational and community activities but their only hope of sharing in events in the city of San Antonio was through the manual labor they provided or by working as servants. For San Antonio's Negroes, discrimination, both socially and in worship, was a way of life, created by segregation of the races.

The aspiring church members of St. Philip's were not discouraged by Bishop Elliott's death, nor were their plans impeded for a place of worship for themselves or their plans of education for their children, for they found a friend in Johnston. According to the history of St. Philip's Church, a large delegation visited Johnston and begged to be taken under his Episcopal care.

Their plea was so insistent and so urgent, that even though funds had not been allocated for such an undertaking, Johnston consented and took up the burden, declaring that God was in the request and they would press onward, walking by faith and not by sight.

Bishop Johnston retired in 1916 because his health failed and he passed away on November 4, 1924 in San Antonio at age seventy-one. He was succeeded by Rev. William T. Capers. Rev. Dr. Milbrew Davis, retired priest of St. Philip's Church, who served as rector of St. Philip's from 1975 until 1996, and his wife, Shirley, were interviewed in their home in San Antonio. They both affirmed that the Episcopate probably supported the idea of a church and a school for the Negroes because "Historically, one of the major thrusts and traditions of the Episcopal Church has always been to emphasize the importance of education and spirituality."

A Ray of Hope

With a place of their own to worship established, the parents in the congregation of St. Philip's Church turned their attention to finding opportunities to improve their children's education. They compared the limited programs available in the Negro school with the programs in the schools available to the white children and decided that they wanted more for their children. When some of the parents from St. Philip's Church learned that Laura Jackson, a Negro seamstress from Galveston, had recently arrived in San Antonio, they enlisted her assistance.

At that time, public education for the children was limited and enlisting Jackson to teach a sewing class for them would be a way to supplement the education their children were receiving. The Texas State Historical Association noted that the popular belief, prior to the Civil War, was that educating African Americans would lead to discontent and rebellion.

As early as 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau supervised and coordinated training for Negro children that ranged from basic reading and writing to vocational skills. According to Clarence Norris, a public elementary program for black students had been in existence since 1868 with a curricula restricted almost entirely to basic grammar and basic arithmetic. There was little in the way of broader course offerings.

The plan of the San Antonio parents to add to the courses their children were receiving fit well with Johnston's vision of supplementary schooling for the children, for he also believed that they needed additional training. Johnston envisioned a day school for the Negro children that would grow into an industrial school for girls and provide them with not only a good grammar school education, but also knowledge of how to perform domestic duties, which would always "procure for them a desirable position."

Working as a domestic was considered a worthwhile and desirable position for the Negro, and one that could be continued into old age. However, parents wanted more for their children than working as a domestic, which was on the lowest rung of the social strata. In the view of Michael Heintze, on Edward Jones's history of Morehouse College, had it not been for the founding of the independent black colleges, most Southern blacks would have remained in the grasp of ignorance and the associated ills of economic dependency.

The supplementary education provided for the Negro children was not to mirror the classes taught in the schools for white children; the classes in the Negro school were all to be vocationally based. When Jackson agreed to teach the girls, in 1897, the ladies of the church, assisted by Bishop Johnston and Rev. William H. Marshall, pastor of the church, organized a sewing class for the girls.

There were about twelve girls from the Sunday school of St. Philip's Church at the first meeting of the Saturday evening class held in the rectory of St. Philip's Church. From Norris Jr.'s interview with Minnie Meade (Lowerey), we learn the names of some of the attendees: Electra Brown, Ida Nunely, Arthur Sanford, Fannie Hard-away, Willie Wiggens, UrsaYaborough, Ed Brown, Willie Sanford, Roberta Cushiel, Cora Nunely, Stella Jefferson, Maude Hardaway, Flossie Ervin, May Brown, Middie Meade, Willie Nunely, Roberta Williams, Arthur De Vann, Bernie Lewis, Fred and Johnny Meade, and several unidentified others.

St. Philip's archives include a photograph of the last meeting of the St. Philip's Saturday evening sewing class with a photograph of about twenty children, some unidentified. Norris noted that though the class was organized for girls, a number of boys attended the sewing class.

Because the Saturday evening sewing class was very successful, excitement grew for a private day school for the children. Bishop Johnston's support for educating Negro children offered their parents great encouragement, especially after he began a search for a full-time instructor. Johnston's stated purpose of the school was to impart threefold training to Negro girls: training of the head, the heart, and the hand. He believed that the girls should be taught domestic skills that were needed to work in the homes of the wealthier white population of the city. Conversely, the vision of his Negro congregants was to prepare their children for professional careers. The Negro parents even dared to dream that perhaps the careers might be outside of San Antonio, and indeed, some were.

Despite the dissimilar visions of the bishop and the parents, both agreed that the children needed more in the way of educational training. Bishop Capers, who followed Bishop Johnston and later became chairman of the Board of Trustees of St. Philip's Junior College, gave an example of just how successful the school was, even in its early days, in reaching its goal to prepare the children for adulthood and responsibility. He spoke of an interesting conversation that he had with a Pullman porter on one of his visits to the North. The porter's son, a graduate of St. Philip's, was attending an Eastern college and preparing to enter the ministry. His son's ambition was to come back to the South and devote his life to the advancement of his people. The porter then went on to tell the bishop of the great appreciation that the Negro people of San Antonio had for St. Philip's Junior College and what it had done for the youth of the city to prepare them for their life's work.


Excerpted from St. Philip's College by Marie Pannell Thurston. Copyright © 2013 St. Philip's College. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Series Editor's Foreword by Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier,
Foreword by Dr. Adena Williams Loston,
1. 1898 and Before,
2. Coming to Texas,
3. Artemisia Bowden and St. Philip's Industrial School,
4. The Industrial Side of Education at St. Philip's School,
5. Four Acres and a New Home,
6. Struggling to Survive: The 1930s,
7. Oral History Interviews, 1930s,
8. An Awesome Responsibility: The 1940s,
9. The 1940s, Continued,
10. Students, Faculty, and Administrators from the 1940s,
11. The Norris Years,
12. The Surprise Election of Garlington Jerome (G. J.) Sutton,
13. Integrating the Schools: The 1950s,
14. Oral History Interviews, 1950s,
15. Learning to Adjust: Students and Faculty from the 1960s,
16. The Evening Division,
17. The Murphy Years, 1969–1984,
18. A Procession of Presidents, Era of Contention: The 1980s,
19. A Tumultuous, Progressive Time: The 1980s,
20. Poised for Change,
21. Keeping Watch: The 1990s,
22. A New Year, A New Place: The 2000s,
23. A Brand New Leader and a Brand New Day,
24. Conclusion,
Appendix A: Presidents of St. Philip's College, 1898–2012,
Appendix B: Administrators of St. Philip's College, 1898–2012,
Appendix C: Letter and Signatures,
Appendix D: AT&T Artists,
Appendix E: Interviewees,
Appendix F: History of the College President's Lecture Series,

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