The corner of Iowa and S. Pine Street is steeped in history. This location was known at one time as a center of black life in San Antonio called the Denver Heights. It was known as the “Corner” because of the importance of its institutions present at the site. At this site was the office of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Langston Hughes Afro-American Theater in 1969. For many years prior to that, this vicinity was a focal point serving the community with black businesses such as Leonard’s Pharmacy, and also provided the educational needs of children at Norris Wright Cuney Elementary School. According to San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) records, a school for African American students opened as Santa Clara Public School in 1902, in the Baptist Settlement, which was a two-room school that was moved to Iowa Street as the “Cuney Annex” in 1923, and in 1932 went to 935 Iowa Street which is now Friendship Baptist Church. The SNCC office was the scene of planning meetings to organize Black Student Unions on College campuses, and for protests against injustice. The SNCC office was attacked by police forces after a protest in downtown San Antonio against police abuse in 1969.
At this corner was a segregated theatre known by various names including the Leon Theatre, the Keyhole Theatre (later located on the Westside), and the Ritz Theatre. In 1969, it served as a playhouse, with a full stage, where black poets and playwrights gathered to provide the community with plays and poetic readings that spoke to the cultural experiences and protests of the black community. One could often hear the sounds of African drumming coming from such performances as local organizer Charles Middleton (deceased) drummed away, while SNCC members trained in Karate and organized the first Free Breakfast Program for School Children in 1969. Some of the members of the theatre group were also SNCC members(Oncy Whittier-deceased, and others) as the two groups complimented each another in the freedom struggle for human rights.
This area, once occupied by Germans, was a black middle-class neighborhood which survived the indignities of racism by providing a music shop called Music and TV World, a coffee shop, Muhammad’s Mosque, Clardy’s Pharmacy, Dr. Clarence Horne’s Dentistry, Tip-Top Cleaners, a Texas-styled “Ice House” and others. Famous black leaders lived or provided services in the area, and included Jesse Mae Hicks, Rev. Claude Black, John Inman, Lafayette Walker, Attorney Hattie Elam Briscoe, and others. Also, across the street was Wong’s Chinese Grocery Store which served the black community for many years. Also, there was a boarding house for black Pullman Porters who worked on the train at St. Paul’s Square. Members of the current SNCC Legacy Project have proposed a clenched fist monument at the site which symbolizes the battle against injustice by SNCC activists and the generations before them. A historical marker is slated to be placed at this location which bears some of these words and more.
Denver Heights has a black history that played a huge role during the days of segregation and the struggles for human rights. Several African American leaders in the 1930s were socialist organizers in the area as blacks sought other alternative theories against segregation. Other markers will be developed by those that have knowledge of the area and as discussed in a public hearing a few weeks back. The entire project was developed by members of the SNCC Legacy Project (Former San Antonio SNCC members and Langston Hughes Afro-American Theatre) and includes John Allen, Paul Battle, Becky Brenner, Abram Emerson, Dianne Green, Claudis Minor, Kamala Platt, and Mario Marcel Salas.