According to documents at the UTSA Library, in the Special Collections Department of the John Peace Library, Hattie Elam Briscoe was the “First Black woman to graduate from St. Mary’s University School of Law, and was the only Black woman attorney in Bexar County for the next 27 years.” Hattie Briscoe was from Shreveport, Louisiana (1916). She was the recipient of a scholarship to attend Wiley College where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1937. Wiley College students launched some of the first sit-in demonstrations in Texas against segregation and the home of the” Great Debaters.” The 1930s and 1940s was a time in which the madness of segregation and violence were the norm against Black people. It was a time when blacks had to use “The Green Book” in order to travel across the country, as they could not get food, gas, lodging, or the use of “White Only” restrooms along the way. Wiley College would have helped to steel Hattie’s determination to break the chains of segregation in San Antonio.
Later that year she began a teaching career in Wichita Falls, Texas and served there until 1941. Black teachers could not teach at white schools and in East Texas the KKK dominated the area. White supremacy still has somewhat of a hold on East Texas as it was very similar to the cotton growing racist economic structure of Louisiana and the Deep South. It was during this time that Hattie was wed to William M. Briscoe and moved to San Antonio. In the days of segregation it was normal for an ambitious woman to gain as much experience as possible to survive the constraints of a racialized society. Hence, Hattie became a licensed beauty salon operator, working with her husband in San Antonio at “Briscoe’s Beauty Salon” until 1945. At one point and until her death, Hattie lived on the East Side, on S. Pine Street, in the Denver Heights, an area that was once a large black community.
By 1944, Hattie had become a cosmetology instructor, teaching night classes at Hicks Beauty School. Hattie was forced to attend schools that were racially segregated in Texas, but despite the generally inferior nature of segregated education she excelled. Later she became an instructor of Cosmetology at the segregated Wheatley High School. Understanding the horrible nature of segregation, but yet never giving up, Hattie received a Master’s degree at then segregated Prairie View A & M College in 1951. In 1952, she entered St. Mary’s Law School, a Catholic institution, where she attended night classes while working in the day. It was no easy matter for Hattie to graduate from St. Mary’s being the first in her class in 1956 at the age of 40. Hattie Briscoe practiced law for 42 years, serving the black community until 1998, in the Dr. Preacher’s Professional Building located at 1416 E. Commerce which was an area that at one time was full of black businesses including Cunningham’s Pharmacy and Soda Shop, Paul White’s Barber Shop, Taylor’s Barber Shop, and other businesses over time. E. Commerce Street was the hub of black businesses during the time of Hattie Briscoe.
According to Charles Hunt, in his PhD dissertation of 2006 at the University of the Incarnate Word, titled, “Factors that Affect Succession in African-American Family-Owned Business,” Dr. Hunt points out that, “The jobs that Blacks held at that time were largely jobs doing porter work in downtown stores, serving as waiters and bus boys in major hotels, working in the shops or as porters for the railroad, and a few working at large companies like Alamo Iron Works.” I would only add that I clearly remember, in the early morning hours, seeing Black women waiting on busses at the corner of E. Houston and Navarro Street(Navarro Street is named after a pro-slavery Tejano who claimed he was white). There were traveling to Olmos Park, Alamo Heights, and other white sections of down to do domestic work and many had to leave the area before sunset. The racist atmosphere of San Antonio, anchored by racist politicians and segregation laws and southern tradition, has yet to be fully told.
None of this prevented Hattie Briscoe from struggling to succeed in a racist San Antonio. She excelled in many areas as it relates to business and the legal profession. According to the UTSA archives, Briscoe was a member of the “San Antonio Bar Association, National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases, San Antonio Black Lawyers Association, Texas Bar Association, Texas Criminal Bar Association, American Bar Association, and the National Association of Black Women Attorneys.” She was an active life member of the NAACP. Her loving relationship with William resulted in 47 years of marriage. She died on October 17, 2002.