The Sutton family. Claude Black. Ella Austin. Robert Dawson.
Who are these people? Why are they so significant? Perhaps what comes to mind are the community centers that were named after these people. The Claude Black center is famously where the District 2 City Councilperson’s office is housed. The Ella Austin community center is a long withstanding beacon for the East side community; home to a day care, several community agencies, etc.
Robert Dawson, a 1935 graduate of Phyllis Wheatley High School, was San Antonio’s first licensed African American pilot during World War II. Ella Austin was a pillar of the African American community in San Antonio during the early 20thCentury. Lastly, the Sutton family was one of the San Antonio wealthiest and most successful African American families. Almost all of them were college educated and were at the epicenter of the San Antonio’s flourishing Black community.
Yet somehow, they have managed to slip through the cracks of Texas history.
Photo: Ella Austin, Credit: ellaaustin.org
Certainly, a myriad of thoughts come to mind the moment these names are uttered, but naturally one of the first questions should be why aren’t these historical figures found in a textbook, especially in a San Antonio school district? It only seems fair that we learn about the Battle of Alamo and the many cast members to this epic tale; Juan Seguin, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Davy Crockett, James Bowie, etc. These figures are important to both Texas history and San Antonio history. Yet why are the African American historical figures without so much as a footnote let alone a chapter in the saga of San Antonio history.
Of course, Percy Sutton, Claude Black, Ella Austin, and Robert Dawson aren’t the only African American historical figures left off the page. But they are a good place to start unpacking why they are not taught in the history curriculum.
Debating over what goes into the school textbooks is not a foreign topic. Over the past few years, several news outlets such as The Daily Texas Online and the Washington Post have reported on occasions surrounding the state of Texas voting on revisions to the textbooks, ranging from accurate units on Hispanic/ Latin American history to the comparison of slavery to internships.
According to a 2013 Newslo article, “After revising textbooks last year to emphasize Christian influences on the Founding Fathers and introduce Intelligent Design to biology classes, the Board voted nine to zero today to change official nomenclature regarding slavery. In Texas, students will now be taught that slaves were not kidnapped and exploited against their will but were actually ‘unpaid interns.’”
The question remains as to why San Antonio Black history is not better accounted for? Though there are measures that are being taken by the city to reflect their contributions such as the buildings, several commissions being developed, and of course, the opening of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum. Beyond these measures, no other has been taken to add any of this to the textbooks utilized in San Antonio school districts.
There is no doubt the contributions of Claude Black, Ella Austin, the Sutton family, and Robert Dawson still run though the city of San Antonio today. But the fact they are invisible from the school textbooks, where their contributions would be preserved for generations to come beyond the Alamo city, trivializes their legacies.