Alamo’s links to slavery spark debate


Historians of Alamo have generally not addressed slavery.

Researchers studying forced labor have not delved into the Alamo and the motivations of the 189 known Texians and Tejanos who died or were executed in the Battle of 1836.

But it is common knowledge that William Barret Travis had a slave, Joe, who survived the battle and later escaped to freedom. Jim Bowie was selling slaves. There was also abolitionist Amos Pollard, the garrison’s chief surgeon, and a 15-year-old boy, William Philip King of Gonzales, among the defenders.

The Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee has held weekly discussions on Alamo’s history as they move forward with a $ 400 million plan to revamp the historic fort. Its most recent panel examined the impact of slavery on the Alamo.

“I hope an Alamo interprets these truths, struggles with them, asks many different questions,” said Carey Latimore, panel member and history professor at Trinity University specializing in African American studies.

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A theory has been brewing for years that slavery was an underlying cause of the Texas Revolution, but it has recently created tension in discussions of Mexico’s War of Independence and the Battle of Alamo.

Andrew Torget, a prominent Texas slavery scholar, said Anglos and Tejanos forged an alliance to exploit the windfall of a booming cotton economy. He believes the complexity of the War of 1835-1836 makes it “more interesting and more useful to understand” as an event that affected all of North America.

“To say that slavery was important during this time is not a simple and easy thing. This is to recognize that it has been woven into so many different elements of these stories… to better understand why the Alamo is important, ”Torget told members of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee in a recent discussion of forced labor in early Texas.

Sandra Salinas, left, a direct descendant of Jose Antonio Navarro, chats with Sharon Skrobarcek before laying wreaths in front of Alamo church in honor of the Battle of San Jacinto and fallen soldiers and volunteers during the Battle of Alamo on April 21. 2021. Skrobarcek has said she wants the truth to be revealed about the causes of the Texas revolution and that she believes more research is needed.

Lisa Krantz / Team Photographer

But a few people on the 30-member panel, which helps shape the plan, were not ready to rewrite the history books.

“We want the truth out there for sure. But it must be the truth, ”said Sharon Skrobarcek, committee member and Daughters of the Republic of Texas, after the meeting.

Skrobarcek said Torget’s presentation focused on Americans flocking to Texas from other states. It did not mention Europeans arriving on ships at Indianola and Galveston. They did not know where their land concessions would be located.

“Not everyone who lived in Texas owned a cotton plantation and did not have slaves. What were these other people fighting for? Skrobarcek said. “I don’t think we have a definitive answer yet.”

In his 2015 book, “Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850,” Torget asserts that “a complex web of cotton, slavery and Mexican federalism – rather than ‘only one factor – produced fights that led to the Texas Revolution.

Latimore agreed with Torget that slavery was “probably a big part of the equation”. But Latimore stuck to past claims that war was not caused by a single problem. He reflected on other causes that historians have discussed, including religious freedom, access to arms and militias for self-protection, local representation, and the imprisonment in Mexico of political opponents without due process.

Isaiah Adams holds a sign outside Alamo Church on May 31, 2020, during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd.

Isaiah Adams holds a sign outside Alamo Church on May 31, 2020, during a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd.

Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

“This is where we need to do more work to see if it’s just slavery or if it’s other issues that a lot of people have debated in the past but left out. slavery. Now, maybe we take all these issues back into the pit and flesh them out. And why not let Alamo do that? said Latimore.

Although the Siege and Battle of 1836 have been fictionalized, the Alamo is truly one of the most important founding sites in San Antonio and Texas, having served as the first permanent Spanish-Native mission from 1724 to 1793. Over 1,000 people were buried in the area. . The vision and guiding principles of Project Alamo seek to tell the site’s 300-year history, including the perspectives of ethnic groups such as African Americans and Mexican soldiers.

What cannot be disputed is that Texas adopted a constitution in mid-March 1836, ratified six months later, which put what Torget called “an iron wall” around movable slavery. like no other nation in North America has ever done. Yet the Texas Declaration of Independence, signed on March 2, 1836 and then printed on large-format newspapers and newspapers, made no mention of slavery.

Aaronetta Pierce, a tri-chair of the citizens’ committee, said she moved from Tennessee to Texas in the 1960s, but only knew decades later of the thriving slave trade. in east Texas. In 1861, when Texas seceded and the Alamo became a Confederate military depot, slave auctions were held on a second-story stair platform attached to the Long Barracks.

“We have not been honest with the citizens,” said Pierce.

Pierce said she was not trying to disparage the 1836 Alamo defenders. She does not know how well they were aware of the issue of slavery, as discussed, perhaps in private, by political agents of the new Texas government. But the constitution “is the kind of factual documentation that we need to perpetuate, more than tearing down heroes.”

Edmund T. Gordon, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, described the condition of being enslaved. This included native alienation, the complete separation of culture and social structures; general dishonor – to be considered “the lowest”; and gratuitous violence. It’s “endless discomfort” – often hunger, coarse clothes, ill-fitting shoes, and sleeping on a hard paddle.

“We’re talking about how people have been broken emotionally and psychologically… because a horse has to be broken,” he said. “It’s about creating a permanent situation of traumatic stress.

When Texas was a Spanish colonial territory, a strongly race-based caste system, forced indigenous labor and domestic servitude were all part of daily life, said history professor Amy Porter of Texas A&M University. -San Antonio. But African slaves never exceeded more than 5 percent of the population. Some slaves obtained freedom by buying themselves, or someone else bought their freedom; some owners freed their slaves.

Towards the end of Spanish rule, the Tejanos of San Antonio had endured the violence and indignities of an 1813 rebellion which ended in a crushing defeat of the Royal Spanish Army at the Battle of Medina south of the city. Then, after being “driven into the ground” by the Apaches and Comanches, they were ready to abandon Béjar in 1820, Torget said.

Lieutenant-Colonel William B. Travis, commander of the Alamo during the siege and battle of 1836, had a slave named Joe in the fort.  Travis was killed at the start of the battle.  But Joe survived and escaped slavery about a year later.

Lieutenant-Colonel William B. Travis, commander of the Alamo during the siege and battle of 1836, had a slave named Joe in the fort. Travis was killed at the start of the battle. But Joe survived and escaped slavery about a year later.

/ Courtesy photo

To lift Texas out of poverty and populate the land, Stephen F. Austin and other Anglophones sought to bring American cotton farmers to east Texas, with Britain paying top dollar.

“And they make no secret that slavery will accompany them,” Torget said. “For the San Antonio Tejanos, when they make that proposal … it sounds pretty good.”

But the newly formed Mexican government opposed slavery, having just gained independence from Spain, not wanting to offend the British and having no slavery-based industries. The Mexican Constitution of 1824 did not address slavery, throwing the problem down to the states. Austin and his Tejano allies have kept those responsible for the state of Coahuila y Tejas at bay. They found loopholes, such as indentured bondage contracts, that allowed Americans to continue bringing in bonded laborers.

Centralists led by Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna repealed the 1824 constitution in 1835, and civil war began in Texas and five other states. Santa Anna then launched his campaign in Texas.

“He’s not coming to free the slaves. He’s coming to reclaim the land, ”Torget said. “When you get to the Alamo itself, slavery is infused in this place and this battle because it’s in the midst of all of these things that have been swirling around Texas throughout this whole revolution.”

The capture of Santa Anna six weeks later after the Battle of San Jacinto ended the war.

The number of slaves in Texas increased from about 5,000 in 1836 to 30,000 when the US state began in 1846. The numbers continued to climb to over 58,000 in 1850 and 182,500 in 1860, representing 30 % Population.

But the decision to institutionalize slavery left the republic internationally isolated and unable to obtain loans. The panic of 1837 left the United States in a depression that lasted until the mid-1840s. Britain offered to save Texas financially in exchange for the release of slaves. The troubled republic turned down the offer and was annexed as an American slave state.

Texas surpassed Mississippi in the 1850s as the nation’s top cotton-producing state – a title it still holds today.

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