In San Antonio, Texas, one memorial—the church-turned-fort-turned-shrine of the Alamo—dominates the landscape. At the Alamo, the artifacts, images, and captions on display tell a unified story: That martyrs died there for Texas independence and that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. The didactics urge the public to observe this history with solemnity and reverie.
Yet the story is one-sided. While there were many root causes of the Alamo siege, one of the most important was that Texas Anglos were fighting Mexican soldiers to uphold slavery. In San Antonio, as in many other cities, the histories of Latinx and Black communities are overshadowed by Anglo-dominated narratives.
In the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed prompted a national reckoning with commemoration. Communities began to think about what to do with controversial, often racist, statues, markers, and place names. Many wanted their landscapes to tell a different story—one that did not venerate racial violence.
The targets of these conversations have been mainly physical plaques and statues—but the resolutions are far more varied. New digital tools let scholars, students, and community members create new, and newly inclusive, forms of memorialization. Hitching historical research to new digital technologies helps tell different, more inclusive, and more nuanced narratives about the past. Malleable digital technologies can be much more creative and responsive than stone statues, soldiers in bronze, or iron plaques. In season three of “Western Edition,” the podcast we host at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, we highlight some of these innovative efforts across the West, including in San Antonio.
One of these is the digital history project Mapping the Movimiento. Created by professors at the University of Texas at San Antonio and its Special Collections Library, the project functions like a “bus tour of San Antonio civil rights locations,” history professor Omar Valerio Jiménez says. Anyone in San Antonio with a smartphone can use the interactive map.
Mapping the Movimiento’s 15 sites span the 20th century. They include Edgewood High School, an anchor for the city’s Mexican American West Side and focus of important judicial rulings about public school funding inequities, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, founded in the late 1980s by Chicano and other activists working toward social justice in San Antonio and beyond.
Mario Cantú’s family restaurant is on the map, too. “Anybody who was anybody in the Chicano movement when they came to San Antonio met at Mario’s,” says historian Jerry Gonzalez. Known as “the first eating space in San Antonio to desegregate its food counter,” the restaurant served as a vital social hub for the city’s Mexican American community in the 1950s. Today, the restauarant building has been demolished and the land upon which it once stood is part of the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio. No physical plaque marks the space. Visitors to Mapping the Movimiento’s website can see artifacts and images from the restaurant’s heyday and learn how Cantú became a key figure in the city’s Chicano and civil rights activist communities.
Similarly, San Antonio’s Safe Spots for Negro Motorists, an initiative of Texas A&M University–San Antonio historian Pamela Walker, uses digital mapping to commemorate the sites and experiences of Black San Antonians during the Jim Crow era. In partnership with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and the San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, Walker’s team of student-researchers reconstructed the histories of more than 20 locations included in the Green Books—gazetteers that mapped safe tourist destinations for Black travelers in the Jim Crow era. QR codes placed around the city connect passersby to a digital map of Black San Antonio and a richly researched essay for each featured site.
One of Walker’s students, James Thomas, researched the Carter Undertaking Company, a funeral home at 601 Center Street. Now called the Carter-Taylor-Williams Mortuary, the institution has been continuously operated and family-owned since 1906, and its funeral directors played a crucial role in social justice work of the mid-20th century. Black-owned businesses provided Black families with financial stability, enabling protests against Jim Crow Era abuses and helping in turn to provide safety nets for neighbors, Thomas writes. They provided for elders “who weren’t getting the proper care that they needed,” and contributed in significant ways to “build a better community on the East side for the African Americans.”
Like Mapping the Movimiento, San Antonio’s Safe Spots for Negro Motorists includes sites that still exist and sites that have disappeared from the city. Reading the Green Books in present day offers a glimpse into the vibrant world of Black San Antonio during the era of Jim Crow, but also shows how much of it had been lost to urban renewal. For instance, student Delaney Byrom researched the former State Theater, which hosted plays and movies from 1929 to 1960 at 209 North Main, now the site of a parking lot.
Byrom spoke with patrons of the theater such as Walter Dykes, now in his 90s, who watched films there as a child—dressed up for the occasion in a tie, but still mischievously inclined toward throwing popcorn and making noise. Byrom’s grandmother, Liana Reyes, also frequented the theater as a teen. She remembers it as a segregated place, where she—a Mexican American—could sit in the front, but Black patrons had to enter through the back and sit in the balcony.
Walker hopes her project’s digital markers will be a first step to giving the stories of Black San Antonians “a permanent footprint on the landscape.” Digital memorialization initiatives are important, she says, because, when it comes to historical markers and sites, “there have been far too many communities, especially Black communities and communities of color, who haven’t been able to have a say in [creating memorials that reflect] what’s important to them.”
The landscape of memory and commemoration and race is shifting in the U.S., thanks to historians, students, activists, and community members who are reimagining it in exciting and innovative ways. Pairing grassroots historical research with emerging digital technologies democratizes: It allows communities, individuals, and institutions that have for far too long been left out of public history-making and memory to see their stories heard and respected. The questions Mapping the Movimiento and Safe Spots for Negro Motorists’ researchers grapple with—concerning race, belonging, and legitimacy—lie at the heart of a healthy American democracy, one that can link memory and reckoning.