Photo by Ashley Landis
For Albert Armstead, Black History Month is a time of reflection. The thought of black history brings to mind his own family, who was traded to a plantation owner in Tennessee as slaves centuries ago.
He said he thinks of the hardships they endured when they traveled from Tennessee to Blanco, Texas, after they were freed during the Civil War. Then, he said, he thinks back to his personal history and growing up in segregation-era San Marcos.
Armstead's grandmother worked as a nanny for white families in San Marcos. Her occupation allowed him and his family privileges that he said, at the time, were unheard of for black families.
"Anywhere they went, I could go," Armstead said.
This included the town's drugstore, where Armstead and the children his grandmother took care of liked to enjoy milkshakes during the hot San Marcos summers.
Armstead recalled one afternoon when he and the white children were enjoying drinks at the drugstore.
A black man saw Armstead, walked into the shop and ordered a milkshake for himself.
"The waitress saw him and said, 'I'm sorry but we don't serve colored people here,'" Armstead said. "And that hurt me."
He said he couldn't shake the prejudice he had witnessed and decided to speak to the drugstore owner's son about it.
"He said, 'Albert, don't start. We've been doing this for I don't know how long. We don't even think of you as being colored,'" Armstead said.
Armstead paused before continuing, "We've come a long way."
Armstead's own life is proof enough of that. He worked his way up through city government, eventually becoming the chief building official for San Marcos in the early 1980s. At the time, he was the only black man in Texas to hold the position.
In 1992, Armstead's wife, Johnnie, launched the Calaboose African-American History Museum.
The structure was built in 1873 as the city's first jailhouse; "calaboose" is an old term for jail or lockup.
The President of the Board for Calaboose, Elvin Holt, said the museum's plans for Black History Month include an exhibit about three great black athletes whose lives have somehow touched San Marcos.
The exhibit, titled "At the Top of Their Game: Rediscovering Dave Brown, Luscious Jackson and Charles Austin," is set to open this month and will showcase baseball great Brown and Olympic gold medalists Jackson and Austin.
Armstead's desire to maintain the Calaboose stems from his wish to honor his wife's legacy.
The Calaboose and its mission to educate people about African-American history was always a work-in-progress for Johnnie, who died Feb. 28, 2008.
It was her boundless energy that led to the creation of Calaboose, he said. Under her leadership, the museum was able to attain crucial artifacts.
Among the items on display are a Ku Klux Klan ceremonial outfit and papers relating to the Tuskegee Airmen.
"It's more important to me than living," Armstead said. "I haven't got the big words for it, but I'll be there until I die."
About the exhibit
Dave Brown was born in San Marcos in 1896 and became one of the most well-respected pitchers in the Negro National Leagues.
Brown began his career with the Dallas Black Giants in 1917, then led the Chicago American Giants to NNL pennants in 1921 and 1922.
Lucious Jackson was born in San Marcos in 1941 and enjoyed a career with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he played alongside National Basketball Association legend Wilt Chamberlain.
Jackson also received an Olympic gold medal at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Charles Austin won the gold medal for the men's high jump at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and has made San Marcos his home. He is the founder and owner of the So High Sports and Fitness Performance Center and the So High Sports and Fitness Studio in San Marcos.
The museum is open from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Saturdays and by appointment. Visitors may call 665-0354 to set up a tour.
Sources: Calaboose Museum, So High Fitness