Conversation #2 – at the Calaboose

We found the Calaboose African American History Museum some time ago as we were driving around San Marcos and today we stopped by. It’s open on Saturdays. Here’s a brief version of the Calaboose’s history:

“Originally constructed as a county jail in 1873, the city of San Marcos acquired this building in 1885 and turned it into a community recreation center after the county built a stone replacement jail. The Calaboose (from the Spanish word meaning dungeon or local jail), as it came to be called, was enlarged in the 1940s and used as a World War II United Service Organization (USO) center for African American servicemen at a time when segregation kept black and Anglo soldiers from mingling. Local African American historian Johnnie Armstead fought to preserve the site. Her contributions included raising money for renovation, creating the museum, acquiring most of its artifacts and leading the effort to obtain a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark designation for the building.”

We went to the Calaboose as part of our history hunt, but our visit turned into a conversation thanks to Diana. Diana welcomed us as we entered the Calaboose and as she introduced us to the museum, I asked if she would be willing to be one of my 52 Conversations and she agreed. Diana teaches first grade here in San Marcos and it turned out that we share of love of children’s books. She reads them to her students and seemed intrigued that I read them to college students. She even suggested a new author for me to look for. We discovered this shared appreciation because, the Calaboose has a collection of children’s books which includes one of my favorites, Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey with Gwen Strauss. Finding Ruth and the Green Book several years ago was my introduction to this important story of African-American travel in the United States during segregation.

Diana was so welcoming to us and walked us through the museum, showing us the incredibly small space that was the original building used to house prisoners. This is now the entry area and is used to house a rotating art gallery currently showing some truly lovely works by Texas State students. We walked through the larger area, the one used as a U.S.O. It is filled with exhibits about local members of the community. It was easy to imagine dancers filling the room, especially with the strains of music from a video montage about Eddie Durham, a renowned jazz musician from San Marcos.

Exhibits included a picture of teachers in the “colored department” of the Southwest Texas Teachers Institute, World War II uniforms, and photographs of members of the African-American community throughout the years. But the most haunting was the anonymous donation of a Ku Klux Klan robe from the San Marcos Klan No. 124 and the article reporting a Klan gathering with 20,000 estimated to be in attendance. My husband’s comment was that he’d never seen an actual Klan robe and neither had I.

Diana told me she’s a new Board member and staffing the Museum is one of the responsibilities of the Board. I asked how she had come to join the Board, and she told me she is a Bahá’í and she is the representative of the local Bahá’í community to the board. Not only did she welcome us to the Museum, she told me about the Cinema Club, a group that brings movies to San Marcos that might not be shown here otherwise. She invited me to a celebration of World Religions Day held by the Unitarian Universalist community in town. She also explained about the MLK Day parade to be held on Monday and the annual fundraiser for the Calaboose.

I appreciated Diana taking time to talk with me beyond her role of welcoming visitors to the Museum. She also invited me into the greater community through all she shared with me about her San Marcos experience and about the Calaboose and the complex history it represents.

One Comment on “Conversation #2 – at the Calaboose

  1. What an amazing experience to have such a tour that took you on a unique journey with such personal insights and resulting in an invitation to further immerse into San Marcos history and culture.
    I’m looking forward to hearing what your next conversation reveals.


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