“When we start a tour, we tell all about the history of the people [photographed] and the objects. We always try to tie our exhibits to our local scene—places people know,” museum board President Elvin Holt said.
Built in 1873 the former calaboose, or jail, that once housed prisoners now hosts around 12 exhibits celebrating local black heroes in sports, music, business and the military. The museum also displays documents and newspaper clippings from periods of segregation and integration, noting the injustice and inequality.
The building was first renovated in 1990 before opening as a museum in 1997 after founder Johnnie M. Armstead worked to create a home for local African American history. Since then, the museum has served as an educational destination for the community and tourists.
“When Mrs. Armstead died, the museum nearly closed because board members dropped out, so we had to work hard to reconstitute the board. Her death was a hard blow to the museum because she was the real soul of the museum, but I was able to recruit new members,” Holt said.
Holt says there are a few controversial exhibitions at the museum that are important to showcase, as they tell the story of African American history in San Marcos. Such exhibits include images of blackface, minstrel props and a display of an original, local Klu Klux Klan robe from the 1920s.
“It’s important to display it because it’s local, and it confirms that San Marcos was a Klan-friendly town. There was a Klan rally in San Marcos that attracted 20,000 Klansmen,” Holt said.
Open on Saturdays or by appointment, the museum operates through donations and volunteer work; the utilities are funded by the city. The building received its historic landmark status in 1990, according to Holt.
The museum, Holt said, invites the community to engage with local African American history through both exhibits and events.