The Calaboose African-American History Museum & San Marcos MLK Historic District

Did you know that the first jazz musician to record with an amplified electric guitar came from right here in Central Texas? Did you ever hear the story of the blacksmith who was both terrorized by, yet a favorite among, Hays County Ku Klux Klansmen? Is it any surprise that you haven't, knowing that both men were African-American?

African-American history has always been a sketchy subject, but it's stunning to realize how sketchy when the hidden history comes from your own back yard. About a half hour south of Austin, in San Marcos, a small museum has been doing its best to change all that.

It would be easy to miss the Calaboose African-American History Museum if you didn't know to look for it. It's a wee, unassuming building that, at its dawn in the 1870s, was home to the first Hays County Jail. A decade or so later in 1884, a larger, three-story edifice was erected to take over those duties. The humble Calaboose became the incarceration spot for black prisoners and later a recreation center and USO building for area black servicemen. Located in the heart of San Marcos, just beyond the southwest point of the old town square, the Calaboose is now home to Central Texas' only African-American museum. The museum is currently closed for renovation.

"Renovation" is a bit of an understatement, actually, as longtime Calaboose Director Johnnie Armstead, with the help of museum board members like Richard Gachot, is proposing vast expansions involving the acquisition of local, historically significant property. Some acquisitions include the restoration of the home of Ulysses Cephas, the African-American blacksmith whose masterful metal work not only impressed members of the local KKK, but also lead some of them to justice. Cephas could (and did indeed) identify horseshoe prints in the way modern-day detectives use fingerprints or DNA. Another proposed expansion for the Calaboose is the establishment of the Eddie Durham Freedom Park, which will recognize the life of a local son and jazz innovator who not only was the first man to record with an amplified guitar but who also worked with Count Basie and arranged the swing classic "In the Mood" for Glenn Miller.

Set in the old Dunbar neighborhood, San Marcos' main African-American community, the modest Calaboose will hopefully soon see its new role as cornerstone of a larger museum complex and park, which will serve to not only reveal and establish so much previously overlooked history, but also to illustrate the importance of taking history seriously as it happens, before it disappears.

Calaboose African-American History Museum, 200 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., San Marcos, TX 78666, 512/393-8421. Currently closed for renovations.

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