Lit-urday: Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend

The story of one man’s witness to history and life in bondage

Lit-urday: Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend

It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. Maybe you'd like to step back in time, for a historical tale that introduces you to a figure you didn't know, someone whose life shows you a legendary battle in an entirely new light.

Joe, The Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend
Ron J. Jackson, Jr. and Lee Spencer White
University of Oklahoma Press, 352pp., $29.95

Slavery in America is incomprehensible by today’s standards. Looking back, the subjugation of another human seems unjustifiable by any means. Yet the brutal institution survived for hundreds of years in a country that proclaimed at its inception that all men are created equal. And so with that premise, it’s not difficult to understand that a black man who was one of two people to survive one of the bloodiest battles of the Texas Revolution was returned to bondage after his service to the cause that professed to be to throw off the yoke of tyranny.

Joe was the body servant for Col. William B. Travis, the commander of the Alamo. As most students of 7th grade Texas history know, Susanna Dickinson and a black slave carried the news of the fall of the fortress in San Antonio to the rest of Texas.

Hundreds of books have been written about the Battle of the Alamo, but very little ink has been spent on Joe. Which is not surprising since until now very little was known about him. As the authors of Joe relate, “black servants lived in a shadow world,” even when they were attached to someone as famous as William B. Travis.

After 11 years of research, Ron J. Jackson, Jr. and Lee Spencer White have uncovered new insights into the man who witnessed one of the most famous battles in history and lived to tell about it. From Joe’s brother, escaped slave and writer William Wells Brown, we learn about Joe’s early life in St. Louis before being sold down the river and brought to Texas. The researchers even uncover a possible family connection to the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.

Joe’s life in Texas is documented mostly through court records as he is passed from one owner to the next. By the time he entered the Alamo, Joe was in his early 20s and had been Travis’ manservant for 3½ years. There must have been more than a property bond between the two men, because Joe spoke kindly of his former master’s bravery.

After the war, Susanna Dickinson, although recognized for her sacrifice, lived in poverty until she remarried. Joe was put to work paying off Travis’ debts. He ultimately escaped Texas to walk to Alabama to take his eyewitness account to Travis’ family in Alabama. Joe’s life was an epic American journey.

Jackson and White mined hundreds of sources to bring a new understanding to an old story. Their meticulously footnoted prose (one 11-page chapter has 46 footnotes) brings one man’s life into context with the world he lived in. The only thing missing, if only such a thing existed, is a first-person narrative of the Joe’s life. This book is as close as we will probably ever get to hearing Joe’s voice.

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Texas history, The Alamo, Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo LegendRon J. Jackson, Jr., Lee Spencer White

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