JOE, THE SLAVE WHO BECAME AN ALAMO LEGEND
By Ron R. Jackson Jr. and Lee Spencer White
Published in 2015 by University of Oklahoma Press.
Reviewed by Joyce Boatright.
The story of the Alamo is legendary. Every Texas school child knows the names and life stories of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Barret Travis. They can holler “Remember the Alamo!” and tell you how the battle was lost but the war for Texas’s independence was won from Mexico. Few people, including children’s history teachers, know remembrances of the Alamo come from the eye-witness account of a man named Joe, the slave of William Travis.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Joe was shoved into the shadows of Texas’s memory. The fact that a freedom fighter owned a slave is ironic to say the least, although this dualist thinking was common among Southern whites. However, thanks to authors Ron J. Jackson, Jr., and Lee Spencer White, Joe’s story has finally been written.
Jackson and White spent over a decade relentlessly gathering, documenting, and describing the stark details of Joe’s life of bondage juxtaposed against the battle of the Alamo, and after. Piecing together Joe’s narrative was challenging. Slaves took the last names of their owner, so each time Joe was sold to someone new, his surname changed. Another common practice among slaves was having their first names changed as well, sometimes at the whim of a slave master, other times because an owner had a family member with the same name as a newly acquired slave. He was born Joe Young, but his surname changed several times during his bondage. In the latter part of his life, he was known as Ben Travis. Could the shape shifting nature of his name be the reason he faded from Texas history? More likely, it was because slaves were seen as mere chattel, and quickly swallowed into the invisibility of the slavery system. Perhaps more fitting to the Texas psyche, Texans commiserated with Susanna Dickinson and elevated her to the status of eye witness, although she, like the other women survivors, hid away from the heat of battle until the very end. Joe, on the other hand, was in the thick of the battle, fighting by Travis’s side.
The story is a compelling narrative that will have the reader on the edge of their chair. Joe experiences the tearing apart of his family, being sold, bartered and leased by the desire or on the death of his owners, and ceaselessly feeling the upheaval and uncertainty of being one of “the walking dead.” Joe faces each horrific adversity with the will to survive.
The authors do an excellent job of juxtaposing the hopes and dreams of slaves and Texan immigrants, all yearning for the freedom to choose their destiny. Slaves coveted freedom from their uncompromising masters while Anglo Americans immigrating to Texas craved freedom from the tyranny of a Mexican dictator. Jackson and White’s handling of the parallel passion for freedom is exquisite.
Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend is a must-read for pundits of Texas history. Meticulously researched, the 13-page bibliography includes sources from archival collections, court records, interviews, books, articles, and pamphlets. The result is a captivating tale about the Alamo and the heroes who defended it—including a slave named Joe.
Joyce Boatright is a writer living in Houston, TX. Although she wasn’t born in Texas, as the saying goes, “I got here as fast as I could.”