Marching Orders

by Char Miller


Other choices would lead to different visions of a particular place in time, and would vary depending on culture and society. “Perhaps we would organize our Description sociologically, beginning with the municipal power elite or working upward from the workers. We could even strike a spiritual note, starting with a Fourth of July oration or a sermon,” a reminder that every built environment is constructed out of the human capacity to think, plan, and communicate. Which only adds to the confounding array of possibilities that confront historians of the urban past. So infinite are they, Darton muses, that they can become “paralyzing. For how can one put ‘the true idea of a city’ on paper, especially if one cares about the city and the supply of paper is endless?”

Darton’s analysis of Montpelier, a growing market town and administrative center in Languedoc, revolved around a massive unpublished manuscript left behind by an obsessive recorder of life in that provincial town; hoping to turn his city into text, this anonymous member of the French bourgeoisie toted up “every chapel, every wig maker, every stray dog in what to him was the center of the universe.” But there was a precise ordering to his description which paralleled the community’s hierarchy, beginning with the local bishop and ranks of clergy, running through the civil leadership, and tabulating the customs, folkways, and behaviors characteristic of the three estates that structured pre-Revolutionary France. Much of the manuscript, Darton observes, “reads like an account of a procession,” and its author “organized his thoughts in the same way as his countrymen arranged their processions,” because such parades served “as a traditional idiom for urban society.”

Pre-industrial Americans also loved strutting their stuff in public, often to ritually confirm the new nation’s democratic ethos. It was an embattled ethos, it turns out, for although the street was an accessible stage that all social strata employed to demonstrate their presence in and significance to the commonweal, their differing sensibilities occasionally clashed. In some cases, violence flared along the parade routes of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. But most processions—however much they appeared to challenge the status quo—were pacific. By making spectacles of themselves, marchers hoped to establish that they had made it in America, that they belonged.

Those claims of inclusion became considerably harder to display at the close of the 19th century. As the industrial revolution restructured society, politics, and labor, those who raked in the new wealth reconceived the purpose of public rituals.They appropriated once-open celebrations (and launched new ones) so that they could flaunt their new-found authority over the polity. Nowhere was this more starkly revealed than in The Veiled Prophet Celebration of Saint Louis, founded in 1878 in the immediate aftermath of a contentious trolley strike. Its icon—The Veiled Prophet—was tarted up in a white robe, full-face mask and peaked cap, and was heavily armed, packing a club, pistol, and two shotguns. “It will be readily observed from accoutrements,” The Missouri Republican observed, “that the procession is not likely to be stopped by streetcars or anything else.” It didn’t take a Klansman to know which way the wind was blowing.

To sweep the streets of contenders to elite dominance, city after city passed legislation that required permits for parades or demonstrations, limiting their number, activities, and import. As for spontaneous outbursts in parks and avenues, they were met, as were wildcat strikes in factories and sweatshops, by police swinging billy clubs and militia advancing with fixed bayonets. Those who controlled the state were registering their clout in uniquely dramatic ways.

To capture their impact on marcher and observer, Sobré, who has read every relevant newspaper account and scanned extant documentary and visual evidence, sets her readers within the pungent odors of cooked food, human sweat, and horse manure that hung over the parade routes. We hear the shouts of approval as the decorated wagons and crude floats rolled past the reviewing stands. And at the opening and closing ceremonies we flinch at the sharp crack of cannonade and the din of drum and horn.

Pursuing this “inside out” look is critical to Sobré’s goal of adopting “the views and prejudices of both celebrators and viewers,” which, she notes, “is the way the culture was both understood and reflected at the time.” No doubt. But there are moments when the author seems trapped in the minutia she has so richly recovered, and this hinders her from offering a compelling outside perspective on why San Antonians put their best face forward when in formation they strode down the city’s dusty streets.

One such instance involves those pageants Sobré decided not to evaluate in San Antonio on Parade. “Some of the city’s … smaller ethnic groups were excluded from this exploration,” she notes, “because their festivals (when they had them) were different.” But that’s precisely why they should have been included, for it is on the basis of such differences that historians are able to throw into sharp relief what appears normative. Local Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations offered up one such golden opportunity. In San Antonio, the Irish marked the holiday “with a procession culminating in a solemn mass,” Sobré writes, a religious sensibility that contrasted with “the raucous parades seen in the Northern and Eastern United States.” This striking distinction cries out for close analysis that would have given us a deeper appreciation of what distinguished one set of Irish celebrants from another, one urban experience from another.

All is not lost, for those parades that Sobré scrutinizes reveal in various degrees how they functioned within Darton’s urban idiom. While none of the fin-de-siècle celebrations in San Antonio erupted in bloody conflict, as occurred in more industrialized cities to its north (yet another conundrum unexplored), the city’s pageants were every bit as segmented and segregated as those elsewhere. The Fourth of July, for instance, evolved from “a more unified civic holiday” to more “diverse group celebrations.” These did not strictly coalesce around factors of race and ethnicity, but it is instructive that the 1900 parade only included participants from a narrow band of the community—the fire department, city and county leaders, and military units and veterans. Later, the citizenry separately enjoyed the day. A large crowd gathered at San Pedro Springs for the requisite orations, athletic contests, and nighttime bonfire; Catholics celebrated the nation’s birthday at Riverside Park; African Americans partied at Connor’s Grove, where they listened to speeches and cheered on their athletes. As in earlier years, those Blacks who attended the San Pedro Springs 1900 ceremonies did not mix with white revelers. Just so with Juneteenth, a commemoration of the emancipation of African Americans from slavery; prominent whites who attended sat at a “whites only” table.

Ethnic divides were just as pronounced. Volkfests signaled the German community’s powerful presence in the city’s political life and social whirl. Diez y Seis and Columbus Day celebrants made their bid for inclusion in the Americanizing town. As for African Americans, their presence in these parades of ethnic pride recapitulated their social standing in the demeaning positions they occupied on allegorical floats.Which is why Sobré’s more upbeat conclusion is puzzling. San Antonio was not a city of “independent, closed circles at all,” she argues, but is best understood “as a fascinating tapestry, of very uneven weave—some subsidiary patterns intersecting, some twined together and even sharing threads, and others autonomous… but all making up one clearly articulated festive fabric, identifying this particular municipality in its place and time.” The metaphor dazzles, but it is also a stretch. San Antonio on Parade may give equal space to the community’s many different pageants, but there was considerably less equality in its everyday life and civil rites.

Contributing writer Char Miller is chair of the history department at Trinity University, and editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio.