The Longoria Affair

Posted: August 28, 2020 9:00:00 AM CDT

It has been a challenging year for the residents of Planet Earth. We’ve all had to make adjustments to nearly every facet of our lives. The United States has been at war with itself over its past and for its future. Undeniable fundamental and systemic racism is being laid bare, and it is an unfortunate part of our culture that we will continue to have to confront and correct.

An example of it sits in our own Special Collections Archive in an unassuming gray box that tells the story of Felix Longoria. It’s a name that should be easily recognizable, especially in Texas.

I’ve lived in Texas since a few months after I was born and had never heard of him until I began looking for something small and manageable to process at home immediately after we went remote. Collection 181, The Santiago Hernandez Papers fit the bill, and it tells the ongoing story of denial that still surrounds the it to this day.

Felix Longoria was a Mexican-American United States Army Private, a husband, and father. As World War II entered its waning days in the Pacific Theater in June of 1945, he was killed in action by a sniper’s bullet in the Philippines.

It wasn’t until 1949 that his body finally made it home to Three Rivers, Texas; a small town that sits halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. His wife Beatrice approached Tom Kennedy, owner of Three Rivers only funeral home, about opening the chapel for a wake.

At the time, the town cemetery was divided into two sections by barbed wire fencing, one for “Whites” the other for “Mexicans” despite US citizenship. Kennedy refused to let the wake be held, allegedly telling Beatrice “the whites wouldn’t like it,” though he later ascribed his denial of facilities to a dispute in the Longoria family.

When Beatrice’s sister in law Sarah Moreno Posas heard of the situation, she offered to contact Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American G.I. Forum (which advocated for Mexican-American veterans) and president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). What happened next is well documented in Collection 5, the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Papers.

Dr. Garcia called Kennedy and had his secretary Gladys Bucher takes notes. Kennedy reportedly told Garcia that "it doesn't make any difference" that Longoria was a veteran. "You know how the Latin people get drunk and lay around all the time. The last time we let them use the chapel, they got all drunk and we just can't control them - so the white people object to it, and we just can't let them use it."

George Groh, a local reporter, was contacted about the situation by Dr. Garcia and spoke to Kennedy as well. "We never made a practice of letting Mexicans use the chapel, and we don't want to start now,” Groh reported as a quote from Kennedy.

Later when the dust settled, five witnesses testified or submitted notarized documents that affirmed Kennedy’s motives were racial in nature. When the story was publicized, it quickly gained national and international attention. Recently elected Senator Lyndon B. Johnson got involved and arranged for Longoria’s remains to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and provided transportation to Longoria’s entire family for the funeral. The incident catapulted Dr. Hector P. Garcia and Lyndon B. Johnson into the national spotlight and helped distinguish Mexicans from Mexican-Americans. (See communication between Garcia and Johnson below.)

h.p. garcia to senator l.b. johnson senator l.b. johnson to h.p. garcia

Over half a century later, in 2003, the events had mostly disappeared from memory, much like the Tulsa Race Massacre. A Three Rivers High School history teacher that grew up in the town was completely unaware of the incident. As of 2003, it was not part of the state curriculum despite the obvious impact it had on history. This is when Santiago Hernandez entered the picture.

Hernandez worked just outside Three Rivers for the Federal Correctional Institution. His uncle, Guillermo Luna, was the National Director of Hispanic Veterans Military History for the American GI Forum and pointed out that Hernandez worked near the town where the Longoria Affair occurred. Hernandez had also never heard of this controversy and set out to make sure it wasn’t lost once again. He began campaigning for the Three Rivers Post Office to be renamed after Longoria.

While much of Three Rivers had seemingly integrated since 1949, both support and opposition to the renaming came out strong. Opposition included both Tom Kennedy’s widow and the Hispanic Mayor of Three Rivers, Felipe Martinez.

Martinez accused Hernandez of exploiting him and wondered why the Post Office name hadn’t been brought up before he was elected. The city council took the position that they would not oppose renaming the Post Office, but since it was a federal building it would legally need to be done through Congress. Representative Lloyd Doggett filed a bill, but it was not passed.

longoria historical marker outside of original funeral home

Hernandez then turned his attention to getting a historical marker placed on the property. He again faced opposition, but in 2010 the marker was installed (see side photo). In 2014, the new owners of the funeral home demolished the structure and the marker was damaged. After the marker had been repaired, the new owners of the property asked the city to relocate it. It was moved near the entrance to city hall.     

Both the Hector P. Garcia and Santiago Hernandez collections are available to be viewed by appointment in Special Collections. Preserving these priceless source documents ensures that history is told as accurately as possibly, through the eyes of the people who bore witness to it.

The United States has done much to eliminate the overt racism of 1949. Yet the less visible, systemic racism that still exists today is perhaps even more dangerous since it does not point blank announce its presence. It is pervasive throughout our society, and Covid-19 has shown some of the cracks we can help fill in higher education by addressing learning and technology disparities in students who come from underprivileged backgrounds.

It is a big responsibility, but also an honor to help lead these students further than their parents and level the playing field for every individual that seeks our counsel.  

 

References
Patterson, M. R. (2006, June 13). Felix Z. Longoria. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/longoria.htm

 

 

By: Eric Christensen

Category: Books & More, Today’s Special, Behind the Scenes