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Finding the Derry Family

November 25, 2019

UTSA Special Collections recently acquired a photo album of a San Antonio African-American family. Prior to researching the family, I only had the descriptions provided on some of the photographs in the album to tell me about this family. Some photos have a full name for their subjects while others only have a first name. Some photos provide the address pictured, others provide the city, but still others are completely blank.

I began by recording all of the descriptions, focusing on names and places. One photo in particular was key to my research. This photo identified Charles H. Derry as well as his residential address.

The Derry home.

Once I had Derry’s name and address, I dug into our Worley’s San Antonio city directories to see if he was listed. Indeed, in the 1921 directory, he was listed at the address on the photograph and alongside his name was his workplace. Later directories added further information to Derry’s story, including his job title, his wife’s name, job title, and workplace, as well as those of their son and daughter.

At this point, I had enough information about the Derry family to move on to other resources. My next stop was the HeritageQuest database. Many academic and public libraries have access to this database, which collects genealogical sources like local and family histories as well as U.S. Federal Census records up to 1940 and much more. Census records provided me with the family member’s approximate birth years, birthplaces, and their educational experience.  I also visited one of the San Antonio Public Library branches to access their onsite databases Ancestry Library and Fold3, which yielded death certificates and draft cards.

From there I searched both UTSA’s Digital Collections as well as The Portal to Texas History for each family member. The materials in these collections provided additional information on the family, including obituaries, funeral programs, and some of their social involvement. In UTSA’s Digital Collections, we have digitized our holdings of SNAP Magazine, a weekly San Antonio publication dedicated to reporting news from an African-American perspective. In The Portal to Texas History, users can search UTSA’s digitized issues of the San Antonio Register, the city’s second weekly newspaper focused on the local African-American community.

Based on all of this research, I have been able to put together the following narrative about the Derry family:

Charles Harry Derry, Jr. was born into a farming family in Flatonia, a town in Fayette County, Texas in 1883. His parents were Charles Sr. and Mattie (née Brooks) Derry, both of whom were born in Texas in 1864. Over in Gonzales County, a teamster named Allan A. and his wife Francis “Frankie” Smith gave birth to their second daughter, Mattie K. Smith. Allan had been born in Louisiana in 1855 and Frankie was a native Texan born in 1860. Mattie K.’s family eventually moved to San Antonio where she graduated from Riverside School on Rincon Street and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from Prairie View State College and also attended the University of Southern California. 

Charles H. Derry, Jr. driving at the U.S. Arsenal.

By 1920, Charles Jr. was living in San Antonio with his wife Mattie K. and their son Elmore “Elmo” Vernon and daughter Johnnie Marvel. Charles was working as a chauffeur and then a foreman at the San Antonio U.S. Arsenal. Mattie K. was a teacher for 30 years, most of which were spent at Norris Wright Cuney Elementary School on Iowa Street. Their son, Elmo was a teacher at multiple schools, including Frederick Douglass Junior High School, Dunbar Junior High School, and Phillis Wheatley High School. Their daughter, Johnnie also taught early in her adulthood, but worked most of her life as a maid at the Karotkin Furniture Company.

The Derrys were active in the San Antonio community, especially in social organizations and church. Charles Jr. was an active member of the Utopia Culture Club and was a pallbearer at multiple funerals. Mattie K. was a member of numerous organizations, including the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, the Order of Eastern Star, the Order of Calanthe, and the Worthy Counselors Council. She was also an active member of the St. Paul Methodist Church since childhood. Elmo was active in school groups, the Alamo Social Club, and the El Feyes Club. Johnnie, like her mom, was also a faithful member of St. Paul United Methodist Church.

The Derry family with their horse and carriage.

Both Elmo and Johnnie were college educated. While I have not yet found Elmo’s alma mater, Johnnie did attend Prairie View College. Both children married, but neither had children. It appears that Johnnie’s husband Clayborn Blevins died in World War II and Elmo’s wife Mattie (née DuBois) succumbed to a month-long illness in 1949. After his wife’s death, Elmo moved back in with his parents, where he would stay for the rest of his life.

Mattie K. was the first member of this nuclear family to pass in 1962. She was followed by her husband in 1970, her son in 1977, and her daughter in 2003. While their line ended 16 years ago, UTSA Special Collections keeps their stories alive by protecting materials that document their lives. We are honored to preserve their memories in perpetude.

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