The Campaign for the Fort Brown Memorial Center
U.S. Army troops left Fort Brown for the last time in 1944, when the 124th Cavalry, one of the last horse cavalry units, departed for World War II action in Burma. At the end of the war military officials concluded that there was no longer a need to maintain frontier forts along the Mexican border and several were closed, including Fort Brown. In 1948 the government turned over most of the old fort to Texas Southmost College for its campus, but a small portion was awarded to the City of Brownsville for the “Fort Brown Memorial Park”.
It’s difficult for many people today to appreciate the impact that Fort Brown had on our community from its origin in 1846 through World War II, as it served as the center of social life in the city. Dinners, dances, parades, concerts, athletic contests and even polo matches provided entertainment for many. No less important was the economic impact of local purchases by the fort commissary and soldiers with their payroll money. The closure of the fort was a blow to the local economy. Considering its long history and involvement with the community, Fort Brown was clearly an institution worthy of a memorial.
As the 1950s, began both the national and local economies began to grow. Local civic leaders recognized that meeting infrastructure needs was crucial to Brownsville’s continued growth. A survey conducted by consulting engineers and completed in late September of 1950 recommended several improvements requiring funding through bond issues. A city election would determine the fate of proposals for funding projects for improving the city water and sewage system, increasing light and power production, improving and paving streets (only half of Brownsville’s streets were paved), and a drainage system involving the Resacas. The preliminary cost of the projects was computed at $6,500,000, a substantial burden for a small city of that era to assume.
To raise public awareness and promote the bond projects city official scheduled a public meeting for October 21, inviting representatives of thirty civic organizations. Sam Perl, haberdasher and lay rabbi for the Jewish community, gave the keynote speech at the meeting, calling for a civic center that would “put Brownsville on the map” and “bring top-flight entertainment and more conventions to our city.” A swimming pool and library were to be included in the civic center proposal at a total cost of $800,000. The delegates in attendance agreed to add civic center bonding funding to the other issues to be voted on in December.
City officials ultimately decided to fund some of the projects with revenue bonds, which would be repaid through increased user fees (higher electricity charges, for example), and the remainder through an increase in the ad valorem property tax. The civic center bonds would be among those requiring a tax increase. The property tax would rise twenty-five percent, while electricity, water, and sewer fees would increase significantly. The city commission approved a vote on all projects, including the civic center, set for December 9.
City leaders, especially Mayor Herbert L. Stokely and City Manager E. W. Watts, campaigned vigorously for the bond proposals, giving speeches and interviews, and mailing out “fact sheets.” The Brownsville Herald gave its editorial support, asking, “Who, lacking a selfish motive, can be against progress?” The League of Women Voters and the Brownsville High School Key Club weighed in on behalf of the projects. Future Mayor Antonio Gonzalez gave a speech over the radio endorsing the bonds the night before the election.
Bond supporters did not go unchallenged. Jose Cantu, a commentator on radio station KBOR, organized an anti-bond rally at the county court house, claiming that it was not “the time for taxpayers to assume more debts we already have.” But the big news was the opposition of noted photographer and former Mayor Robert Runyon, the “Stormy petrel of Brownsville politics” (according to the Herald). Before a crowd of 400 at Missouri Pacific Park a week before the election, Runyon asserted that the improvement issues were not needed and that the city manager was guilty of mismanagements. Runyon had a long history of opposition to what he viewed as the elite establishment of the city, particularly Mayor Stokely. Jose Cantu revealed the extent of factional bitterness when he acknowledged that he would vote for the bonds if the city administration were in the hands of Runyon.
The heavy turnout on Election Day came as a “pleasant surprise” to the Herald and resulted in an overwhelming victory for supporters of the bond issues. The closest vote came on the civic center proposal, which passed by 1267 to 796. The voters had decided to make a major investment in the development of Brownsville.
Just over three years later on January 24, 1954, with Texas Governor Allan Shivers in attendance, the citizens celebrated the dedication of the Fort Brown Memorial Center and began to enjoy the fruits of that investment.
Dr. Anthony Knopp