Reprint from the San Antonio Express-News, Saturday, January 7, 2012
Consider the other side of 'Longoria affair'
Facts in the emotional case were twisted as the story that tainted Three Rivers grew.
Bob Richter/Express-News staff
Updated 08:17 p.m., Saturday, January 7, 2012
Read more at My San Antonio.
Sixty-three [sixty-nine now] years ago this week something happened in Three Rivers, 80 miles south of here, that put the town on Page 1 of the Jan. 13, 1949, New York Times: “GI of Mexican Origin, Denied Rights in Texas, to Be Buried in Arlington.”
And, said Walter Winchell, renowned radio newsman of the day: “The state of Texas, which looms so large on the map, certainly looks small tonight.”
The story became a blot on Three Rivers and was a catalyst for the American GI Forum and the spread of civil rights and pride among Mexican Americans here and elsewhere.
However, the “story” was based on falsehoods and, unfortunately, journalists here at the Express-News and elsewhere have contributed to the legend.
The shorthand over the decades is that the town’s only funeral home “refused to bury” or “denied the use of its chapel” for the reinterment of U.S. Army Pvt. Felix Longoria, a hometown soldier who was killed by a Japanese sniper in the Philippines in June 1945.
The Express-News printed those lines over the years and also: “the family ... was turned away from a funeral home”; “... hometown funeral parlor of Three Rivers refused to bury a ‘Mexican’”; and “refused to hold a wake ... in its chapel.”
The last phrase is nearest to the truth, but controversy added a complexity to this case and the truth, I believe, never has been told. It may never be told. But as time went by, the shorthand became history and lots of original source material was trampled or laid aside.
Over the years, a number of good, veteran Express-News journalists – John MacCormack, Elaine Ayala and the late Maury Maverick Jr. and Carlos Guerra among them – used variations of the shorthand, largely because it is part of our archives.
It might have stayed that way, but in 2010, a documentary film, “The Longoria Affair,” aired on public television that essentially repeated the old tale and further stained Three Rivers’ reputation. It was nominated for an Emmy award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Then, last July 26, Express-News columnist O. Ricardo Pimentel opened his column with: “I grew up with the story.
“How Dr. Hector P. Garcia, after forming the American GI Forum in Corpus Christi, saw the injustice in 1949 of a Texas funeral home refusing to bury the remains of a Mexican American killed in the Philippines in World War II.”
That sparked a “wait just a minute” call from Betty (Reynolds) Dickinson, who played piano for funerals at the Rice Funeral Home in Three Rivers. She was present Jan. 8, 1949, the day Beatrice Longoria went there to arrange her husband’s funeral with Tom Kennedy, the undertaker and owner.
“This was never about race,” Dickinson said last week. “It was about a family problem, a rift between the wife and the in-laws. Had the wife allowed the parents to attend the wake, the wake would have been held in the chapel.”
That said, Kennedy agreed to bury Felix, but his wake would be at Beatrice’s home in Three Rivers, not the funeral home chapel. Beatrice later told her family she didn’t want to wake Felix at her home and her sister shared the story with Corpus Christi Dr. Hector P. Garcia, founder of the American GI Forum. He sent telegrams on Jan. 11 to 17 political heavyweights, among them new U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson.
The telegram said Kennedy “would not arrange funeral services and use of his facilities” ... that “white people” would “object” ... and that the “action is in direct contradiction of these same principles for which (Longoria) made the supreme sacrifice in giving his life..... for these same people who now deny him the last funeral rites deserving of any American hero regardless of his origins.”
Outraged by the account, LBJ immediately arranged for a burial “with full military honors” in Arlington National Cemetery and called Winchell and Times reporter William S. White, no doubt to boast about his role.
The story became a national sensation and Three Rivers became a poster child for Southern bigotry. However, for the rest of the story, those curious should do their own research.
Read Chapter 32 of Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” the third volume in his LBJ trilogy. It gives a detailed description of how Johnson jumped into the Longoria affair, but then, after more details emerged, “began to backtrack,” including Johnson’s admonishment to Dr. Garcia – right after Longoria’s burial – with no wake -- at Arlington on Feb. 16, 1949 – that he saw “no reason for this to linger in newspapers or instigate unnecessary contention.” Which, of course, did not happen.
Read the April 7, 1949, finding by a Texas House investigative panel that said, by a 4-1 vote, there was no discrimination in the Longoria case.
And read the uncensored version of a Jan. 21, 1949, letter to the Army’s American Graves Registration Division by Shag Floore, an AGR information specialist who investigated the event. It confirms Dickinson’s account of trouble between the widow and her in-laws, specifically “a fight (in late 1948) between (Felix’s father) Lupe Longoria and a man purportedly staying at the widow Longoria’s home.”
That passage was censored from the Floore report on file in the LBJ Library in Austin until September 2010, after “the main parties named in the document were dead.”
As for “white people” would “object”? Historian Richard Hudson took me to the grave of Army Pvt. Benjamin Ruiz, for whom Kennedy performed a wake, funeral and burial in the Three Rivers Cemetery in 1948.As the only funeral parlor in town, Kennedy served whites and browns, Hudson says.
I can’t help but wonder why Kennedy, himself a World War II veteran, would deny services to Longoria? It doesn’t add up.
Jesse Moreno, a Three Rivers native who now lives in Michigan, thinks the story was “twisted” from the start. He contends Beatrice Longoria told her family Kennedy had turned her away, which, I believe, wasn’t true and led to the chain of events that ended with Felix Longoria buried in a grave 1,700 miles from home.
Moreno says Three Rivers wasn’t then and isn’t now a racist town. “But I’m as guilty as the next fellow. I didn’t talk about it because I wanted the healing to begin. It still hurts.”
I’m not positive that my research and reporting is absolutely correct, but I am convinced that what has been told and re-told for 63 years is inaccurate. I know this will cause an angry reaction. However, I think it’s time the real story — or, minimally, the other side of the story — is told.
Bob Richter is the Express-News public editor. His opinions are his own. Contact him at 210-250-3264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.
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Uploaded on January 7, 2012. Modified on February 7, 2019. Published by Agarita Publishing.
Read more at My San Antonio.