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The military helped San Antonio’s red-light district grow. It also shut it down

A photo of a physical drill taken at Fort Sam Houston dated March 22, 1918.
National Archives Catalog
National Archives and Records Administration
A photo of a physical drill taken at Fort Sam Houston dated March 22, 1918.

This story is part of a series from Texas Public Radio called “Running Red-Lights.” The podcast and additional reporting focuses on the history of sex work in San Antonio and the women who ran the industry, but who weren’t allowed to make history.

Military servicemen at Fort Sam Houston were known to be big customers of the red-light district in San Antonio during the first half of the 20th century. While they’re responsible for the district’s growth, they’re also responsible for the district’s demise, according to U.S. history teacher Jennifer Cain.

She teaches at Sandra Day O’Connor High School and Northwest Vista College. When she attended the University of Texas at San Antonio, she wrote her master’s thesis on San Antonio’s red-light district.

“We used to have the electric rails that actually rode directly to the red-light district. And the Blue Book, of course, was given to the servicemen as they came off of the rail lines,” Cain said, noting the Blue Book was a directory to local brothels. “So, you know, they (servicemen) were definitely the best customers during that time period.”

Brothel-owners enjoyed official decriminalization for about 10 years, from 1891 to 1901. But even after the “bawdy house” ordinance was overturned, the red-light district grew even larger. San Antonio police officers did not enforce closures.

By 1912, Fort Sam was the largest Army post in the country, and the men there helped keep brothels in business. But then a national health scare in 1917 convinced the U.S. War Secretary Newton Baker to introduce restrictions.

“After World War I, they had a significant issue with the growth of sexually transmitted diseases. And the military was fighting that quite a bit. And they constantly tried to work with the city to close (the brothels) down,” Cain said.

“And we don't know, were they reluctant or was it just too difficult to control? We don't know… The police themselves (were) unwilling to enforce it, though many of them may have been customers themselves, may have worked in those areas too, you know, off duty.”

The majority of brothels were concentrated on the west side of downtown San Antonio — where the rail trail dropped passengers off. But there were brothels elsewhere in the city.

“The Fort Sam Houston Museum received a copy of a map from the National Archives, dated 1917 or ’18 showing the locations of all ‘off limits’ establishments within 1 mile of the post boundaries. These would be houses of prostitution, gambling dens and disreputable saloons,” historian and former Fort Sam Museum Director John Manguso explained in an email to TPR.

He added that a National Guard officer commented on the presence of saloons and bawdy houses in a neighborhood south of Wilson Street — some that were in view from the Main Post Chapel. This neighborhood was purchased by the War Department in 1917 and replaced with a warehouse complex according to Manguso.

The military could control access to brothels near the base, but it still struggled to work with the City of San Antonio on closing the district downtown. A joint task force made up of military and city police officers performed periodic raids in the district. Still, it seems they weren’t as effective as the military or San Antonio City Council members would have liked.

“Minutes from the meeting on December 17, 1917, reflect an exasperated City Hall placing the blame jointly on the police department for its failure to enforce, and on the hypocrisy of the federal government for granting liquor licenses in known houses of prostitution. Ultimately, the joint city-military committee found that ‘the Police Department in all its branches was derelict in its duty’ and recommended a reorganization of the Police Department,” Cain wrote in her thesis.

Then, an accidental shooting and death of a military police officer ended any possible further cooperation. Details are vague about this incident.

So the military offered the city an ultimatum: close the district for good, or forbid servicemen from coming downtown for any reason.

It would have crushed San Antonio’s economy if military men stopped spending money downtown, so the city finally shut down the district in 1941. That was the official end to San Antonio’s red-light district, but of course sex workers are still here.

U.S. military officials now educate troops on sex trafficking, in addition to consensual sex work, with a particular emphasis on South Korea.The relationships between sex workers there and U.S. servicemen date back to 1945 — when the U.S. occupied the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, which later became South Korea. It wasn’t until 2004 that prostitution was outlawed in South Korea.

In 2005, then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order that made buying sex illegal under the military’s uniform code. Later in 2014, after it became clear sex workers and servicemen found loopholes to the law, Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti — who commanded U.S. forces in Korea at the time — issued a memorandum to his troops forbidding any exchange of compensation for a person’s company. This included buying drinks or paying a fee for bar games.

Service members face strict penalties and fines if caught paying for sex in the U.S. or abroad — even in countries where sex work is decriminalized or legal. But reporting from Politico, The Washington Post and Reuters suggests there’s a gap between written policies and real-life actions.

TPR spoke to one sex worker who verified she’s had clients who are service members stationed in San Antonio, which has four military bases and is colloquially referred to as Military City, USA. She started her career in sex work in San Antonio. Oliv — only her first name is used in this series — now lives in New York City.

“I very much miss my clientele in San Antonio,” she said. “They were really buff, ripped military men or, like, stupid college guys.”

In the next installment in this series, Oliv describes the dangers — and opportunities — that come with sex work, something the sex workers of 1917 would recognize.

Please reach out to us with questions or comments at redlights@tpr.org.

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Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk