Raw Roots

Excavations for plantation artifacts - and the real truth - are unraveling the genteel gloss covering Texans' old notions about the slave era here

On Highway 521, about a mile past the San Bernard River, deep in the heart of the swampy coastal bottomlands of Brazoria County, lies a deserted old two-story house, whose slouching front steps and sagging roof seem to invite vandals like a double dare. Broken first-floor windows reveal a scene of dark green sprigs of poison ivy twined around an old hand-hewed mantelpiece, like some bitter ghost's idea of holiday decoration. While the Levi Jordan mansion is hardly the picture of antebellum elegance, this old ruin once ruled one of the largest plantations on the Gulf Coast. And it may soon assume a new role as the place where the real story of slavery in Texas can be told.

Buried in House Joint Resolution 97, a call for a bond issue passed by the Texas legislature during its closing hours, is an appropriation of $4.1 million for the Levi Jordan Plantation. Along with Varner Hogg Plantation State Park up the road in West Columbia and the excavated ruins of an old sugar mill in nearby Lake Jackson, Levi Jordan represents the last tangible vestige of the infamous mid-19th-century Sugar Bowl era, when sugarcane was creating millionaires in the lower Brazos Valley and spreading a system of human bondage that would help shape the course of Texas history for generations to come.

Although the old Jordan place, as it's known locally, was once one of the most prosperous in Texas, it seems at first glance an unusual target for state funds, which would go toward repairs and for development of interpretive programs. The plantation is included in the appropriations for Texas Parks and Wildlife along with such popular monuments as the battleship Texas and the San Jacinto Monument. After all, Levi Jordan represents the slavery era in Texas, hardly the state's finest hour -- a time that historically has been given short shrift in the state's textbooks and monuments. Texas slavery lasted only 50 years, as compared to more than 200 in some states of the Old South, and the argument is still often made that slavery wasn't as "bad" in Texas as it was elsewhere.

Slavery, says historian Randolph Campbell of the University of North Texas and author of the book An Empire for Slavery, has been slighted in historical accounts of the state, in part because it just didn't fit in with the Texas freedom-and-frontier image. Conveniently, there weren't many reminders of the slavery era in Texas left standing by the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the plantation houses near the Gulf Coast were destroyed in the great hurricane of 1900 that came roaring up over Galveston and across the Brazos Valley. It was as though a part of history were erased, as the last vestiges of the Texas plantation era were blown away almost overnight -- literally gone with the wind.

Even more unusual than the state's plans for the Jordan place is the fact that an African-American legislator in Houston would be among its most enthusiastic supporters. "This is a significant piece of Texas history right under our noses," declared state Senator Rodney Ellis after touring the plantation. He was joined by an archaeologist who has been uncovering the plantation's secrets for 14 years and by descendants of Levi Jordan and by African-American descendants of the plantation's slaves. They have formed an unlikely alliance to save the plantation. This Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Association has a long-term lease on the privately owned estate.

The effort to save Levi Jordan, according to some, should represent a turning point in the way Texas views its history. Along with Varner Hogg and the Jackson Plantation, this site represents a touchstone of the state's willingness to confront and acknowledge its history of slavery.

The effort to bring slavery out into the open has met resistance from some blacks and whites alike, for different reasons. But the efforts have also found powerful support in surprising places -- from Williamsburg to the Brazos Valley -- among those who feel that there are lessons to be learned from a terrible time.

Part of the reason for this sea of change is that some stories are just too compelling to be kept buried. Researchers in Texas have been digging into the ground and into old documents, often with the help of descendants of plantation residents, both black and white. They've found riveting stories. Behind the genteel facades of the old Brazos plantations there are harsh and shocking stories of blood feuds, fratricide, miscegenation, whippings and even murders of slaves. Brazoria County had more than its share of Sally Hemingses (the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson) and of small-time Simon Legrees. But there are also extraordinary stories of great resilience and creativity among the enslaved people and their descendants. And it's those stories that may well be the most important of all in changing the way Texans look at slavery.

Lake Jackson: The Mill and the Storm

Originally the largest and grandest of the three surviving landmark antebellum estates, the Lake Jackson Plantation has experienced the greatest destruction over the years. It was established by Major Abner Jackson in 1842 on a stretch of rich bottomland between the Brazos River and Oyster Creek. Now it is little more than a small fenced-in site dotted with piles of excavated bricks and historical markers on the edge of the town of Lake Jackson.

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