Raw Roots

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

Strobel had been wrong, archaeologists say, when he wrote that the death of George Jackson meant the end of the Jackson line. In fact, there had been a Jackson son, Frank, who survived, though he had never been legally recognized. What's more, Frank had 15 children and dozens of grandchildren. It just so happened that they were partly of African-American lineage, which meant that for years their descendants hadn't been welcome in Lake Jackson's all-white schools and neighborhoods. Caucasian museum visitors were surprised to discover on a poster illustrating the Jackson family tree that the largest branch of descendants was African-American.

The black Jacksons, however, "have always known who they are," says Catherine Jackson. She's the wife of Robert Jackson, who is a great-grandson of Frank Jackson's. "They know they're kin. I think they're comfortable with it, but they've just been quiet about it," she says. "Nobody wanted to come forward," she says, particularly in the old days. In fact, as long as she can remember, the descendants of Frank Jackson, which now number more than 500, have had family reunions on the Saturday following Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating emancipation in Texas. "Some years they meet right here at the ranch," she says, referring to the RV Ranch in McBeth, near West Columbia, where her family sponsors rodeos.

Robert Jackson, 67, is the 12th of 18 children, and he and Catherine have three sons and a daughter, as well as three other children they brought into their home and raised as their own. "I feel the larger the family, the closer the family," says Catherine.

Every Memorial Day, members of the extended Jackson family visit the Jackson cemetery near Angleton. Several of them attended a picnic at the plantation, where they met Valette Randall, the only white Jackson descendant who showed up. The meeting was cordial, and they found they had something in common. "Neither one of our families inherited anything," says Randall. One of Robert Jackson's sons told her, "All we got from the Jacksons was the name." But it's apparent that the black Jacksons also got something else: a sense of family, which was apparently something Abner Jackson himself never enjoyed.

Forum

The dramatic Jackson murder scene, when brother killed brother, was the finale of a play about the plantation, Cane Cutter Country. Naomi Carrier-Grundy wrote it for Houston's Talking Back Living Theater, which she directs with her husband, Allen. The Grundys, who are retired educators, create plays and educational programs for historic sites that dramatize the lives of enslaved African-Americans. The troupe performed the play last November as part of a symposium held in Lake Jackson called "Viewing the Past Through Different Lenses: African-American Legacy and the Lower Brazos Valley." The symposium, sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife, brought together scholars and museum experts from Texas and around the country specializing in slavery and interpretive history.

While the play was generally well received, there was some criticism by African-Americans about the language and what they perceived as sympathetic portrayals of the white characters. "I was made uncomfortable hearing the N-word," says one of the African-American viewers. "There's no way they can portray the reality of slavery," says one of the scholars present. "They can't show rape or whippings."

Carrier-Grundy says their aim is to be fair, "to show the interdependence of the cultures." Says Allen Grundy, "We call it living lessons." However, scenes in some of their plays, including the killing and burial of a runaway slave, are so painful to watch that white viewers have been known to burst into tears. Some audience members even come up later, according to Carrier-Grundy, to say they are sorry for what their ancestors did. Others, however, "would like it to quietly go away," she says. "And along we come to put it in their faces."

The mixed reaction to Cane Cutter Country was a case study in the difficulty and complexity involved in presenting such sensitive material to the public. Several Southern historical sites have begun incorporating material about slavery into their programs. "Even sites that haven't done it know now that they should," says one scholar. Williamsburg has been presenting slavery-era re-enactments for five years, and it is well accepted by African-American leaders. The first time a slave auction was re-enacted, however, the NAACP picketed the site.

Eric Walther, a University of Houston historian who founded the Texas Slavery Project, applauds the Grundys for their painstaking research. Walther's goal is to collect information on every slave who lived in the state -- a Texas-sized project, he says. White descendants of plantation owners who provide genealogical material for the slavery project have sometimes asked him to add an apology on behalf of their ancestors, says Walther. And he has sometimes found that older African-American men are very uncomfortable with the subject. One of them, he says, finally explained to him, candidly, that men find it a painful subject because they feel shame that their male ancestors were often unable to protect their women and children.

Brooks Jackson, a descendant of Frank Jackson's, is one of those who prefers not to talk about the slavery days. That's not the case with his wife, Teresa Jackson, a calligrapher and artist in Brazoria. She feels that bringing that time out into the open can be a healing experience. The November symposium inspired her to pursue more research and to visit more historical sites. She witnessed one of Williamsburg's slavery re-enactments.

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