Raw Roots

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

"A lot of people leave those scenes bedraggled," she says. "They can't process it. But I want to know how people responded to conditions in the past, how they felt. I think of the tables of the slave master being so bountifully set by the slaves, and the slaves going back to their cabins to eat scraps. How did they feel about that?" She talked to a black actor at Williamsburg who said he'd had a difficult time at first "acting how our people used to have to act, bowing and walking a certain way," she says. "He thought it was demeaning."

But Teresa Jackson has come away from her encounters with history with a message she wants to share. "I think it's important to know what our ancestors endured to get us here," she says. "I look at our history not to point a finger but to find kinship."

Varner Hogg: The Grande Dame and the Slave Mistress

Not everyone wants to be reminded of the past dredged up by Cane Cutter Country.
Not everyone wants to be reminded of the past dredged up by Cane Cutter Country.
The four rowdy Martin boys "terrorized most of Brazoria County.
The four rowdy Martin boys "terrorized most of Brazoria County.

How to present difficult stories and conflicting issues is a question, too, at Varner Hogg State Park. "We have seven layers of Texas history here," says park director Jeff Hutchinson. The history of the place stretches back to Native American and Mexican habitation, the period of early Anglo settlement, the plantation era, cattle ranching and the mansion's most recent incarnation as a decorative arts showplace.

In recent years, Texas Parks and Wildlife has had several projects and special events to make the park more inclusive of African-Americans and their history. Two years ago the department hired University of Texas graduate student Cary Cordova to research the history of the plantation's slaves and to suggest ways to incorporate it into the park's programs. The park's Web site reflects her work with lists of the enslaved people, and their individual stories based on historical documents and oral histories. African-American interpretive specialist Toni Hill-Kennedy was also hired to update the park's interpretive programs.

However, Cordova and Hill-Kennedy feel that change has been slow in coming at the park and that their work has yet to make a real impact at Varner Hogg. Trying to put her research into practice, Cordova says, "has been a bit of an ordeal."

"There was concern by some of the staff and volunteers that we were going to alienate the visitors who come to Varner Hogg for the 'plantation house' experience," she says. Some expect the sort of crinolines-and-juleps tours still in vogue in some plantations elsewhere in the South. Volunteer guides at Varner Hogg sometimes dress in period costume, with long skirts and bonnets, in keeping with those expectations.

Hill-Kennedy quickly realized Varner Hogg had a ways to go to accommodate African-American sensibilities. She was shocked one day to hear a volunteer docent compare the chaining of slaves to the chaining of elephants to keep them in line. "I got some disheartening comments about telling the history of African-Americans at the site," she says. "I just didn't feel that the Hoggs should have been in the forefront all the time," she says. "What mattered to me was telling visitors about the lives of the enslaved people there that they hadn't heard about." Hill-Kennedy feels that Varner Hogg may be missing out on a growing trend to examine the slave era. "People are ready," she says. "It's just now getting cool to talk about slavery. Why let a good moment go?"

She left her park job last December but remains affected by the stories of former slaves Sarah Ford and Anthony Christopher, whose memories were recorded in a Work Projects Administration oral history project in the 1930s. Ford told of a black overseer punishing her father, a captured runaway, by dripping hot grease on his back. Following emancipation, the overseer, who was shunned by the former slaves, arrived at her father's farm, ill and dying, begging for a place to stay. Her father took him in, she said, and made a place for him in an outbuilding, where he died shortly thereafter.

The problem in telling these stories effectively at Varner Hogg, of course, is the overwhelming presence there of Ima Hogg, who donated the plantation to the state in 1956 to be used as a park. Miss Ima, after all, turned it into a showplace her brother Will once described as "Mount Vernon if George Washington had bags of bucks." The house is also a memorial for her father, James Hogg, the former governor of Texas.

It's not just a question of moving around some china and furniture to make room for the slaves. It's a question of changing the focus. "We've been trying to make the site more inclusive of African-American history," says Texas Parks and Wildlife historian Bill Dolman. "But the Hogg family influence at the site is so strong. The main house has been severely remodeled from its original state, and trying to recall the sugar plantation era runs into all kind of visual obstacles. It's difficult to do when your artifacts are Ima Hogg's decorative arts."

Part of Miss Ima's mission in life was to bring culture and refinement to Texas. She founded the Houston Symphony and built Bayou Bend into one of the top decorative arts museums in the country. "Miss Ima is becoming a historical figure herself," says park director Hutchinson. "She was one of the finest Texas women of all time."

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