Raw Roots

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

Brown and his team perused plantation records and court documents to help piece together what had happened, and the implications were ominous. The inhabitants had disappeared in March 1886, almost exactly a hundred years before they began the dig. That was the time, Brown learned, when the Martin boys took possession of the plantation.

Occupants of the cabins were former slaves who had stayed on as tenant farmers, and they had had to pledge all their belongings as guarantees against loans to help them buy crops and equipment. For African-Americans in those days, a "chattel mortgage" meant that a creditor could simply take everything they owned. It appeared that the Martins wanted to turn the plantation into a horse farm, so they decided to exert their rights under the chattel mortgage system and evict the tenants.

The details got worse. Brown learned that an African-American named Williams who resided on the plantation had been murdered in March 1886 and that four other men who lived there had been severely injured the same day. Williams was said to have died of asphyxiation, which meant he had probably been hung. The man charged in that murder was Will Martin, known as McWillie. His reported grievance against the murdered man: Williams had testified on behalf of the McNeills in the court battle over custody of the plantation. However, the only witnesses to the crime were African-American, so the charges were dropped and McWillie went free. Apparently the residents of the old slave quarters fled for their lives, and the Martins locked up their former cabins for good. The structures crumbled, layers of dirt and mud gradually covering them. But beneath that earth, the artifacts remained just as they were, undisturbed, except by an armadillo or two, until Brown and his crew began to dig.

Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.

To counterbalance that terrible exodus story were the stories of everyday life in those crumbled cabins that Brown and his team were beginning to piece together. In the ruins of one cabin, they uncovered a shackle, which was an item they could have anticipated, but which was particularly affecting to the African-American students who were working on the dig.

In another cabin, however, which they would come to call the Carver's Cabin, were carving tools and some exquisite items fashioned out of bone. The pieces constitute a large percentage of carved bone objects found in the entire South. Probably the most unique of the items was an unfinished cameo, on which was carved a scene depicting a woman standing next to a cabin, apparently watching a bird take flight. One can hardly avoid thinking about the symbolism of a bird on the wing, suggesting both flight and freedom. "I was astounded when I saw the cameo," says Dorothy Cotton. "It's like a Polaroid snapshot of long ago."

They called another area Curer's Cabin. Diggers discovered the pieces of what Brown dubbed a conjurer's kit. They found the base of a kettle, chalk and bits of clay. Brown believes the items had been used in curing ceremonies similar to those performed by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and in Africa. When they found medicine bottles and a thermometer, they knew for certain that the cabin had been used in healing practices.

In one more amazing find, they unearthed a magic-related cosmogram under the floor of a cabin designated the Conjurer's Cabin. They found the makings for a fetish item, including a small porcelain doll, that resemble the Nikisis, or fetishes, still used in Yoruban ceremonies.

Altogether, Brown and his team retrieved some half-million items relating to ordinary life as well as ceremonial practices. Here, Brown realized, was a vibrant alternate culture that had thrived under the noses of the slave owners.

It was an image of enslaved people, he says, that overturned the old stereotypes of slaves as "empty vessels to be filled with European culture and belief." Says Brown, "It's obvious that old stereotype is dead wrong. We have the material evidence of a community that turned in on itself for support and survival. These people developed a mechanism for ensuring survival and looking after each other."

Once the significance was revealed, Brown, Dorothy Cotton and Gini Raska set up the nonprofit Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society to determine how the site should best be handled. Archaeology graduate student Carol McDavid came in to help attract the African-American community into the decision-making process and to build a Web site that reflected the research and philosophy of those involved in the project.

Descendants of Levi Jordan, black and white alike, have been "exceedingly open-minded and brave in wanting to tell the whole story," McDavid says. "We want to tell a balanced story that doesn't turn away from the bad things that happened but that doesn't sensationalize them. All of the descendants agree that they want to celebrate the strength of the people who were enslaved there and how they survived. They think that's just as important as the violence and injustice those people were dealt."

Board member Julia Mack, a school teacher from Brazoria whose ancestry was traced back to Levi Jordan, says her parents never talked about slavery times or the connection to the plantation. What the researchers found there "is our history," she says. "It was a place where we can sense that people lived their daily lives. You almost feel that if you could turn back and look, they'd be there."

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