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.
It was once one of three large separate Jackson holdings covering thousands of acres, ruled over from a 12-room mansion on the edge of a beautiful oxbow lake. Jackson's enslaved workers used remarkable artistry in making and laying the bricks for the columned mansion, which were then covered to resemble stone. He even had his slaves build a gazebo-topped island on the lake. According to legend, he lies buried there, though the island has long since been swallowed up by the lake. His sugar mill, too, was a remarkable example of design and construction, according to Joan Few, an archaeologist from the University of Houston at Clear Lake who supervised a dig there in 1994 and 1995.
When Jackson arrived in the lower Brazos Valley, he found the rich, gumbolike soil and steamy climate ideal for growing sugarcane. But farming and refining cane is labor-intensive, and like other growers in the region, he found it necessary to buy more and more slaves. The population of slaves exploded in Texas during the 1840s and 1850s, increasing to more than 200,000, with the concentration of enslaved people in the area of Brazoria County probably the greatest in the state. By 1860 some 72 percent of the county's population was made up of slaves.
The lower Brazos was a stronghold of wealth built by slavery, and several heroes of the Texas Revolution and of the Confederacy were slave owners who had interests in plantations in the region, including Goliad martyr Colonel Fannin and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.
For Abner Jackson, money seemed to be pouring in. But in fact, old court records show Jackson and his sons were always on the edge of ruin, probably because of over-reaching. "Abner was a wheeler-dealer," says Valette Randall, a descendant of his through his only daughter, Asenath. In fact, local archaeologist Johnny Pollan says his records research shows Jackson to be a bit of a con man who used the same land as collateral on several different loans. Even his title of major was a sham. It was an honor he bestowed on himself, says Pat Johnson, another descendant.
"I think it must have been a very unhappy family," says Randall, 53. Jackson's offspring brought him grief, especially Asenath, who appeared to be a troublesome "Scarlett with an attitude," Randall says. Two of Jackson's four sons died during the Civil War, and Abner Jackson died in 1861. His son John, who returned from the war to run the plantation, was always getting into trouble with the law for whipping slaves and beating up on his neighbors. "I think he must have had a mean streak," says Randall. There is evidence that he even killed a slave. But John also took a slave mistress, Rosa, who was half Indian, and who bore him a son named Frank.
When John's brother George returned at the end of the war to claim his portion of the estate, John flailed him in public with a horsewhip. George went to court and got ownership of the Lake Jackson Plantation. However, when he tried to reclaim his property, John threatened to beat him again. Before John could repeat the punishment, as the story goes, George shot his brother dead. George, already weakened by illness, was not prosecuted, but he died of tuberculosis soon after, in 1871. John's financial shenanigans had left the estate riddled with debt, leaving but a pittance to the offspring of Asenath, who had already moved away and also died young, leaving daughters but no sons.
The estate was parceled out and sold, and Lake Jackson later gained the dubious status of being the first farm in the state to be worked by prison labor. The prison system, along with sharecropping, kept the plantation system nearly intact for decades. Many of the plantations in the area later became prison farms, including Retrieve, one of Jackson's holdings.
In some ways, according to archaeologist Few, the convicts (most of them black) who worked the Jackson place were treated even worse than slaves, since they could be easily replaced by leasing others from the state prison in Huntsville. They were not nearly as effective as the skilled slaves, and the cane business was already on the decline by the time of the 1900 storm. By the mid-1920s the plantation had deteriorated badly. Abner Strobel, the stepgrandson of the original owner, authored a 1926 history of area plantations that eulogized the old place in purple prose that anticipated Margaret Mitchell by a decade:
Desolation reigns supreme and the sighing winds sing a requiem through limbs of trees that now grow amidst its ruins.
The final demolition came in the 1940s, when Dow Chemical Company took over the land as part of a planned town, dubbed Lake Jackson, to house workers for a new plant. The ruins of the old sugar mill became the romantic centerpiece of the town park, which was eventually closed by Dow in 1989.
From 1994 to 1995 the Lake Jackson Historical Society sponsored the dig led by Few that retrieved more than 200,000 artifacts. The Lake Jackson Historical Museum, which opened in 1999, showed some of them in an embarrassingly romanticized display titled "Gone with the Whispering Wind," complete with that quiveringly nostalgic quote from Strobel. Some observers thought "Gone with the Howling Wind" might have been more accurate. And anyone who had bothered to read Strobel's memoir would have noticed that he was an unabashed racist who dedicated his book to the Confederate Army, which "stood like a stone wall for white supremacy."
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.
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.
"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
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."
However, it should be pointed out that Miss Ima's own ancestry is a good deal more colorful -- and less genteel -- than tranquil Varner Hogg would indicate. Her grandfather, Joseph Lewis Hogg, a slave-owning farmer from Rusk, was shot by an adversary and later killed his assailant in a shoot-out on the town square in 1850.
Her father as a young man was shot in the back by an outlaw whom he had helped capture. A tall, beefy man who at one time weighed 360 pounds, Jim Hogg's size, name and propensity for cussing were made much of by his political opponents.
Miss Ima never married, nor did her brothers Will and Tom, who had inherited their father's rotund frame. Jim Hogg, however, did leave an unexpected gift to his children that lay under the ground at Varner Hogg: oil. The governor, who bought the plantation in 1906, died before oil was found. But he was so certain that there was oil in West Columbia that he decreed in his will that the place not be sold for 20 years after his death. Sure enough, in 1919, oil was discovered, and Miss Ima was on her way to a life of philanthropy.
The rough edges of Miss Ima's family history have been smoothed out a bit at the plantation. But the early history of Varner Hogg is hardly all moonlight and roses, either. Martin Varner, the first owner, was one of the less civilized members of Stephen F. Austin's Old 300. A hunter and Indian fighter from Virginia, one of his first acts was to build a distillery, and the bottle of rum he sent to leader Austin was the first bottle of spirits to be produced in Texas. He sold the plantation to Columbus Patton in 1834 and moved to East Texas. A Mexican neighbor shot and mortally wounded him there. Varner, with the help of his slave Joe, subdued his attacker, slashed the man's Achilles tendons, and threw him into a hog pen, where he was devoured alive.
"Kit" Patton, as he was known, operated the plantation, then known as the Patton place, until 1854, when his relatives had him declared insane and removed to a North Carolina asylum. The main evidence for his commitment appears to have been his relationship to a slave woman named Rachel, his mistress who lived with him in the main house for nearly 20 years. Local residents testified huffily in court about Patton's apparent infatuation with Rachel, who according to one observer, "had more control over him than I ever saw a lady have over her husband." A shop owner testified that Rachel bought "more fine dresses than any lady in the community" and bought "dry goods for herself to a larger amount than my wife bought."
In the remarkable WPA interview with former slave Ford, Rachel is described as a rather bossy woman who overreached her position, treating slaves and whites alike with disdain. "Iffen a bird fly up in de sky it mus' come down sometime," she said.
But the idea of an enslaved woman lording it over local shopkeepers delights Cora Fay Williams, 94, a slave descendant still living in a small frame house near Varner Hogg. "That Rachel," Williams cackles gleefully. "She sure gave them the blues."
Williams grew up in a cabin on the plantation after Miss Ima and her brothers inherited it. She remembers well the time when Tom Hogg would let the children of plantation workers have the run of the grounds and the house, even sliding down the banister in the main stairway.
What Miss Ima would have thought about the stories or the proposed changes to her legacy remains pure speculation, insists Hutchinson. "It's hard to project her values," he says, though, he observes, "I don't think Miss Ima was a racist. And she was way ahead of her time in many of the things she did, in culture and education. She sent a lot of people to college, including minority children."
David Warren, the first curator of Bayou Bend, who knew Miss Ima well, goes even further, however: "I don't think she would have wanted things frozen in time if there was a newer and better way to do things." Miss Ima clearly intended Varner Hogg as a tribute to her father, he says. "There was never really an attempt to accurately portray antebellum life." But he thinks that her curiosity and her interest in staying current with accepted historical thought meant that she was open to change.
Cary Cordova is not so sure. She has seen a letter Miss Ima received from a curator friend who said the slave mistress Rachel should probably not be mentioned at the plantation. "I feel that Miss Ima was probably in agreement with that sentiment," she says. But history is not static, she says, nor is it sacred. "This is an instance when history has to change to suit the needs of the present," she says.
Perhaps the future of the plantation, she says, could be guided by people like Jeanette Livingston and her daughter Stephanie, descendants of a slave there named Henry Garrett.
Jeanette Livingston began her quest for roots, she says, with just the name of her great grandfather, Daniel Garrett. She discovered that Daniel's father was Henry Garrett, whose name she had found in a slave manifold indicating he had "belonged" to the Pattons. She traced the Garretts back to a white slave owner in North Carolina named Thomas Garrett, who, she says, "just about populated the earth."
She has found several white Garrett descendants who helped her in the research. "It's an incredibly extended family," she says. Her elation over discovering descendants has turned to tears when she learned the fate of some of them. She traced Henry Garrett after emancipation to Wood County, where he appeared in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. The next record she uncovered about him, however, was a mention of his lynching, at age 86, in Smith County.
She is not bitter, though, because she's found plenty to be proud of in her ancestry. "From what I know of my ancestors, they were a strong people," she says. "The Garretts are a proud people, proud to wear the Garrett name. And a lot of us may have started out poor, but we've done pretty well. We've 'moved on down the road,' as my uncle says."
Livingston plans to visit Varner Hogg this summer, but she doesn't know quite how she'll react when she gets there. "My daughter doesn't understand why I'd want to go, but it's something I have to do. I need to put a face on the facts." What she doesn't want to happen, she says, is to have a guide "dressed up looking pretty and not telling me the true history of what happened there."
Levi Jordan: The Shackle and the Cameo
Those who stop at the Levi Jordan plantation historical marker, on Highway 521 outside Brazoria, hardly find a scene of romantic grandeur. The Jordan mansion, constructed of durable long-leaf pine planks, now looks more like a rather plain old haunted house, complete with a seven-foot Brazos water snake that sometimes coils under the front steps. Researchers described some strange goings-on in the house, which dates back to 1854, such as an eerie knocking from a vacant upstairs bedroom. What can't be seen yet at Levi Jordan, though, is the treasure trove of slave artifacts -- and the vision of those who have tried so hard over the years to save the place.
African-American leader Morris Richardson, a member of the Levi Jordan Historical Society, looks at the Jordan mansion and sees an education center, a place where people can learn about the lives of enslaved people. "I envision a resource center for family histories," he says. I can see artifacts being displayed, lectures and meetings being held, more research being done."
It's a vision shared by Andrew Sansom, director of Texas Parks and Wildlife. He believes Levi Jordan can be the center of a revival of African-American history in the lower Brazos, and part of a more broadly themed historical area that would include Varner Hogg and the newly acquired pioneer McCrosky cabin, a landmark from the old Austin Colony dating to 1824. "If this is successful," he says, "this could put Texas at the forefront in interpreting antebellum history."
Those images, says Rodney Ellis, enlisted him in the cause. If the bond issue that would affect Levi Jordan is approved by Texas voters next November -- it will require a constitutional amendment -- Ellis says he's committed to get the project going. "I want to make sure it gives an accurate portrayal of slavery -- the good, the bad and the ugly. I think it will help us understand some of the wounds from our past and to deal with some of the things that have divided us over the years."
It would be "poetic justice," as Morris Richardson puts it, if a plantation with such a haunted past became a place where Texans come to learn the real story about slavery. And it's certainly not a fate Levi Jordan could ever have envisioned for his estate.
Jordan came from Georgia in 1848, a hard-driving, self-made man. He decided to settle on the stretch of land near the old Austin Colony where he claimed to have killed a black panther. According to family legend, the plantation operator once boasted to his wife that although they barely owned a frying pan when they married, they now owned a slave for every day of the year. There is evidence that Jordan may have traded in slaves to increase his revenues, although some historians question that theory.
There's another story -- not verified by his descendants -- that Jordan sent out invitations for neighbors to come and view his new chandelier, which he claimed was the most valuable in the county. It was a strange boast for such a penny-pincher, his neighbors thought. When guests arrived, perhaps looking for a French-made source of illumination, they instead saw four scantily clad slaves standing in a circle in the middle of the parlor, holding candles.
The Jordan place also comes with its share of mysteries and bitter family feuds. When Jordan's granddaughter Anna married Robert Martin, of whom he heartily disapproved, he disinherited Anna in his will, although he left a bequest to provide for her children's education. Anna died young, leaving four rowdy young boys -- four "juvenile delinquents" who "terrorized most of Brazoria County," says Dorothy Cotton, a descendant of one of those sons, Will Martin. Levi Jordan's favorite grandson was to inherit the estate, but he died from an accidental self-inflicted shotgun blast that blew his leg off.
Levi Jordan's son-in-law, James McNeill, was designated as manager of the plantation. When the Martin boys tried to collect their inheritance from him, he claimed that all the money had already been spent on their care. The boys sued and gained the main house and surrounding land. That triggered a continuing feud. "For the Martins and McNeills, it was like the Hatfields and McCoys," says Cotton, a special-education teacher in Angleton.
Her cousin Gini Raska, a teacher and McNeill descendant, says it was only a rift. "It was more like social ostracism than an out-and-out feud," she says. "Our family had lost touch with the Martins, and there was a prejudice against them that was passed down." She lives near the Jordan mansion and not far from Cotton, but it took the mutual interest in researching the family to bring them together. The first joint family reunion was held at the Jordan place in 1987, and there was still some clannishness that kept some family members from socializing with others.
As Raska rummaged through old family documents, she discovered scattered papers from the diary of Sallie Jordan, one of Levi Jordan's eight grandchildren. Entries begin in 1858, when Sallie was a Baylor University freshman, and they cover nine years of life at the Jordan plantation. The diary, one of the most remarkable memoirs of the Texas antebellum years, recounts hardships that even prosperous white families endured. There were ruinous fires, killing storms and epidemics, including a yellow fever plague that would eventually claim Sallie just two years after the Civil War. Her frank, sometimes emotional prose shows her to be a strong, sensitive individual who was both very much bound by her time and longing to transcend it.
She describes a runaway slave named Mose who was returned in shackles, bleeding from bites by the tracking dogs. "The tears rose indignantly to my eyes, when Mose was led up that evening ragged and bleeding," she wrote. But she then parrots the idea that as an escapee, Mose was responsible for his troubles: "I could say or do nothing," she wrote, "for he brought the trouble and pain upon himself."
In a later entry, she expresses a more enlightened sentiment. As she recounts a meeting called to try suspected abolitionists, she recalls the baffled indignation that she shared with her brother Calvin: "Calvin and I yesterday almost agreed that we sometimes felt like crying out against slavery."
Sallie's pain and ambivalence help to balance the fact that her family "was responsible for the enslavement of people who worked on the plantation," Raska says. "You don't have a good feeling about knowing your ancestors participated in that process. But I don't feel I've inherited a responsibility for the sins of previous generations. It's easy to look back and say they should have known better. But on the other hand, you have to judge people by the time they lived in."
Cotton, now the executrix of the Jordan estate, says the last of the Martins left the old mansion, and by the 1960s it became rental property.
"It's amazing that the house is still standing," she says. It survived several hurricanes and at least one big fire. "We thought about selling it," she says. "It's such a financial responsibility, and nobody in the family had the money to restore it. It's not the kind of place you knock down and make into a Wal-Mart." Dorothy Cotton thinks there must be a reason the old mansion survived, and that reason lay under the ground behind the house.
Back in 1986, University of Houston archaeologist Ken Brown was an academic mentor for Cotton's son -- and a man in search of a historic site to excavate. Cotton, almost on a lark, suggested her own backyard -- that is, the back of the Jordan place.
She was also interested in getting the plantation listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and she was hoping there might be something of significance there. Nothing was left above ground by the old slave quarters that had once housed more than 300 people. But as Brown walked the grounds, recalls Cotton, he could tell immediately where the quarters were located, adjacent to a grove of huge oak trees not far from the house.
Brown and his crew started the 1986 dig that was scheduled to last two summers. But not long after he and his students unearthed the first spadefuls of dirt, they realized that they had happened upon one of the most significant national repositories of African-American artifacts from the plantation era. It would take nearly 14 years to finish digging and put together the pieces of the puzzle to analyze the meaning of this remarkable legacy.
For Brown, it was like a scene from science fiction, where the inhabitants of a town suddenly disappear, leaving everything behind, almost to the extent of a kettle left still boiling on the fire. For some strange reason, the inhabitants of the Levi Jordan cabins had left behind items that logically they should have taken along with them: eyeglasses, children's toys, even money. These people had left in a hurry. The researchers found padlocks from cabin doors that were still locked.
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.
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."
Another board member, Hazel Austin, a retired school principal whose ancestors worked for the McNeill family, expresses her feelings succinctly about the discoveries. "Some of it hurts, but it's the truth," she says. "And you need to know from whence you came."
To use Morris Richardson's words, it would be poetic justice indeed if it should be the enslaved people of Levi Jordan who inspire its rescue -- if the everyday buttons, the healing circles, and the tools of magic created by enslaved people out of cast-off materials should be the means of saving a plantation. And the means to create the place where their descendants -- and all Texans -- can learn the truth about what they went through and how they endured.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.