The Forgotten Story
Uncovering the slave past at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
By Reginald Owens
Armstead Scales has had a good view of Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site ever since he was a little boy.
Scales sat on a soft drink cooler looking out the window of his service station at the intersection of State Highway 105 and Farm Road 1155, the main road to the park.
"It was a big thing to go out into the park and get on the swings and slides," Scales remembers of his childhood during the 1930s, when the park was little more than a playground. A stranger can tell he is a working man and, at 73 years old, his 5-foot, 11-inch frame still looks physically strong.
He enjoys talking about local history and the park of his youth. "That was it, then," he says. "They didn't have anything like they have out there now." He laughs. "I have seen it grow a whole lot."
The simple park he knew as a child is now a 293-acre complex with much to offer visitors — from a museum with interactive displays on the history of Texas and shaded picnic areas to an authentic 1850s living history farm with real livestock.
Scales has watched the park and the community of Washington change through the years, and he has been a part of some of the changes. "When they put that museum out there in the 1960s, I helped build it," he says proudly. In addition to owning the service station, Scales did construction work, farmed and raised cattle to support his wife and five children.
Scales and other Washington residents of African American descent have seen the park undergo a drastic physical transformation. But the biggest change of late is not a physical one. It is a change in perspective. Texas Parks and Wildlife has joined with graduate students from the University of Texas at Austin to research local African American history in Washington and in communities adjacent to two other parks. The aim is to create historical displays and scripts so park interpreters can tell stories about African Americans.
"We need to tell the whole story," says Washington-on-the-Brazos complex manager Tom Scaggs. Scaggs and other TPW officials readily admit that the contributions of African Americans and others have not been talked about enough in park interpretations.
This move by TPW to focus on black history at heritage sites is part of a national trend that became evident following the 1976 publication of Alex Haley’s best-selling book Roots, which chronicled one man’s search for his African American family history that took him to Africa.
The trend is also fueled by a boom in African American heritage tourism. Millions of African Americans are spending about $50 billion a year touring the nation in search of their heritage. In response, national, state and local government agencies, many in Texas, are publishing African American tourism guides, pointing eager tourists to churches, heritage sites, museums, historical markers and other locations touting the history and contributions of African Americans.
But while the demand for African American historical and cultural sites is there, the sites — and in many cases, the information to create the sites — are not, Scaggs says. That has been the case at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Much of the historical information about African Americans is buried in records left by whites who may or may not mention an African American family or individual. Add to that, much African American history has not been recorded. A lot is lost in stories passed down by family members through oral history — and too often the next generation never hears them. It is a history largely not tapped. "We just don’t have the people to go out and do the research," Scaggs says. "Part of the ability to tell a complete story always goes back to research."
That is where professor Martha Norkunas and her team of graduate students from the University of Texas come in. In the past two years, through graduate seminar classes and student internships, Norkunas’ students have done extensive research in communities near three sites, including Washington-on-the-Brazos.
"We are going into the communities doing real-life projects," says Norkunas, who is white and has developed a passion for telling the stories of women and other groups left out of traditional approaches to history. Her students have developed new scripts for park interpreters at Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historical Site in Brazoria County and at Washington-on-the-Brazos. They also have created a Web site on Varner-Hogg that publishes information on slaves who worked there. One story chronicles the role of a female slave, the mistress of the man of the house, who essentially ran the plantation, much to the consternation of whites in the community.
To uncover this forgotten past, Norkunas’ students conduct oral history interviews of local African American residents, scour musty courthouse records for legal documents, search old newspaper articles and books, and research private papers and diaries at university and state archives throughout Texas. The work is tedious and time-consuming, but rewarding to students like Cary Cordova, who researched and compiled the information for the Varner-Hogg Web site. For Cordova, the most gratifying experience was a call from a woman who used the site to connect with members of her family. Jeannett Livingston of Bremerton, Wash., said she cried when she discovered information about her great-grandfather on the Varner-Hogg Web site. She had been doing genealogical research for three years. "I never met my mother’s people," she says. "All I knew was his name, Daniel Garrett."
Garrett was one of the slaves listed on the Web site. As a result, Livingston has visited family members in Houston and Dallas, spoken to a 101-year-old aunt, who gave her more information, and has attended a family reunion. "As a result of Cary’s research, I found relatives I never knew I had," says Livingston.
At Barrington Living History Farm in Washington, the focus of student research is the lives of people who lived at the plantation of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. The Jones home was moved to Barrington Living History Farm as the centerpiece of an authentic working farm of the 1850s antebellum period. Interpreters dressed in period clothes and using traditional farming techniques recreate a 19th-century farm, complete with crops and livestock.
"One of the things I wanted to get across was that the enslaved had a family and home life like whites did," says graduate student Jessie Swigger, who just completed research on the women who lived at the farm. It was the sale of a slave named Lucy that opened her eyes "to the fragileness of the slave family structure" and how it could be broken up without regard to the family unit. Through another business record from Barrington, Swigger was able to track the movement of a slave named Green who was essentially "rented" out to a neighboring plantation for months at a time. "That showed me how fragile life was, because at any moment your husband or wife could be sent away for an indeterminate amount of time or maybe even forever.
"Sometimes at museum sites, we look at the enslaved as a group instead of as individuals with stories about their lives," Swigger continues. "Even though I didn't find all their stories, the farm has a lot of information" that can be used to weave the stories of individual slaves into interpretations, she says.
"There are these family stories we need to get to, and since I couldn’t get to them through the records, we are going to have to get to them through oral history," Swigger says. Many descendants of slaves who worked at Barrington and other area plantations still live in Washington and surrounding counties. These descendants, Swigger suggests, are the ones who need to dig into their oral history for their past.
Last fall, Norkunas and her students conducted an oral history project with five Washington County youngsters, who went into their communities armed with digital video cameras to record history told to them by elders.
"If you don’t know your history, then you don’t know anything about yourself, really," says Limas Sweed Jr., a lanky, 6-foot, 5-inch high school junior who is usually more at home on the basketball court than behind the microphone. "It makes you feel better as a person to know what your parents [and ancestors] did and all that they went through. They went through slavery and stuff. Right now I am thankful I don’t have to go through all that — picking cotton and stuff."
Last fall he interviewed his cousin, Mrs. Martha Sweed Walker, 92, the titular head of the Sweed family. He and his elderly cousin have often talked about local and family history. "I am real close to her," he says. "In her time, there was racism."
This first assignment for this young video crew was to interview relatives at the annual Sweed Family Reunion last October. Some of the activities of the reunion were held at the Blessed Virgin Catholic Church, the 150-year-old church that many of their relatives have attended since slavery. The video recordings will be compiled and edited to produce a special program for use at the park.
University of Texas graduate students Tony Cherian and Mark Westmoreland, who co-authored the proposal for the documentary project, want the teenagers to talk to each other about their history so they can get involved in how it should be told. "We want to show that these are real people," says Westmoreland. "They have names. They have history."
The rich farmland that straddles the Brazos River running through the Washington, Grimes, Madison and Waller county region, made agriculture — especially cotton farming — the basis of a local economy that depended on slave labor, and lots of it. Thousands of slaves were brought to this area by white settlers when they imported the plantation economy from the Deep South in the 1830s. Given this, there has always been a strong African American presence in the area, says Howard Jones, professor of history at nearby Prairie View A&M University.
"With an overwhelming African American population in the antebellum era, African Americans could not help but to have shaped the culture of the region," says Jones, whose specialty is Reconstruction. "So there is a lot of black history to be found there. Blacks contributed greatly to making this area rich in Texas tradition and history."
After the Civil War, many of the former slaves settled in the area. During Reconstruction, many descendants of former slaves, like Scales’ grandfather, bought land, where they raised cotton and other crops to survive.
In the 1870 and 1880 censuses, blacks made up more than 50 percent of the population, says Jones. "During Reconstruction, blacks essentially ran those counties," he says. From 1870 to 1881, three blacks were elected from that region to the state legislature.
The children of those original slaves still live in the area, where they now make up between 20 and 30 percent of the population. Another goal of these projects is to build a stronger relationship with these residents, says Scaggs. "One of my big hopes is that the program will spark a new interest in the park on the part of the community," he says. "We want to get folks interested in their own history and heritage right here in their back yard."
Scaggs realizes that talk of slavery makes some people uncomfortable. "When you talk about the topic, some will want to listen and some will not," he says. "But we are not letting that slow us down."
As for the topic of slavery at the park, Armstead Scales says that doesn’t bother him at all.
"It’s sort of sad, I would say," he says as he peers through the window of his service station, where he no longer sells gas but keeps busy fixing flats and doing oil changes.
He pauses for a moment, then adds, "The young people know about it, but they just don’t understand. Things are mostly good now. They think things have always been like this. So if the park people are letting the younger people know what went on, then I don’t find any fault in it. That’s what it was then."
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park/Barrington Living History Farm is off State Highway 105 between Brenham and Navasota. From Brenham, take State Highway 105 east 14 miles and turn right on Farm Road 912 to the park. The park is open daily; Barrington Living History Farm is closed Monday and Tuesday.
Established as a state park in 1916, the complex now includes the Barrington Living History Farm, a reconstructed Independence Hall, the Star of the Republic Museum, a Visitor Services Complex with conference facilities, two picnic pavilions that can be reserved for groups, a gift shop and shaded picnic areas.
For more information call the park at (936) 878-2214 or go to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site.
For more information on state parks and other resources on slavery, consult the following Web sites:
- Texas State Parks and Historical Sites
- Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historical Site
- Varner-Hogg Plantation Slavery Project
- Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site
- The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora: The center maintains a site with compilation of annotated links to a number of academic and other slavery resources at: www.mith.umd.edu/driskell/
- River Road African American Museum: Located on the grounds of a former plantation, this museum pays tribute to the thousands of Africans enslaved on the plantations of Louisiana. Visitors to the museum can research African American ancestry in the extensive records housed here: www.eatel.net/~aamuseum
- Texas Slavery Project: This site provides a multitude of resources on the subject of slavery. The Texas Slavery Project is multidisciplinary and includes resources from several institutions at: www.houstonculture.org/cr/tsp.html