Last week I found myself taking wrong turns down country roads somewhere between Austin and Houston. I had been to Egypt Plantation once before and was equally unsuccessful in a straightforward arrival. Trying to keep my eyes on the road and simultaneously on the GPS, I breathed a sigh of relief as I passed the sign announcing Wharton County. Traveling these desolate roads today is a far cry from what Bud Northington, owner and descendant of the plantation family, describes as a significant historic transportation corridor (the Atascosita Trail) running in front of the property. He has the evidence of cannon balls shot during the Texas Revolution found in his front yard, as Mexican soldiers moved east to San Jacinto. He also has the original land certificate signed in 1830 by Estevan F. Austin. Significant as it is, this was not the history we were celebrating today.
I really didn’t know what to expect. After months of planning for Joseph McGill Jr.’s Slave Cabin Project to come to Texas (as an added bonus of him being our keynote for the 2011 Annual Historic Preservation Conference), it was finally here. The first sleepover had already happened, along with a community event, the night before. It was a brisk, windy Wednesday morning, March 30, and I arrived as everyone was joining hands around the breakfast table. Afterward I had the pleasure of hearing impressions of the night spent together in the slave cabin. Sentiments of fellowship, faith in the common bonds of humanity, and the importance of preserving the places that tell a more complete version of our history (okay, maybe there were some stories of snoring, too!), circled around the table. The sharing was cut short, however, by the rumbling of the school bus approaching. A few dozen students in 2nd-5th grade from Wharton Elementary had arrived. I walked over to the slave cabin and this is what I saw and heard:
The kids were totally into it. Standing in the chilly wind, dancing to “Pick a Bail of Cotton,” passing the cotton around while hearing about what life was like as a slave. Listening to Joe McGill huddled in mass inside the tiny cabin that once housed an entire family, likely smaller then many of those kids’ bedrooms. Watching artist Ted Ellis capture the historic scene of the slave cabin on his canvas. Feeling the weight of a slave’s shackles. Taking in lessons of tolerance and freedom for all races and cultures. Knowing what happened, never forgetting, and using these important places to experience the story. This kind of event is what we hope the goal of learning and experiencing history through place of the Statewide Preservation Plan will inspire.
By noon, it was time to drive north to the Seward Plantation in Independence. Arriving at the plantation was like stepping back in time. The landscape is pristine and so many of the outbuildings, including Uncle Finn’s and Aunt Caroline’s cabins, remain. Hank Ward is the steward of the property and a descendant of the plantation family. Through a funny twist of fate, he ended up marrying Peggy, the granddaughter of a sharecropper on the property. With the help of a talented stonemason, Hank has restored Uncle Finn’s slave dwelling, a generous room with an imposing stone hearth inside. After the tour of the property, outbuildings (including separate outhouses for men and women) and main house (which is brimming with original furnishings and documents), we settled in for some tea on the porch. Not long after, another guest arrived. Lasandra Sanders is a descendant of the slave family from Seward Plantation and this was her first time experiencing the property. Hank took her to Uncle Finn’s cabin; it was profound for me to be in this place next to the descendants of these two families.
I am inspired by the many people involved in this project and the power of what they made happen. Over the next few weeks, we will be posting some of their stories as part of a “Slave Cabins in Texas” series. I want to personally thank Naomi Carrier, Executive Director of the Texas Center for African American Living History, who organized the events at the Egypt Plantation, and accompanied Joe McGill as a partner on this slave cabin journey in Texas; Bryan McAuley, Site Manger for the Levi Jordan Plantation and San Felipe de Austin State Historic Sites, who was instrumental in helping us find the Seward Plantation and followed it up by spending the night with the group at Egypt Plantation; and especially Joe McGill, Program Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and founder of the Slave Cabin Project, for being the catalyst and the instrument for all of this to happen. Most of all, I want to thank Bud Northington and Hank and Peggy Ward, who graciously opened up their homes and history for us all to experience.