As a descendant of slaves from an East Texas plantation—Monte Verdi in Rusk County—I felt an ancestral connection, a singular sorrow, and an accompanying feeling of gratitude as I walked the sacred grounds of the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site in West Columbia.
The walk across Varner Creek and toward the cruel remnants of sugar cane’s arduous toil for enslaved ancestors, numbering in at least the dozens, produced a melancholy in me that proved challenging to shake. The display of large, once-white-hot iron bowls used to refine the so-called “white gold” jarred my senses. They are reminders of grim realities, as are the sales ledgers, tax records, and other totems of America’s Southern and Southwestern conquerors. They, too, tell knotted accounts of victories and agency through cotton, sugar, and tobacco.
But what about the histories of the owned Black alchemists who were compelled to produce in conditions where resistance to direction, in either the whip holder’s inhumane brutality or the sugar’s demands, could mean the cruel, measured lash or a limb lost to the grinding rollers? What of the generations of freed people to follow, some who continued to toil on the site following Emancipation through the hopefulness of Reconstruction and Jim Crow’s ensuing destructiveness? And what of their children? Now, an effort is underway to address their history.
On June 19, 2020, the Varner-Hogg Plantation secured a federal grant from the 400 Years of African American History Commission in Washington, D.C., through the Texas Historical Commission. The funds will be used for the Brazoria County 1619 Descendants Project, a year-long project that aims to produce a digital depository of at least 1,619 items collected from residents and descendants of the enslaved. The commission has set four upcoming “scanning” days, April 24, May 15, June 12, and June 26, for people to bring documents and heirlooms specific to Brazoria County’s Black history to Varner-Hogg. The documents will be scanned and returned to their original owners unless the owner would like to donate their materials.
Volunteers will help with the digital scanning of all forms of paper documentation, including diaries, letters, photographs, and recipes, with an emphasis on material dating back to slavery through the 1990s and from Varner-Hogg and nearby Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site, which is currently closed and under restoration.
Varner-Hogg already has a small museum packed with information about the site and its history. Visitors can learn of Martin Varner’s purchase of the land from Stephen F. Austin, as one of the Old Three Hundred that colonized Texas. There’s a running video presentation and exhibit that explains how Varner would eventually sell the land to the Kentucky slaveholder Columbus Patton and his father, John, who would fully convert the estate into a robust sugar cane plantation.
Later, Gov. “Big Jim” Hogg bought the property in 1902, convinced oil bubbled from below. He began drilling immediately after purchase but died in 1906. Fourteen years after his death, his black gold gushed out. However, aside from the artifacts left by Hogg’s daughter, Ima, it is Patton’s reign that lingers.
The Brazoria County 1619 Descendants Project hopes to fill out this part of the history. Mark Osborne, the lead educator and interpreter at Levi Jordan Plantation and Varner-Hogg Plantation state historic sites, and fellow researcher William Polley, also an educator and interpreter at the Levi Jordan site, are overseeing the project. They want as much material as their crew of volunteers can handle, and more—even if it’s something that a person may not think is worth adding to the collection.
“We would rather people bring it up here and let us decide if we want it or not [rather than] keeping it at home because you’re unsure,” Polley says.
Dorothy Fisher, a Brazoria County native and 1953 graduate of long-closed Charlie Brown Intermediate School, is a participant who has already turned over a treasure trove of photos dating back to her time as a young and “underprivileged camera bug” with a bandaged-up camera.
“When they interviewed me, [the Texas Historical Commission] told me they didn’t have much Black history,” she says. “I started to pull out my little stuff, and they said, ‘Oh, we could use those.'”
She says she did not feel any trepidation in allowing the commission to use the items for the project. However, according to Polley, this has not always been the case with many other Black residents in the county. Even in the initial interviewing for sourcing with Fisher, Polley sensed some hesitation.
“I felt like her stories weren’t as authentic as they could have been,” he says. “She gave us a little bit but still seemed a little hesitant. There’s still distrust in the process, so we’re still trying to break down that barrier, even after all these years.”
Osborne sees the opportunity for the scanned items to become part of “a research archive,” and he’s hopeful of what could be unearthed, pointing to an example of an older woman’s notebooks of funeral programs from a local Black funeral home as being a possible boon in family tree constructions. Both researchers can envision exhibits featuring the items but they acknowledge additional grant funding would probably be necessary for a full-use online archive, adding “for the foreseeable future, it will be something that somebody could come and search in a localized database.”
For Polley, he’s committed to making more space for Black history and storytelling in the county.
“White males dominate the museum industry,” he says. “We’re honestly looking for any artifacts that are from the African American culture because the story still hasn’t been told.”
The Brazoria County 1619 Descendants Project will have scanning days on April 24, May 15, June 12 and 26. If you would like to contribute to the project, please call 979-345-4656 ext. 22 to request an appointment. More information may be found here.