UH Anthropologist Ken Brown Uncovers West African Customs at Texas Plantation
Just outside of Houston, the former site of the Levi Jordan Plantation holds many clues to the lives and customs of 19th- century African Americans.
University of Houston anthropologist Ken Brown has spent much time studying this location and learning about the people who lived and worked there. On Feb. 27, the public can accompany Brown on a journey to the site and experience “A Bittersweet Texas Tale.”
This event, sponsored by the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, will feature a tour of the plantation led by Brown. A bus will depart from St. James Church (3129 Southmore) at 9 a.m. and proceed to the Jordan Plantation – south of Sweeny, Texas, on Highway 521. The tour is open to the public, and admission is $25. To register for the tour, contact Becky Lao at 281-497-7382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The plantation’s namesake, Levi Jordan, arrived in Texas from Arkansas with 12 slaves in 1848. He purchased 2,222 acres and developed an estate that produced cotton and sugar. In fact, this plantation would house one of the country’s largest sugar mills during that time.
Brown directed the archaeological research at the site, which is now owned by the Texas Historical Commission. He spent many exhausting hours excavating a range of items from areas that once housed tenant sharecroppers.
Of particular interest to Brown were objects that reflected the tenants’ West African heritage. Among these was an item called an “amula” – a kettle placed in another kettle, both are wrapped in a chain.
“An amula would be set at the front door of a home or cabin,” Brown said. “The belief was that if anyone entering the home had any evil spirits with them, the spirits would be housed within the amula.”
Brown also noted “crossroad deposits” (crosses etched on brick or stone) under the site of a curer’s cabin and a former church on the site. He said that in West African culture, a cross or cosmogram is symbolic of the world and cycles of life.
“The east represents birth. The north symbolizes the height of one’s power in the world of the living. The West represents the transition to the world of spirits and ancestors. The south is the height of your transition to the spirit realm,” he said. “Intersections are very important in West African culture. They represent where the supernatural world and our own world meet.”
During his investigations, Brown also became particularly curious about the number of personal items left behind. Among the articles discovered were coins, eyeglasses and tools, all items that would be of great value to 19th century sharecroppers. He deduced that residents had abandoned their homes and belongings and hurriedly vacated the premises.
He learned that in 1882, two of Jordan’s great grandsons obtained the estate’s northern portion and developed a highly antagonistic relationship with the tenant sharecroppers. Tensions came to a boil when some tenants filed civil cases against Jordan’s great grandsons.
“All of these cases were dismissed on the grounds of ‘lack of reputable’ witnesses,” Brown said. “In other words, it was because the people filing these cases were black.”
Following the failed lawsuits, the tenants vacated the plantation. Due to chattel mortgage laws, they were forced to leave all of their belongings.
“At that time, there was a line in African Americans’ chattel mortgages that stated ‘…and everything that I own and shall acquire,’” Brown said. “Basically, if they wanted to leave without completing their mortgage, they had to leave everything behind. That was the law.”
The unfortunate hasty exit of the Jordan sharecroppers, however, provided Brown with invaluable insight to the lives of these people, and how they maintained West African customs within their Texas homes.
Brown’s research has revealed that cabins on the plantation site housed a curer/midwife, blacksmith, carver, and political leader. Although none of these structures still exists, he and his colleagues will show tour participants the sites where these homes once stood and discuss these people’s cultural and spiritual traditions.
Brown recently authored a soon to be published book on the Levi Jordan Plantation and drew its title – “And Everything That I Own and Shall Acquire” — from the infamous chattel mortgage provision.
“The research that began at this plantation not only showcases the traditions of tenant sharecroppers. It also shows how creative enslaved people were,” he said. “These were people who were put in a bad situation and came up with a mechanism that allowed them to survive. This mechanism is a lot more African-based than many people realize.”
To learn more about Brown’s research at the Jordan Plantation, visit http://www.webarchaeology.com/.
For more information about UH, visit the university’s Newsroom at www.uh.edu/newsroom.