Williamson County is not a place people typically associate with slavery. After all, there are no large plantations and the major Civil War battles were fought hundreds of miles away.
But slavery did exist in the county, just as it did in other parts of Texas. According to one local source, there were 1,074 slaves in Williamson County from 1837-1864. Most were domestic servants.
Mention of these slaves is excluded from most history books and local communities do not actively grapple with the legacy of slavery. In Georgetown, for example, the historical marker at the town’s oldest cemetery makes no reference to a portion of the cemetery devoted to slaves and their descendents.
“Even Southwestern University has secrets regarding slavery,” said Carina Evans, assistant professor of English, noting that that one of the school’s founding institutions, McKenzie College, was supported by slave labor and a plantation economy.
Evans is one of two English professors from Southwestern are trying to “recover” the hidden history of slavery in Texas through their research and a new course they are offering this spring.
Evans has always been interested in slavery since her scholarship focuses on African-American literature. But the subject became personal five years ago when she discovered that members of her father’s family were slaves in Jackson, Miss.
Elizabeth Stockton, an English professor who focuses on 19th century American literature, became familiar with slavery since the period she is particularly interested in, 1840-1864, is when the abolition movement was active.
The two received an $11,367 grant to fund their research from a grant to Southwestern from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The two used some of the grant money to hire Susan Garrard, a junior majoring in English and history, to help with their research.
Evans and Stockton spent the summer of 2010 visiting towns in Texas where slavery and post-bellum African-American communities were most prevalent, such as Galveston and Marshall. They also found slave narratives in the Williamson Museum and spoke with members of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Georgetown, who gave them genealogies of some of their oldest members. Using this information, they were able to match existing lists of slaves in Williamson County to markers in local cemeteries.
This spring Evans and Stockton began team-teaching a new class called The Loss and Recovery of Texas Slavery. The class proved to be very popular with students and filled up before the semester started.
“This is something I really want to learn about,” said Garrett Cathey, a junior English major. “It’s not something I’ve thought about much, especially in Texas.”
Evans and Stockton began the class by taking students to visit the Old Georgetown Cemetery near Blue Hole Park. Evans noted that the marker providing information about the cemetery says nothing about slaves or slave owners – just that “pioneer citizens of Georgetown” are buried there.
She and Stockton suspect, however, that the cemetery does have some slave graves, most likely on the “black” side of the cemetery which contains numerous unmarked graves. Some of the marked graves on the black side of the cemetery memorialize people who were descended from slaves.
“This cemetery underscores how slavery gets hidden and what it means to recover it,” Stockton said.
As part of the class, students are visiting several other local African-American cemeteries and have been asked to produce a 4-5 minute video on one of four topics: the experience of African-Americans in the Georgetown area leading up to the Civil War; ongoing efforts to recover 19th century African-American burial sites in Central Texas; how the pre-1965 black experience is memorialized in Georgetown and surrounding areas; or burial practices of African-American communities in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The students will present their videos to the public on Wednesday, April 20, from 6 - 8:30 p.m. in the Connie Ballroom.
Evans said the work the students are doing may contribute to the research she and Stockton are doing.
“There is a good chance they may uncover some things we want to explore more,” Evans said.
Evans shared her research project with attendees at the Texas NAACP State Convention held in Kileen last fall. She and Stockton hope to develop a web site that will serve as a resource for other scholars. In the meantime, students in the Texas Slavery class are blogging at http://slaveryintexas.wordpress.com/