When I moved to Brazoria County in 2021, I arrived already a trained historian and local history enthusiast. My passion for all things Black history led me to many corners of the Texas landscape, but none more directly as impactful as when I began to explore the history in my own back yard as a Brazoria County resident. My late mentor, John Britt, developed a docuseries, History in your own Backyard, in 2015 and through his own scholarship he encouraged me to look for the personal stories threaded throughout the local public history narratives. With this advice in mind, I started reading more about the history of the counties in which I have called home.
These explorations into local public histories led me to examine how the personal narratives of influential Black residents in Brazoria County are reflected in the public discourse. Growing up in Texas, and seeking graduate education in Alabama and Maryland respectively, I became accustomed to not seeing many Black stories represented through public history programming, in the archive, or within the history curricula. The visual reminders of enslavement and racial injustice on the southern landscape were ever present in the form of monuments, schools, street names, and public parks named after enslavers and segregationists. These constant reminders of white supremacy’s legacy are in tension with the programming that grassroots cultural heritage preservationists develop to highlight Black excellence. Restorative justice initiatives that utilize the framework of public history and explore Black life, or archival and curricular interventions that expand the historical record offer alternative ways for community members to address inequality in representation within public history.
In freedom colonies across Brazoria, preservationists are recovering lost histories through the creation of community archives. These collections are often built from the organizers’ own preserved ephemera and/or private donations embedded within the interior of their historic communities. In the southwestern corner of the county, the Charlie Brown Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to “provide educational and recreational resources for the West Columbia area as a way to preserve the legacy of Charlie Brown, Texas’ first Black millionaire,'' applied and received a historic marker from the Texas Historical Commission in 2015. The research for the application was largely conducted by the alumni of Charlie Brown School using predominantly private collections and county records to establish historical legitimacy.
Preservation work is also occurring within families. Further north, a descendant community coined the term “the Black Jacksons” to identify their familial connections to Abner Jackson. They host yearly family reunions at the Abner Jackson historical site in Lake Jackson, a plantation their enslaved ancestors worked at until the end of the Civil War. The Black Jacksons also founded the Macbeth Rodeo, a local competition that will celebrate its 70th anniversary in May. It is said to be the oldest integrated rodeo in the county (Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Jackson Rodeo Anniversary Weekend, McBeth, Texas, May 14, 2023. Photo courtesy of Rodrick Jackson.
Institutional partnerships between museums or historic sites and the community groups that engage in preservation work are becoming more common throughout the county. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee (MLKCC), located in Freeport has hosted Martin Luther King Day celebrations and educational programming since 1986. Their organization received a $1 million dollar donation in 2020 from the Freeport LNG Development L.P.™ to fund strategic programming efforts and educational opportunities that advance Brazoria County residents’ understanding of King’s legacy. MLKCC also formed a partnership with the Lake Jackson Historical Museum to facilitate Black history programming (Figure 2). Each of these initiatives exemplify the ways in which Black Brazorians are holding space for their histories and honoring influential leaders of the black community.
Figure 2 – Black History of Lake Jackson. Photo courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum.
Brazoria County is home to a number of historically significant plantations. These historic sites are also establishing programming to expand the interpretation of enslaved people’s experiences. The Varner Hogg Plantation, located in West Columbia, is a state historic site through the Texas Historical Commission. In 2020, the site was awarded a grant to work with the local descendant communities and the federally supported 400 Years of African American History Commission.
The initiative provided state and federal resources to establish the Brazoria County Descendants Project and brings descendant communities from across the Gulf Coast together to uncover Black histories. This public digital history project seeks to spotlight formerly enslaved families and their descendants by digitizing at least 1,619 artifacts and documents from their personal collections. To achieve this, the program held several scanning days during the spring of 2021, and conducted educational programming at Varner Hogg to showcase the research. The Descendants Project reaches back to recover the lost and misrepresented narratives of Black Life in Brazoria, and helps to facilitate discussion in and across communities in the county.
Most recently, the Brazoria County Historical Commission developed a Black history program that honored a noted Brazoria County Black resident, Taylor Hall Jr., better known as the Bailey’s Prairie Kid in the community (Figures 3 and 4). A cattle worker and rodeo cowboy, Hall’s proclamation celebrated the accomplishments in his craft as a cattle wrangler. The proclamation was proposed by Cheryl MacBeth, the first Black person to serve on the Brazoria County Historical Commission and a Descendant from the Freedmen’s town of Macbeth, a once all Black town in the county. Prior to her appointment, the commission had never offered Black History Month programming. The proclamation reading served as the first Black History event by the Historical Commission.
Figure 3 – Taylor Hall Jr. Photo Courtesy of Portia Hopkins.
Figure 4 – Young Taylor Hall Jr. Photo Courtesy of the Hall Family.
Hall, a wiry framed and sharp minded 91 year old, grew up in Bailey’s Prairie and by his own account has worked cattle all of his life. He learned to work cattle from his father, who learned from his father and grandfather. In this way, the proclamation honored the Hall’s ancestors as well. He explained, "I worked for pretty much everybody around here that got a cow. I’ve worked for the Munsons for 72-73 years [and] went there when I was about 10 years old.” On the weekends and during his free time, Hall competed in rodeos where he would showcase his skill as a bronco and bull rider. His talent took him all the way to Harlem to compete on a national stage. The documentary Black Rodeo chronicles the competition, and Hall is featured in the film.
The proclamation also connected the Hall family experiences to the larger histories of Black labor in the county as well as the generational wealth created within the county from sugar, cotton and cattle. Many of the families that employed him to work their cattle have owned property in the county since the 1830s. Most families have a history of profiting from the enslaved labor that cultivated cotton, sugar and raised cattle on their plantations. In fact, some of their ancestors may very well be listed in SlaveVoyages’ Enslavers Database. A prominent cattle rancher in Brazoria spoke in support of the proclamation and remarked:
“Bailey worked cows for my wife’s Grandpa when he was a young man, he worked cows for her Daddy who offered him the first job as the first black deputy of Brazoria County, and he turned that down so that he could continue to Rodeo. He worked our cows, he worked our kids’ cows, and now he’s working our grandkids cows. My four grandsons consider Bailey their third Grandpa…[and] if you mention Bailey anywhere on the Gulf Coast they know who you are talking about.”
Hall stood for a few minutes with his daughter and commissioners to take photos, but insisted his daughter return him home to tend to the animals.
Hall’s legacy is representative of both the trials and successes of Black people working in agriculture from slavery, through Reconstruction, and to the twenty-first century as well as the inestimable wealth generated by Black labor during the same period. The Bailey’s Prairie Kid stands as both man and myth in Brazoria – a well respected lifelong community member who has experienced the sting of racism first hand, and a larger than life folk hero with no shortage of local lore about his ability to rise above racism as a result of his talent and expertise in the cattle industry.
How much of the wealth generated from cattle, sugar or cotton production filtered back to the Black residents and their communities in Brazoria? How can county institutions educate the population about the contributions of Brazoria’s Black residents? If Hall’s proclamation is to serve as another guidepost for future public history initiatives, the county needs to consider a strategic framework to incorporate the Black and Brown histories of Brazoria residents, a demographic that currently makes up 45% of the population.
In Brazoria, a county known to many as the “place where Texas began,” smaller victories initiated by grassroots community organizations can help to fill the gaps left in the historical record, but countywide programming can deepen our contemporary understandings of the complexities of the past through the framework of public history.
Portia Hopkins is a CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Research Associate with Fondren Library, Rice University.
The post “Black in Brazoria County” first appeared in Echoes: The SlaveVoyages Blog. It is part of a series of posts exploring the history and legacies of the slave trade to Texas.