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Levi Jordan

I heard it through the Grapevine: Oral Tradition in a Rural African American Community in Brazoria, Texas

by Cheryl Wright

History of Brazoria, Overview

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In order to appreciate the full importance of everyday life in the rural, black communities in Brazoria, I had to start at the historical beginnings that created their oppressed situation. Written documentation illustrates the social, political, and economic power structure that existed not only in Brazoria, but in the Southern United States as a whole. Before I could conduct a study involving the black community, I had to have a better understanding of its relationship to a system dominated primarily by whites.

"In December, 1821, a schooner, ‘The Lively,’ laden with men and supplies from New Orleans for Stephen F. Austin’s new colony, landed at the mouth of the Brazos River" (Rogers 1958: 5). These were the first of many new people that came to what is now Brazoria County. When the settlers first arrived, there were many hardships that they had to overcome. By the year, 1832, however, conditions improved considerably. The rich bottom lands near the rivers proved to be a profitable investment for the early residents of this area (Rogers 1958). The extended growing season in Brazoria County averaged over 270 days. "In such a climate of warmth, moisture, and sunshine, the alluvial soil of the Gulf Coast Plain could produce both cotton and sugar cane in abundance. These crops were the foundation of the Texas plantation economy" (Platter 1961:3).

Aside from the tropical climate and fertile soil, Brazoria County was also fortunate in its numerous waterways. There were three main waterways that proved instrumental in future plantation development. The largest river was the Brazos. It was the only Texas river that flowed directly into the Gulf, rather than into a bay. Plantations in the towns of Columbia, Brazoria, Velasco, and Quintana were established along the banks of the Brazos River. The other two important waterways were the San Bernard River, to the west of the Brazos, and Oyster Creek on the east. "Large plantations were established near these streams. Steamboats and sailboats tied at the plantation landings to unload goods from the United States or overseas and to load cargoes of cotton, sugar, and molasses" (Platter 1961:6). The waterways were a source of communication and commerce in this region.

The population increased dramatically, as did the commerce in the area. Brazoria and Columbia were the prominent towns of ". . . prosperous, slave-holding people, leading the aristocratic and patriarchal life of the Old South" (Rogers 1958:5). Texas entered the Union in 1845. After this time, the plantation system continued to grow, prompting the period to be called "The Olden Golden Age." There was more wealth and land in cultivation in Brazoria County at this time than in any other part of the state. (Rogers 1958). Brazoria, along with Matagorda, Wharton, and Fort Bend Counties, came to be known as the "sugar bowl" of Texas. Brazoria planters entered the sugar industry in the 1840’s, and led in annual sugar production among all others in the state (Platter 1961).

"Most of the early settlers of [Stephen F. Austin’s] ‘Old 300’ were people from the plantation South who had previously owned slaves on former plantations," so they were no strangers to this type of arrangement (McAlexander 1982:19). Although the Texas Constitution of 1836 declared slave smuggling an act of piracy, it was still legal to import slaves from other parts of the United States (McAlexander 1982). By 1848, the population of Texas included 115, 501 whites and 42, 455 slaves (Platter 1961). Slavery and the plantation life reached its peak in the period of 1850-1860 just prior to the Civil War (McAlexander 1982).

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