CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE PAST
historical research (Powers 1994; Wright 1994) (26,15) has shown that the power relationships of
nineteenth century Brazoria County, Texas, continue, in
large measure, today. The local communities surrounding
the plantation are still dominated by white descendants
of nineteenth century planters, while the African
American community is largely (though not exclusively)
restricted to secondary positions in community leadership
and social control. Powers (1994) (26) has argued that this current situation springs
directly from the particular history of the region and
that, after the Civil War, the "white power
structure acted quickly and decisively to prevent any
inversion of the antebellum social order. Southern whites
were committed to retaining the status quo". She
describes a number of ways in which whites maintained
their domination well into the present historical period,
and points out that, to large degree, black Brazorians
reacted to this continued domination by creating a
strong, insular, cohesive social system that operates
largely outside the dominant white social and political
system According to Powers, blacks "withdrew and
isolated themselves from the Anglo residents of Brazoria;
to some extent the retraction was voluntary, but overall
it was in response to the treatment whites dealt
them" (Powers 1994: 304) (26). Powers analysis is supported by recent oral history research in the area immediately surrounding the
plantation (Wright 1994) (15). Data from the
archaeological research on the Jordan Plantation also
strongly supports Powers conclusions (Brown and
Cooper 1990; Brown 1995) (4,2).
The question of social and political continuity between the pre- and post-1865 South is one which has been the subject of considerable debate among historians of the American South. As Powers describes it,
"Scholars who find discontinuity (citing Woodward 1951) (34) generally argue that the post-bellum southern society was capitalistic in nature and that former slaves secured a measure, though small, of economic and social power. Those in the continuity school (citing, among others, Weiner 1978) (33) see a pre capitalist structure where the antebellum landowners retained their political and economic hegemony. African Americans in these particular studies are viewed as an oppressed peasantry with few opportunities to influence the shape of post-war southern society...
"...the elite class, through coercion, debt, sharecropping, and racial prejudice succeeded in keeping African Americans working as farm laborers on white owned land. African Americans left slavery with few skills, education, or property; these factors severally restricted their bargaining power. As a consequence, the former slaves had very little input in the directions that post-war economic and social systems took" (Powers 1994: 306-308) (26).
The separate, divided nature of present-day social and political Brazoria, rooted in the oppression and domination of the past, could well have an impact on the feasibility of creating a public interpretation of this plantation site. As the data will indicate, many people in the area derive their historical and social, and probably even psychological identities from their perceptions of how they fit into the history of the region. This historical context includes the written histories of the early twentieth century, which spoke of slavery mainly in terms of economic loss; for example, one Brazoria County native stated that "The freeing of the slaves deprived the Southern people of about two thousand million dollars (Strobel 1926: 15) (28).He further characterized white supremacist groups, which were comprised of ex-confederate soldiers, as heroes who "stood like a stone wall for White supremacy and preserve and gave us our present civilization, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid" (Strobel 1926: 1) (28).
This is not to say that Brazorians today have the same racial attitudes as their nineteenth century ancestors and some twentieth century historians. Indeed, many do not, and the data that follows will show that some whites have reacted to earlier, "prejudiced" attitudes by rejecting them altogether. By the same token, many black Brazorians speak of "moving on", and frequently they, too, consciously reject the attitudes of the past. However, the world that present-day Brazorians inhabit derives from a broader historical and social context, and it is likely that their deep-rooted assumptions about power are, in part, shaped by the historical milieu in which they live.
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‹ Carol McDavid 1998