LEVI JORDAN PLANTATION:
It's an uncharacteristically chilly March morning when I drive out to the Old Place for the first time in a decade. That's what we call it, all our family--the Old Place. A white paneled house close to falling into ruin on some marshy ground on the Texas Gulf Coast. The remains of a once-impressive family holding and the central landmark in a complicated topography of family legend. Granny used to spin tales of her childhood here, tinged with the sepia tone of nostalgia and the less attractive tint of ingrained racism--about roasting coffee in the kitchen with her "Mammy," who'd tell her not to kiss her because "it'll make you black like me." Of the patriarch Levi Jordan, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, arriving in the coastal Texas plains with 365 slaves, "one for every day of the year." Story goes that he shot a panther out of a live oak tree and decided at that moment to build his home beneath its branches.
My tour guide this morning is University of Houston archaeologist Kenneth L. Brown. He is a large man with a booming voice, and though a leg condition forces him to employ a cane today, he leads me over the uneven ground behind the house, through the dense undergrowth that overwhelms everything in this country. We beat aside vines and branches, trip in a tangled green bed of something that looks like malevolent parsley.
What lies beneath this overgrown jungle behind the Old Place has been Brown's focus for nearly 20 years. His excavations here have offered a glimpse into the daily and spiritual lives of enslaved and tenanted people who worked the plantations of the American South in the nineteenth century, both before and after the Civil War. Brown has found the artifacts of an oppressed but vibrant African-American community, intriguing clues about the bonds that held that community together, and dark hints about a family history that Granny never talked about.
By Julie Powel
As told to Cheryl Wright
One of the most fascinating discoveries of this study revolved around kinship. The people not only knew their own genealogical heritage dating back several generations, but seemed to know others’ family trees as well. This knowledge was aided by the fact that most of the people in the community were related in some form or fashion.
"My great-grandfather was the early deacon at the Grace church. He’s buried at Jordan (Juden ) cemetery. My mother would tell me stories. My uncle was the deacon down at Magnolia. Mama told me that many a time. People thought alot of him and he was a leader of the community. He’s buried in Jordan cemetery. They’re all buried down there."
"Alot of people started dying. The 1900’s. It was a Flu epidemic. Most people just died of old age. They didn’t know names for some of these diseases. I think they had things and they’d die, and not know why. They fell dead. But if they fell dead, it was heart attack. They didn’t know alot of things. TB was what people had. Coughing. Now that was what people had to be particular with ‘cause you could sure catch it."
"If somebody died they’d sit up with ‘em. They had what they called ‘toning’ the bell. Someone died, they’d tone the bell. No matter what time of night it was. Each church had a bell. There was one person who did the bell. There was a certain sound. For funerals, there was a different tone. I’ll never forget that sound. If you were sick, people in the community would come and stay with that person. When they passed, they’d get the man to tone the bell. He would get up and tone the bell. Some would go down there and then go back and tell their neighbors. That’s how the word got around."
"When someone would die, all the neighbors from far around would come to your rescue. And out of some of them, some would swaddle them. Before undertakers came along and they would clean that person up. Swaddle them and take care of them. That’s what the old people would call it. Put clothes on them. They called it swaddling, undertaker shops way back yonder. They’d lay them up there on a cooling board. At their house. People would sit around and drink coffee and visit. They’d sit in the house in my mama’s day."
"I’ll tell you what my daddy told me. There was this one man that died ... went down and swaddled him. They tied the handkerchief around to hold his mouth together. Under the mouth over the top of the head to keep the mouth from coming open. And they laid him up there. They was going to bury him and do what they was going to do and some of them was crying and all. When they did, he come to himself and looked up and they done swaddled the man and he had that thing tied around his head and he was standing at the doors listening. Everybody broke out of there and ran! Even the mules broke loose and ran. Everybody was gone and left the man. See he wasn’t dead. They thought he was dead. Like now, I say so many people are killed by the undertakers. If they ‘die off’ you’re already gone. When they stick that needle in you, that’s it. So often in those days the people were getting off them cooling boards. They wouldn’t be dead. They’d let ‘em lay out over night."
"Sometimes they’d build a casket. Somebody would build a wooden casket. Wooden coffin. It may not have been from the family. Maybe anybody who was a carpenter or anybody who could do it. My daddy was good about making caskets. And he’d put a cover over them. He’d cover them with material on the inside. My brother and I would be playing and he would always be making a casket. My granddad on my mother’s side built his own coffin. He used to build coffins. My mother said somebody died and he let him have his coffin, and he had to go buy him one."
Back in them times they didn’t put anything on ‘em for the memory. No sign on it to show who it is. There’s many a grave out here . . . Most of them aren’t marked. There’s graves all along in here. You don’t know who it is. They marked the grave with a stick or something like a particular design. But eventually that will fail. Twenty years go by and nobody knows who’s buried there. There’s not even a hump in the ground anymore. In fact, it may be a sink in the ground . . . because the wooden caskets when they rot cause the ground to sink. It had all that dirt . . . they took up all that space. When they start rotting, the weight of the dirt and the water cause it to sink."
"You’ve got some cemeteries like the Jordan Cemetery [Juden Cemetery] where you’ve got to get up in the woods to find. Someone from the Jordan Plantation just started letting people that worked for them bury and their kin. I guess in slavery times they were buried there. We just always knew people were buried there. People were burying there before that individual got that place.
The landowners would let you bury over there but they wouldn’t let you have a way to get in there. So when you come down here to bury somebody you had to take the body and put them though the fence and go over there and bury them. You had to put the casket through the fence."