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Back to the Old Place Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Julie Powell

A Texas plantation yields remarkable African-American artifacts and hints about an unsavory family history

(Eric A. Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

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.

Julie Powell is a freelance writer living in Queens, New York. When she isn't working for the Memorial Department of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, she writes about cooking on the weblog "The Julie/Julia Project."

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America