While touring the newly-renovated Fort Bend Museum, I was perhaps most struck by an exhibit discussing the controversy surrounding the Jaybird Monument in Richmond.
Even the presentation of the issue was interesting, with recent newspaper articles laying out the controversy, which culminated in the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court in October voting to move the long-standing monument to a new location.
The monument stood in Richmond for years, a longstanding reference to a former local political group that disenfranchised Black voters and instituted white-only primaries for voting until 1953.
“One day today will also be a part of history,” Ana Alicia Acosta told me when I asked about it.
That’s a statement that we all intuitively know, but I think we don’t often realize on a day-to-day basis.
Recent memory has been a veritable goldmine of events that will no doubt one day enter the history books. The list includes a global pandemic, the craziest election season I’ve ever lived through, the near-catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid and national conversation about race and policing, to name but a few.
And locally, what storylines will one day be enshrined in our collective memory? Will it be public outcry against the Jaybird Monument? Or the rapid growth and diversification of Fort Bend County? Perhaps all of the above?
Interestingly, even the most recent Texas Legislature hasn’t been free of historical underpinnings and discussion about the telling of history. Namely, what should we teach children? And how?
Political polarization always seeks the simplest explanation, but I firmly believe our history is best captured in shades of greys, and is always present with us.
As the great writer William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
The Fort Bend Museum, in a way I don’t think I fully appreciated before, did a fantastic job of driving that point home through exhibits like the one about the Jaybird Monument and others about immigrants to the county.
As Fort Bend History Association executive director Claire Rogers explained, this area is absolutely teeming with Texas history. The association’s collections include documents signed by both Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. The figures of Texas lore aren’t just near-mythical figures in Fort Bend County, they were real people who interacted and visited many of the places we still do today.
But it’s not just those larger-than-life figures that played an outsized role in the place that Fort Bend County is today, and it’s that lesson museum officials hoped to bring to visitors. Rather, it’s the many thousands of immigrants from India, China, Portugal, Nigeria and everywhere else that have ventured to Fort Bend County in search of a better life for their families. It’s also the darker stories, such as the unidentified Sugar Land 95, the African Americans who were believed to have been part of a state convict leasing program whose remains were found in 2018 while Fort Bend ISD officials were working on a nearby building.
The 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery as it was known before the Civil War, but permitted it as punishment for a crime. Experts estimate more than 3,500 prisoners died between the beginning of the Texas convict leasing system in the 1860s and the end in 1912, according to a Prison Legal News article.
I remember when I first took the job in Fort Bend County, my Galveston County friend and local historian Sam Collins III spoke to me of all the historical connections between the two counties – with shipments coming through the Port of Galveston and eventually ending up at the plantations in Fort Bend County.
I’ve always admired Collins’ sense of place, and desire to understand a community’s history. We would all be better served if we grappled as deeply with the goods and ills of local history.
The author James Baldwin summarized American history better than any other writer I know.
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” he wrote.
The same is true of Fort Bend County history. It includes the stories we grew up learning, but also everything in between, down to the present. It even includes the stories we might wish could be forgotten.
I thank the staff at Fort Bend Museum for reminding me of that fact.