CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE PAST
Board of Directors and Officers, LJPHS
history will describe how this project developed, and how
we hope it will develop in the future. See Participants for information on individual members of the
Society, or use the links under the picture above.
In 1993 two of Levi Jordan's descendants (Dorothy Cotton and Ginny Raska) and the archaeology director, Dr. Kenneth L. Brown, set up the "Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society", a 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit corporation, to begin the process of interpreting the Jordan site to the public. Dorothy Cotton is the executrix of the estate which still owns the plantation, and she and her co-owners agreed to lease the plantation grounds, including the slave/tenant quarters and the main house, to the Society for 99 years. Therefore, while the site is still privately owned, it is controlled by the non-profit organization, and will be for the foreseeable future.
My role in this organization was to arrange for pro-bono legal work, and to serve as the organizations Secretary, researcher, and "expediter". I did not serve on the Board of Directors because we all agreed that it should be dominated by local, Brazoria County individuals the only "outsider" on the Board was the archaeology director. The job of the organization was to include (but not be limited to) planning any public interpretations that might take place including house restoration, museum building, doing public talks, fundraising, and similar activities. We all agreed that no substantive planning would take place (such as writing a mission statement, applying for National Register status, and so on) until the Board could expand to include people to represent the plantations African American ancestors. At that point we had not identified many of the African American descendants and had no idea who might be willing and able to be involved, and we needed to get community input as well as to identify people who might be interested in participating on a formal basis.
So, with this end in mind, I began to conduct interviews with people in the African American community. Some interviews went very well, and the comments they generated were very useful in establishing themes that will guide us later in planning a public interpretation. However, it proved to be extremely difficult to arrange appointments. Only one person ever directly said "no" to an interview request, but, although all of the people I contacted were unfailingly polite and gracious, many had some reason not to meet with me (such as not having time, busy schedule and illness). I kept sensing a wariness, a reluctance to share any candid opinion, or to tell me what they really thought about history in general or about this plantation. I knew that my job might be difficult because I was an outsider (in that I am urban, white, academic, and so on), but I kept sensing that these factors were only part of the reason for their apparent wariness. When we would start talking about racially charged issues, and about the shared aspects of our experiences as southerners in the late 20th century, people seemed to feel that I was sincere and basically trustworthy. I knew there was "something else" besides my being an outsider that was affecting the success of my interviews.
In the summer of 1994 I finally started to learn what this was, when I began to hear about other history-related community projects in which black participation had obviously been tokenized. One person mentioned a museum that had neglected to include blacks on its board, except on a token "advisory committee", and another mentioned a local history event in which blacks were asked to participate, but only after most of the plans had already been made. Some also noted that even though the other local plantation museum had attempted to develop some programming about African American history, it was evident that there was no intent to change the more general planter-class focus of the site (the blacks had been told they were "welcome" to do some kind of display, in an outbuilding on the site, and little or no funding was provided by the main facility).
I started to realized that it was not surprising that my naive requests for interviews and appeals for opinion were regarded with suspicion. It became obvious that interviews were not going to be a productive way of getting input from the African American community until members of the that community were fully empowered to act on any suggestions they might make. One encounter, in particular, clarified this situation. In the fall of 1994 I attempted to make an appointment to speak with an African-American woman who is a retired educator. This individual had obviously come across university researchers before, and stated emphatically that she would not meet with me until I had answered, in writing, the following questions:
"What will you actually do with the results of the interview? Will the [African American] community be able to put it to use, or will you just write a book and put it on a shelf somewhere?"
"What will the universitys [the University of Houston] role be in the process down the line? Will the archaeologist help plan the public interpretation, or will he simply pack up his trowel and move on?"
"What likelihood is there that anything will ever actually happen? And if it does, who will benefit from it the community or the university?"
I finally realized that these kinds of questions must have been on the minds of many of the people I attempted to interview, even if they didnt come right out and ask them. I did respond in writing to this person, of course, and decided to terminate the formal interview process. I then recommended that the existing three-person Board of Directors concentrate all their efforts on recruiting new members before any more planning, or talk of planning, took place. They readily agreed, and now, four years later, the Society has a much larger Board that includes several members of the African-American descendant community (including the person who asked the above questions!).
It is important to point out that the original three-member Board did not identify and select its new members. The first new member was selected by a local African American service organization whose membership includes several descendants of plantation residents, including the person most active in helping us recruit. That new Board member then helped us to find additional volunteers.
So, the formation and composition of the Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society turned out to have a great deal to do with community perceptions of empowerment, voice and authority. I realized that I could interview as many people as I wanted to, but until African Americans were vested in the process, and empowered to make policy-level decisions, feedback from them would be extremely hard to obtain. Unless power was perceived to be held equally with white descendants and other community residents, nothing would ever "actually happen".
What mattered was power, not opinion.
About four years ago the expanded Board began to work together. Their first job was to write a formal Mission Statement. This statement was designed to be flexible while giving an overall direction for the organization. This Statement, in particular, embodies the both/and approach that the group agreed upon.
After writing the Mission Statement, and expanding it into a Long Range Plan with many specific ideas (educational programming, restoring the plantation house, and the like) the group realized that these two documents did not explicitly state the ideas that formed the basis of what the group is really all about. Therefore, the Long Range Plan now includes a Statement of Beliefs that outlines these ideas; together they are, in effect, an ideological statement about what the group believes. Every major decision about the content and focus of web site is reviewed by this group of people right now, it is the Society's most active public interpretation effort. We hope that will change as funds are raised to restore the house, build a museum, and other things.
Participants in this project hope that the work of the Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society can provide opportunities for positive, meaningful communication between the various community groups who have a stake in the past, present, and future of this plantation, and of this community.
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‹ Carol McDavid 1998