Kenneth Hoke-Witherspoon stood reading a list of names to about 100 people quietly gathered outside on a campus mall at Southwestern University on Tuesday evening.
“Milla, age 4 years old,” said Hoke-Witherspoon. “Ann, a 5-year old. Jo, age 30 years old.”
As he read more than 40 other names, he passed the slips of paper they were written on down a line of people, including Georgetown City Council Member Rachael Jonrowe, to a small fire where the papers were burned.
The people whose names were read were African-American slaves sold in Williamson County in the 1850s, Hoke-Witherspoon told the crowd. Their names were being burned “so their pain may be cleansed with fire and their memory honored as we sing their spirits up to the Heavens, as we send their spirits home,” he said.
The “sending home” ceremony was Hoke-Witherspoon’s idea.
A playwright who lives in Georgetown, Hoke-Witherspoon, 66, said he became interested in the issue when he was working unsuccessfully with others last year to place a historical marker outside the Williamson County Courthouse acknowledging slavery.
A plaque already there says African-Americans were the largest ethnic group among the pioneer settlers and made up more than 19 percent of the county’s population by 1860.
That plaque isn’t true, Hoke-Witherspoon said.
“Slaves were not pioneers who packed up their belongings and moved to Williamson County in search of a better life,” he said during the ceremony. “They were the same as other chattel the white pioneers brought with them.”
Mickie Ross, executive director of the Williamson Museum, a history museum in Georgetown, said the 1860 census showed slaves were 20 percent of the county’s population. She said she couldn’t say for sure whether there were any African-Americans in the county in the 1850s who weren’t slaves.
A group of county government leaders applied for the plaque in 1970, Ross said.
Witherspoon said he found the record of the slaves — first names only — on a Texas Archives website that lists the bills of sale for slaves in Williamson County from 1850 to 1858. The actual bills of sale are available for the public to view in two large books called “Bonds & Etc.” at the county clerk’s office in Georgetown.
Once he knew the first names of the slaves, Witherspoon said, he “felt compelled to give them the dignity of the truth of the condition of their lives — and to honor their spirits home with prayer, ceremony, ritual and song.”
The ceremony started Tuesday with a brief introduction from Southwestern University President Edward Burger and a song from the choir of the Unity Church of the Hills in Austin. Ministers from local Methodist and Unitarian churches, as well as a rabbi, prayed at the event.
“Forgive the callous cruelty of our forebearers,” prayed Chuck Freeman, a minister for the Free Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Round Rock. “We treated our fellow human beings worse than we would our animals.”
Three Southwestern University student organizations, SU Philosophy, Empire and Ebony, sponsored the event.
One of the people who attended, Georgetown resident Chuck Collins, said the ceremony was “beautiful” and that he liked that it was done with people of many different faiths.
“Weirdly enough, I found it uplifting,” he said. “It could have been very bitter.”