Ceremony honors Williamson County slaves from the 1850s


Highlights

The bills of sale for slaves in Williamson County in the 1850s is available at the county clerk’s office.

Kenneth Hoke-Witherspoon said he came up with idea to acknowledge the slaves and to send their spirits home.

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.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Driver hits, critically injures pedestrian at Stassney, Congress
Driver hits, critically injures pedestrian at Stassney, Congress

A driver hit and critically injured a pedestrian in South Austin on Thursday night, Austin-Travis County EMS officials said. Medics responded at 10:02 p.m. to Stassney Lane and South Congress Avenue, EMS officials said.  The pedestrian, estimated to be in his 40s, was taken to St. David South Austin Medical Center with life-threatening injuries...
H-E-B recalling olives that may contain glass, store says
H-E-B recalling olives that may contain glass, store says

H-E-B is recalling certain store-brand olives that may contain glass inside, the store said Thursday evening.  The recalled product, 10-ounce glass jars of H-E-B’s “Ode to Olives Sliced Salad Olives,” has a best by date of Nov. 3, 2019, the store said in a news release.  The store issued the recall after customers who had...
Reports: Victim’s family sues parents of accused Santa Fe school shooter
Reports: Victim’s family sues parents of accused Santa Fe school shooter

The family of one of the victims in last week’s Santa Fe High School shooting is suing the parents of the accused shooter, according to two Houston-area TV news stations.  The parents of 17-year-old Chris Stone have filed suit against the parents of accused shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, KTRK-TV reported. They argue in the suit...
Intense, tearful meeting with shooting survivors ends Abbott gun talks
Intense, tearful meeting with shooting survivors ends Abbott gun talks

Gov. Greg Abbott ended three days of gun violence discussions Thursday with an intense, sometimes tearful session devoted to survivors and victims of mass shootings in Texas. Many in the state Capitol room attended Santa Fe High School or had children who were there when a gunman killed eight students and two teachers last week, and while there was...
Democratic governor candidate Valdez owes $12,000 in property taxes
Democratic governor candidate Valdez owes $12,000 in property taxes

Lupe Valdez, who on Tuesday won the Democratic nomination for governor, owes more than $12,000 in property taxes on seven different properties, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday. Valdez’s campaign spokesman Juan Bautista Dominguez said that the former Dallas County sheriff does owe the money and said she is paying it back. “Sheriff...
More Stories