Life on a 19th-century Black-owned Texas farmhouse on display at the Smithsonian

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AUSTIN, Texas – Eight artefacts, unearthed in the rubble of a 19th-century Texas farmhouse, will soon be on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, challenging views of former slave life in America.

Three marbles, a cup of tea and various farm supplies, including a cattle mark with the letter “R”, will bring the untold accomplishments and everyday monotony of life at Ransom Williams Farmstead, a black-owned farm in the United States to life. southwest Austin. The objects are just a few of the more than 25,000 artifacts unearthed during the summer of 2009 in conjunction with the construction of a new road by the Texas Department of Transportation. Selected specimens are on loan from the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

They will be part of the exhibition “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies”, presented from September 24, 2021 to August 21, 2022, to help tell the story of the African American free colonies and life after the war. civil. War.

“These artifacts are a material testimony to people who were subjected to the race and lived on the fringes,” said UT Austin anthropologist Maria Franklin, who led community outreach efforts and collected stories. oral examinations related to excavations. “Because we have so few records, the Ransom Williams Farmstead is incredibly valuable in answering so many questions we might have about the lives of African Americans after emancipation.”

According to archival documents such as title deeds, maps and tax records, Ransom and Sarah Williams, an African-American couple, purchased 45 acres along Bear Creek near Manchaca, Texas, six years later. the end of the Civil War and lived there until at least 1905. At the time, they were one of two black families in the otherwise all-white enclave.

But the objects allow researchers to infer even more about the Williams family and their contributions to the social, cultural and political fabric.

“It is a material document that can help build more realistic accounts of the past by helping us better understand the lives of ordinary people – as most people in history often have been,” Franklin said. .

For example, agricultural implements such as the brand of cattle, a hoof, a hand-held corn huller, and a garden hoe suggest that the family had established their self-reliance and lived off the land, likely producing cash crops such as corn and cotton.

“Freed slaves who had only farm laborer skills often became laborers after the war,” said Doug Boyd, archaeologist at Cox McLain Environmental Consulting Inc. who led the excavation at Williams Farmstead. “Due to the farm and horse related artifacts we found, we thought Ransom Williams had special knowledge of horses since his slavery, and this may have given him an advantage in buying his own farm.”

Archived evidence supports the interpretation that the Williams family were successful farmers for more than three decades. And annual tax records show Williams owned more horses than most of his white neighbors in the early 1870s, and he apparently sold most of them to help pay for his 45-acre farm.

Other artifacts such as the remains of a teacup – imported from the UK and available through mail order sites such as Sears, Roebuck & Company – demonstrate the Williams family’s shopping habits and access economical to luxury products. It is also a representation of how once enslaved people, like many other Americans at the time, were integrated into the growing consumer market of the late 19th century.

“History has come a long way from focusing on a grand narrative of the rich and the elite, and archeology plays a major role in documenting diverse voices and experiences,” Franklin said. “Understanding the stories behind these artifacts dispels the myths about the people who contributed to them. This diversifies the American narrative.

Can’t make it to DC? Other artifacts from the Ransom and Sarah Williams Farmstead Collection are available to the public on the fourth floor of the Dorothy Gebauer Building on the UT Austin campus, or explore the complete collection at texasbeyondhistory.net/ransom.


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