Eating Dirt, Searching Archives

Excavations from a Texas Woman

Illustration by Natalie Nelson

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Eating Dirt, Searching Archives

Excavations from a Texas Woman

by Endia L. Hayes
Southern Cultures, Vol. 27, No. 2: Built/Unbuilt

“There are many Black afterlives that have yet to be unearthed.”

Land of the sweet, never sour, Sugar Land, Texas, offers a surburban alternative outside the expanding Houston area. The city has gone by many names. In 1838, two years into the Republic of Texas’s victory over the Republic of Mexico, what is now Sugar Land was named the Oakland Plantation. Stephen F. Austin (the “Father of Texas”) gave land to businessman and administrator Samuel May Williams as payment for his work providing land grants as incentives to bring white settlers to the new republic. In 1853, Williams sold the plantation to his brothers, Nathaniel and Matthew Williams. Together, they combined the plantation with adjoining lands and renamed it Sugar Land. The late 1800s brought a new nickname to Sugar Land among the city’s convict laborers: “Hell Hole on the Brazos.” Sugar Land’s infrastructure expanded in the decades following the end of convict leasing in 1912, resulting in the erasure of the city’s histories of Black and Indigenous removal. The city’s wealth—held almost exclusively by its white business owners, former plantation owners, and political elites—grew thanks to sugar tours, school field trips to the humid banks of the Brazos River, and the wealth generated by sugar production. These legacies of violence, swallowed by the earth and long buried, were unearthed in 2018 when developers disturbed the dirt underneath the city.

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