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County Clerk’s Office

So, I went to the County Clerk’s Office the other day (it’s in the Justice Center off MLK, she’s in the basement) and was blown away. They have books down their entitled “Bonds & Etc.” which detail Bills of Sale of every traded/bought enslaved person in antebellum Georgetown, TX. I ended up going there after finding a transcribed list of these sales online and since all the websites on these matters look pretty shoddily put together, I decided to double-check their cited source – and it panned out beautifully. I went with my boyfriend, Evan, and got ourselves set up in a little side room outside the death certificate catalogues and simply went through the information, uncertain as to what I was actually expecting to find.

It’s horrifying. The records detail the sale of children (both with and without mothers) as young as 9 months old as well as the sale of full grown men. It gives their first names, their slave owners’ names, their age, their “complexion,” and any other defining features they might possess that one would think to look for if purchasing a work horse – one record explained that the enslaved person being purchased came with a deformed hand. I’ll probably go back again sooner rather than later, maybe even enter some footage of the original Bills of Sale into the video if the group digs it, but my question remains – how can I utilize this new information to answering my questions about African American experience? After all, I don’t want to simply assume and imagine what they may have experienced while being sold and turned into receipts this way – receipts left to name them instead of birth or death certificates, instead of last names or formal graves.

But it was on our way out, while we were waiting for the last photocopy of a Bill (which, frankly, I’m stunned they let us do, fee or no fee – perhaps this tells us something about how well African Americans once-enslaved are being honored today if we treat these documents in such a lackadaisical fashion. They may have been laminated, but light and handling damages are key factors known to deteriorate pages over time.), we met an older black woman who, though she did not share her name with us, quickly peaked at our conversation over the class project and joined in. She asked if the issues of unmarked graves and cemeteries were purely a Texas problem, to which I cited the Turkey Creek, Mississippi example as a definite and unfortunate “no.” But she made certain to thank us and express her appreciation for the work being done by our class given that for her and other black Americans, graves are often one of the only ways to, as she said, “actually determine your heritage, your lineage.”

And, you know, I realized after this encounter that, though I’ve never had a burning curiosity about my ancestors or Scottish lineage, I never needed to have one. When I visited Scotland after high school, random tour guides and pedestrians were happy to tell me stories about my clan and clansmen, to give me narratives both rumor and historical about my clan’s movements and significant events.

I realized an assumption that I hadn’t even realized I had – that this knowledge may be central to some peoples’ conceptions of themselves and of the world around them, of their place and historical stake in the world. You’d think I’d have realized this sooner given our class discussions, but something about this event struck a chord with me — the unfairness of it, not simply the injustice and evil — if that separation makes any sense at all. I feel much more sympathetic with Galland now.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. lhennigan
    February 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    This is totally crazy to me! Who knew that accessing those types of records would be that simple. To me, I would think that those would be locked away in the basement of the county courthouse and forgotten about, or at least attempted to be forgotten about. I mean it sounds like it was in a basement nonetheless, but at least there is public access. I agree that the preservance of these documents seems to be lacking. If they are allowing public access to them, they are also allowing for the possiblity of damage to them, including light exposure, oil exposure, and even tears or holes. Even if they are laminated, the documents could have been damaged in that process as well. Maybe in this way Georgetown is trying to cover up their history, hoping that one day the records will just deteriorate. I’m really glad you told us about this Katie!

  2. carinaevans
    February 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Conspiracy theories aside, this does say a lot about the kind of work that still needs to be done in our own community. Katie, I can’t wait to see the photocopies of what you uncovered. Dr. Stockton and I are very interested in creating a digital archive of our class findings, and these records are the kinds of materials that could benefit from being scanned and preserved.

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