HITCHCOCK, Texas - There’s been a lot of talk lately about race in our country, including South Carolina Senator Tim Scott saying "America is not a racist country". Do you believe that to be true? I went looking for answers relating to how America’s past is playing a role presently. The Historian took the question to regarding the history of racism, first pointed out April is Confederate History Month and he invited me to a Galveston County property to give me a bit of perspective.
If the land there off of Highway 6, once owned by a Confederate soldier could talk, Historian Sam Collins III says you may be surprised at what you'd hear.
"This was the very first good plant job in Galveston County. So you think about the chemical plants," Collins says.
The plant jobs on the land, literally, were planting and caring for pear and satsuma orange trees at Stringfellow Orchards in Hitchcock. The owner, Henry Martyn Stringfellow, was a skilled Horticulturalist and a Confederate Army Captain who had 30 Black men working for him in the 1880’s, men he paid a dollar a day. That was double what anyone else paid.
"The economic impact of that is still being felt today by descendants," Collins explains.
In fact, 95-year-old Vera Bell-Gary’s Grandfather, Frank Bell Sr., worked at Stringfellow Orchards and with his high salary he built a home "and he bought quite a few acres of land," says Mrs. Bell-Gary. Those dozens of acres are still in the Bell family, minus the five donated, becoming the first county park for Blacks, which is now Carver Park in Texas City.
Mrs. Bell-Gary’s dad, Frank Bell Jr., became a successful businessman.
"He had a hotel, cafe, service station," says Mrs. Bell-Gary. "He had a lumber yard, a grocery store, real estate investments," Collins adds and he outright paid for all five of his kids to go to college, including Mrs. Bell-Gary, who spent almost 40 years teaching high school in La Marque ISD.
"This shows the difference in if you make an investment in the workers, in the people. Those people make investments in your community," says Collins who points out two pictures. The first shows Frank Bell Sr. in the late-1800’s dressed in suit and tie, who as a result of receiving a fair wage, passed on wealth to his kids, grandkids and even great grands. The next photo is of a young man wearing a striped jail uniform with his wrists bound. He was in the Convict Leasing Program, which historians say many Blacks were wrongfully herded into because the demand for free labor continued after slavery ended. You may have heard of Convict Leasing after the discovery of the Sugar Land 95.
"What do you think the men and women being in, exploited in that program left their families?" asks Collins. who says, "Without hurdles or barriers in your way, it allows individuals to develop and be the very best individuals they can to pursue their dreams."
At her home, Mrs. Bell-Gary showed me pictures on her wall of all of their show horses, her daughter's shetland pony, photos of her enjoying their family’s boats and she realizes their history is like few others.
So why didn’t that Confederate officer use convict leasing inmates like so many others? "I think Mr. Stringfellow just recognized as a human being that slavery has ended, the relationship has changed from master/slave to employer/employee and I want to have the best workers so I’m going to pay the best wage," Collins explains.
Although Mrs. Bell-Gary was born into a family with means, it was still 1925 in America.
"We were not allowed to go into the restaurants and sit and eat, drug stores we couldn’t go to the counters and get an ice cream cone," Bell-Gary explains. She attended segregated schools and says Blacks had to know their place as second class citizens.
"We knew what would happen, so our parents would see to it that we stayed in our place," says Mrs. Bell-Gary. "If we look at some of the things that are involved in our society, systemically, there still are biases in the system," says Collins.
For those who say that isn’t so Collins says this, "I’m reminded of James Baldwin’s quote in the Fire Next Time, "these innocent people are trapped in a history they don’t understand".
It may be hard for some to understand how two African Americans are celebrating, if you will, Confederate History Month by calling attention to a confederate soldier whose high pay still has a high impact today.
"While it’s not a celebration of the confederacy, I think it’s a celebration that shows everybody can change. Maya Angelou has a quote 'history despite its wrenching pain can not be un-lived but if faced with courage need not be lived again,' and I believe Mr. Stringfellow had the courage to see the world different after slavery ended," says Collins.
The 3,200 square foot home and all 10 acres of Stringfellow Orchards are still right there in Hitchcock. It’s now a national historic site and was purchased by Historian Sam Collins III and his wife.
"There’s a Chinese proverb that says if you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people. So as people enter the driveway, I hope they will grow from the history, from the story and the inspiration," says Collins.