FORT BEND COUNTY - America will celebrate Juneteenth on Saturday but for one Fort Bend County family they've lived the holiday every day for decades. "My family’s story is Juneteenth," says Eugene Howard. To understand what he means, look no further than Thompson Chapel in Fort Bend County. "Thompson Chapel was a community founded by the first freed black family in 1877," Howard explains.
It was Howard’s Great Grandfather Paul Thompson and his father Premise Thompson, both Civil War veterans, who bought 100 acres of land 12 years after Union soldiers came to Texas forcing slaveowners to abide by the Emancipation Proclamation which set slaves free more than two years earlier. It’s now called Juneteenth. "He was able to purchase the land the last year of Reconstruction before the Union left the south and we’ve had to deal with the Jim Crow South ever since". How? Well, while you may not have heard of Thompson Chapel, you likely certainly know 99 Grand Parkway which runs right through what was once the 100-acre community and the New Territory Sub-Division sitting on the land that belonged to the family. "Thompson Chapel was this great community and it’s just been closed in and eventually erased. It’s very disheartening. It gets emotional and is saddening to see what developers can do and what’s allowed to happen when people are marginalized and disenfranchised," says Howard.
The family is trying to track down deeds and titles to understand how they now only own a sliver of the 100 acres where Thompson Chapel Church, built-in 1880, still stands and they’re asking Fort Bend County Commissioners to pay for maintenance of the two cemeteries where dozens of their relatives are buried. "My family has fought in every war since the Civil War. We have veterans from every war in those cemeteries," Howard explains.
"If these individuals were founding fathers of Fort Bend County in terms of not establishing the county but early residents we should give them some honor and respect," says Fort Bend County Attorney Bridgette Smith-Lawson who recently visited Thompson Chapel.
"It was an early settlement of African Americans in Fort Bend County going all the way back to the 1870s. So this was before Sugar Land was Sugar Land. It’s a historical site without having the historical recognition," says Smith-Lawson.
"This is a community that is almost older than the City of Houston. I don’t just want to save the cemetery and put a plaque on the church. I want to try to persevere what is left of Thompson Chapel community. I don’t want to see any more of it confiscated," adds Howard who says he knows, just like so many other black families, life and the wealth gap for his would be very different, if only. "I could just imagine if my family would have been able to maintain those 100 acres where you have million-dollar homes. The financial legacy that we would have. We could be the Hyatt’s, the Hilton’s," says Howard.
Meanwhile, the legacy of the land and its early owners lives on. "It’s a part of all of our history, not just Black history. It’s Texas history," says Smith-Lawson.
"That is our very own Juneteenth story here in Fort Bend County," smiles Howard.