Ken Brown had high expectations when he walked onto the grounds of Magnolia Plantation more than a decade ago. If the work went as he expected, it would bolster a theory he had developed about the reasons and ways in which people maintained portions of their West African culture after being brought to this country as slaves.
But even with years of experience in restoring the often painful history of early African-Americans, he wasn’t prepared for everything that was waiting to be discovered.
Brown’s research and several artifacts he found—including an unexpected treasure, a Catholic Miraculous Medal reworked to reflect the slaves’ African heritage—will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., set to open this fall.
That is exciting, but Brown, an anthropology professor at the University of Houston, said it was never his goal.
“It’s kind of cool, but archaeology isn’t really about that as much as it is about the things we can learn about the past,” he said.
Earlier in his career, Brown studied Mayan culture, and artifacts he discovered are on display in a Guatemalan museum. But by the early 1980s, as the Guatemalan civil war raged on, it became too dangerous to take students there for field expeditions.
Former plantations—a small number of them with the cabins used by slaves and later by African-American sharecroppers still standing—were spread across Texas and the South. Brown and his students went to work. A project at the Levi Jordan Plantation, a former sugar and cotton plantation near Brazoria, is ongoing.
By the time Brown began work at Magnolia Plantation, the land and its structures were part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, controlled by the National Park Service. He had worked on plantations in Georgia, South Carolina and Texas and was fascinated by what he calls the Crossroads theory, linking West African spiritual practices with the manner in which artifacts aligned with the cardinal directions are deposited beneath certain slave cabins—lines connecting east with west, and north with south form an “X” or cross.
Historians had argued that only slaves working under certain conditions had established their own “Africanized” cultures. Plantations run on a “task” system—where people were assigned to complete certain tasks and after that had limited freedom to work for themselves—were more likely to foster an independent culture than those working on a “gang” system, with everyone expected to work together from dawn until dark.
Brown, however, suspected the urge to recreate one’s own culture was universal, and Magnolia Plantation—which had operated on the gang system—was his test case. He said it proved true.
“It doesn’t take time to develop a culture,” he said. “It takes a need to develop a culture.”
Slaves, particularly on larger plantations, needed a way to establish their own social order as a form of self-governance, he said. “What happened in slave quarters, especially the larger ones, was the need to control what people are doing in order to keep the owners out of their lives as much as possible. Maintaining spiritual practices was one way to do that.”
In their work, Brown and the students discovered a number of significant artifacts, including a mourner’s locket and several shells etched to reflect the crossroads. Just as meaningful was where the artifacts were found—deposited at the north, west, south and eastern points beneath cabins that housed the community’s midwife or conjurer and underneath the church.
In West African spiritual practice, he said, east represented birth; north, the height of your adult powers; west, the transition to the spirit world; and south, the entrance to the world of spirits and ancestors. Related symbols, including a diamond shape that connected the four cardinal points, offered additional support for the theory.
Artifacts found underneath a cabin belonging to a former Magnolia Plantation slave known as Aunt Agnes, who served as community midwife until her death at the reported age of 119 in the 1920s, sealed it.
A photograph taken in the 1920s of an elderly woman identified as Aunt Agnes clearly shows a diamond-shaped frame, visible through the gloom as it was displayed on her cabin wall.
They also discovered the Miraculous Medal. The medal is based on a description from St. Catherine LaBoure, then a novice with the Daughters of Charity in Paris, following a vision during which the Virgin Mary appeared to her in 1830. It is internationally recognized among Catholic followers as a symbol of the power of faith and prayer.
But the medal found at Magnolia Plantation, while immediately recognizable as a Miraculous Medal, also had some stark differences. It is gold, and just more than a half-inch tall. While the Virgin Mary on the traditional medal is wearing a modest dress, the central figure on this medal displays a scoop-neck dress, emphasizing her breasts. Mary’s halo has become a headscarf. And the face, Brown said, “isn’t a European face.”
Gold, he notes, is relatively soft and easy to work with, allowing an artisan from the 1800s to take a Catholic religious object and reshape it to represent a West African worldview.
The discoveries present compelling evidence of how early African-Americans lived both before and after the Civil War. But Brown said the artifacts and the stories they tell aren’t about his interpretation.
He doesn’t study the past in order to teach people their own history, filtered through Western sensibilities. He does it to restore that history to the people to whom it belongs.
“I think all of archaeology, if it is done correctly, is in a sense trying to reconstruct the past,” he said. “But as much as possible, to reconstruct it from the standpoint of those who lived that past.”
In that sense, the artifacts themselves—even the Miraculous Medal—are just symbols. “The Crossroads aren’t just items they placed below the floor,” he said. “They are meant to do something, to provide some level of control in their lives.”
The Crossroads, represented by the careful placement of objects at specific locations, offer more proof that Africans brought to America against their will weren’t just dark-skinned versions of the white people around them, he said.
“There was a really active life in the slave community that we don’t give slaves credit for,” he said. “They adapted to things in ways that were clearly West African.”
That’s not news to the descendants of those early African-Americans, Brown said. “Every culture knows its own history. I can suggest what might have happened, but I don’t think my version is any more correct than theirs.”