Sunday, August 17, 2003

Sam Ashworth

In the summer of 1856, tensions between the Ashworths and those Whites who felt the Ashworths should be eliminated came to a head when an Ashworth was accused of stealing hogs by a White man. The young man's cousin, Sam Ashworth, when getting the young man out of jail, had an exchange of words with a White man. Family tradition says the man, by the name of Deputy, called Sam a "hog stealin' nigger." Sam called him out, probably promising to whip his sorry ass right there on the spot in front of God and neighbor. Deputy declined, but went to the justice of the peace and swore a warrant out for Sam for "talking sass to a White man." Sam had to appear in court on the charge. First it had to be proved that Sam was indeed a non-White. The evidence consisted of White people getting on the stand and saying they knew Sam to have some Black blood in him somewhere in his distant genealogy. That was it. Sam was found guilty and sentenced to be publicly whipped.

Sam was allowed to escape from jail by the sheriff who himself was allied more with the Ashworths than the White parties. Sam went off down the swamp and stayed with relatives. Well, story goes, a bunch of the boys, first cousins for the most part, got drunk and Sam decided he was going to have a little instant justice for himself. He and his first cousin, Jack Bunch, took their guns and put out in a pirogue on Cow Bayou looking for the man who started the whole ruckus, Deputy.

He came along soon enough and Sam and Jack intercepted him. I imagine Sam told the s.o.b. to get right with God, and then shot him. The other man in the boat escaped and went back to town with a story about being ambushed by Sam Ashworth and Jack Bunch. A mob formed demanding the sheriff arrest the two and bring them back to town for hanging. The sheriff dutifully went out looking for Sam and Jack, staying out several days before coming back in saying he couldn't find hide nor hair of them, and that they must of fled the state back over to the Neutral territory which was now a part of Louisiana, but still another jurisdiction.

The mob decided to go out on their own and look for Sam and Jack. They went to the homes of other Ashworths and their cousins and proceeded to burn their homes and barns. The Ashworths and their cousins formed their own posse and burned a few barns of their own. After a few weeks of this, the state sent in its authority whether by Rangers or militia is uncertain, but the State's authority came down against the Ashworths who were forced to flee Texas.

Jack and Sam had taken refuge, not in the Neutral Territory, but San Antonio where Jack was recognized and arrested. He was brought back to Beaumont where he was tried and hanged. Sam was never captured. He later died serving in the Army of the Confederacy at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. (I can't remember right now. I'll come back later and fill in the blanks.)

About Race

Someone once said to me when I protested being considered African-American that it was no shame being Black. I quickly responded, "It's no honor either, especially if you're not."

I don't mind that history says I descend from Texas' most famous Black family. What I object to was that all it took to convict us of being Black in the early 1800s was an accusation. Not that we were afforded the opportunity to defend against the accusation, but how does one disprove something as nefarious as the race of your great-grandparents? That was then and this is now, right? Wrong. Now, 150 to 200 years later, contemporary historians are validating the racist, kangaroo courts of the early 19th century by saying yes, indeed, we were Black, without the addition of a single piece of evidence. That's what bugs me the most about this argument.
Texas, continued

Colored Outside the Lines

When Texas was a part of Mexico, the Ashworths were no different from their American neighbors. They obtained land, managed herds of cattle and hogs, and lived in relative peace with their neighbors. Some of their neighbors may have considered them "Not White," but few mentioned it to their face. Racism as a state institution may have been coming into being, but its enforcement required one to be able to shoot and fight, and few challenged the manpower of the Ashworths and their allied families or their willingness to fight to protect what was theirs. My point being, no one called us "niggers" to our face.

But racism in the South was more than just personal animosity, it was enforced by the state. In the 25 years between independence from Mexico and the start of the Civil War, the Ashworths and their allied families fought the attempts by the state to marginalize them. When William Ashworth and Diedre Gallier were charged with cohabitating (their marriage not recognized by the state of Texas), they took their case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, only to lose. There were 15 indictments returned against the Ashworth family for various offences involving their marriage to Whites. Often they just paid the fines and went on with their lives. More often, they looked to their cousins for spouses. I'm not sure where the line was with cousins, historically, but growing up in East Texas, marriage between first cousins and their offspring were off limits, and between second cousins it was discouraged. My aunt married a second cousin and she and her husband were shunned for the first several years. On the other hand, third cousins were fair game.

When wronged by neighbors, the Ashworths sued; and their neighbors sued them. They were in all respects like their neighbors, just darker. By the laws of the Republic of Texas and subsequently by the State of Texas, people considered non-White were not allowed to own property. The Ashworths owned property; owned slaves, too. We have no record of any of the Ashworths or their allied families voting or running for office. I'm not even sure they could read. They did form churches, White churches.

My point here is not to claim that we didn't have Black blood. Probably we did. Don't know for sure. My question to present day historians, is why do you paint us today with the same racist brush you used 150 years ago?

Here's a group of people, white identified, having few or none of the racial markers characteristic of Blacks, but marginalized by the dominant society with only the accusation of being mixed blood.