In 2020, PVAMU President Ruth Simmons and Simmons Center for Race & Justice Director Melanye Price asked PVAMU History Professor Dr. Marco Robinson to begin conducting research into the early history of Prairie View A&M University. He asked a group of scholars in the Division of Social Sciences to conduct their own personal investigations and incorporate research projects into their American History survey courses. With no funding at his disposal, Dr. Robinson also worked with a newly-hired public historian, Dr. T. DeWayne Moore, and the PVAMU archivists–Phyllis Earles and Lisa Stafford–to write a series of grant proposals.
One of the most startling discoveries in the initial months was the fact that we did not know the name of a single person who had been enslaved on the plantation that later became PVAMU. Thus, we had no way to track down the descendants of the formerly enslaved people who lived at Alta Vista.
This blog post reveals the first name we discovered in 2021.
What’s in a Name?
For African Americans, the genealogical research process is painful. It reflects the blunt historical truth about hereditary chattel slavery. Historical researchers do not look for evidence about the existence of people. Instead, we need to trace the way property changed hands. Consider the documents associated with buying a house or vehicle in 2023. Slaves were considered property in the nineteenth century, and we can find records associated with slaves. But those records are in the owner’s name.
The 1850 and 1860 censuses included “slave schedules,” and the census enumerators asked slaveowners to list the ages and genders of the enslaved people they held in bondage. The slave schedules, however, do not include their names. This fact has made it difficult to track down the descendants of the people enslaved at Alta Vista.
Jared Ellison Kirby
Slaveowner, Planter, and Confederate Soldier
One of the first steps in the research process was examining the life of Jared Ellison Kirby, the slaveowner and planter who owned the land on which the university sits before the Civil War. An excellent place to learn more about the lives of Americans in the nineteenth century is Ancestry.com, the world’s largest collection of online family history records and government documents.
The slave schedules in the 1860 United States Census reveal that J. E. Kirby owned 159 slaves–more than any other slave owner in Austin County at that time.
Besides census records and slave schedules, we located the manifest of the ship named Galveston, which transported slaves from New Orleans, Louisiana to Galveston, Texas in May 1858 for a domestic slave trading company, Fellows & Co.
Though an 1807 law banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States as of 1 January 1808, slaves could still be bought and sold (and transported) within the country. The same law that banned the foreign slave trade also regulated the internal transportation of slaves, requiring masters of vessels carrying slaves in coastal waters to provide a manifest detailing their slave cargo when leaving (“outward”) or entering (“inward”) a port.
The ship manifest contains the name of one person who likely lived at Kirby’s enslaved labor plantation, Alta Vista, in then-Austin County, Texas.
Source: The National Archives in Washington, DC; Washington, DC; Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860; Microfilm Serial: M1895; Microfilm Roll: 30.
Slave Ship Galveston
In May 1858, Captain Rathburn transported a fifteen year-old woman, who was five feet, one inch tall, on the Galveston.
Her name was Lucinda.
No consolidated database of slave ship manifests exists, but Ancestry.com is an important online resource that brings some of these records together in searchable database. Other primary sources–such as wills, estate inventories, deeds, and probates–can also reveal how human property changed hands in the antebellum period, but these records are often difficult to read, and most of them are not digitized or indexed for easy searching. Yet, a couple of genealogists who work with the Waller County Historical Commission have been working hard to digitize the records in the basement of the Waller County courthouse in Hempstead. Since Waller County did not exist until 1873, however, this effort will not provide much insight into antebellum slavery.
Indeed, it will be very difficult to track down the descendants of people enslaved at Alta Vista, but the increased interest in university history and digital preservation has positively changed the prospects for institutional historians at PVAMU. If we try harder to make the archival collections at PVAMU available—and visible and searchable—online, and if white researchers who find evidence of slaveholding in their families will make family documents public, for Black researchers to access and use, we can discover the names of more enslaved people in Waller County.
Our mission at the Digital PV Panther Project is to eliminate historical silences through digital storytelling and prevent the erasure of African American history through historic preservation at PVAMU.
My name is Kasedi Eason, and I started working as an archival assistant on the Digital PV Panther Project in late August 2022. I document my work on the project daily, and it allows me to share with the public my experience in the archives. On August 31st, for example, I started to examine the archival media in the Cooperative Extension & Home Demonstration Collection, specifically he photographs taken by Cooperative Extension agents to demonstrate their work in the rural African American communities in Texas. The county agents worked very hard to improve the quality of life in rural communities through scientific farming and homemaking. Considering that so many of these communities no longer exist, and that the number of Black landowners significantly declined in the 1950s, this collection is especially significant because it documents the Black experience in Texas Freedom Colonies.
A future aspect of the Digital PV Panther Project will be adding data to the WebAtlas of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project–an educational and social justice initiative dedicated to supporting the preservation of Black settlement landscapes, heritage, and grassroots preservation practices through research.
1940s Map of Texas Freedom Colonies in Grimes County
Courtesy of the Special Collections & Archives Department (SCAD), John B. Coleman Library, PVAMU
One family loading their luggage into a Cooperative Extension Service Vehicle
Courtesy of the Special Collections & Archives Department (SCAD), John B. Coleman Library, PVAMU
Meticulous data entry
The CE&HD Collection contains documents, maps, and photographs that date back to the 1920s, and the county agents wrote about all their activities–from growing crops, to raising farm animals, to constructing houses. The agents also maintained meticulous records that detailed how much money they spent on each project.
100 years of records
I found it very interesting how the cursive handwriting was readable, and my work on the Digital PV Panther Project has instilled a better appreciation for the manuscripts in the archives. Indeed, I am grateful that these collections were preserved and not thrown away, and I look forward to making this collection available to researchers. Some of the records are over one hundred years old!
Children at Morgan School (Guadalupe County) exercising in 1933 exercises, with agent supervising
Courtesy of the Special Collections & Archives Department (SCAD), John B. Coleman Library, PVAMU
I am also proud to work on the social media team for the Digital PV Panther Project. I have created multiple TikTok videos showcasing my work as an archival assistant, and I am glad to put my skillset to work promoting the archival collections at PVAMU. For example, the TikTok video to the left demonstrates the vast amount of archival media in the CE&HD Collection.
This project also gave the opportunity to work with some amazing scholars of African American History, specifically anthropologist Myeshia Babers–a professor of Africana Studies at Texas A&M University, who conducted interviews with several members of the team. Dr. Babers agreed to conduct interviews with archival assistants shortly after the project began, and she plans to edit the interviews for future publication online. In fact, we hope to expand the scope of our social media output by creating a Youtube channel, and we plan to publish the interviews with Dr. Babers to get us started. During my interview on September 2, I explained about my work thus far on the project, and I prognosticated about what I expect to get out of this job. It should be interesting to compare my initial interview with the interview we plan to conduct at the end of the project.
The following week, Dr. Moore organized a team meeting with University Archivist Ms. Phyllis Earles, who invited Dr. Musa Olaka, the library director, and Karl Henson, the assistant library director, to speak to us. Dr. Olaka told us about the benefits and opportunities we had working on this project, and he explained that Dr. Moore had written over $700,000 in grants to fund this project and hire students to do the work of historic preservation at PVAMU. None of our archival collections are processed, and the only real finding aids that we have are the ones that Dr. Moore wrote a grant to produce last year. Dr. Olaka told us that other students who worked for Ms. Earles and Dr. Moore had gone on to stellar careers, and his words have certainly inspired us to work harder and achieve the goals of the Digital PV Panther Project.
At the meeting, we also talked about our progress on the project, and Dr. Moore compiled a project guidebook, which contains rules, guidelines, and instructions for various aspects of the project–from social media curation, to blogging, and the addition of media to Wordpress. One of my fellow archival assistants, Malachi McMahon, also took a moment to stress the significance of the project. His research has provided some of the most insightful and engaging blog posts to date, and it shows in his drive and determination to make positive changes in the world.
On September 27, I created a Tiktok video about the Abner Davis Memorial, which is the focus of Malachi’s best blog post to date (Click HERE to read it). The memorial is located on campus in front of the George Ruble Woolfolk Building. Abner Davis was a member of the varsity football team in 1927, and he broke his neck while trying to make a tackle against Texas College on Thanksgiving Day. He passed away due to the severity of the injuries. Since he was recognized as a great example of student success at PVAMU, his classmates and teammates created several different memorials over the years to their fallen hero.
In the past couple of weeks, my work has focused on creating inventories spreadsheets for the numerous boxes in the CE&HD Collection, and I have also helped edit the finding aids of 31 former professors and administrators. We hope to complete the finding aids before October 31st. I have also developed a list of ideas for upcoming social media posts and TikTok videos.
Though I have only been an archival assistant for two months, I have gained a sincere appreciation for historic preservation during that time, and I have developed a much clearer understanding of the importance of the Digital PV Panther Project.
We plan to prevent the erasure of African American History by all means available to us, and I could not be more excited about the future!
The Abner A. Davis Memorial has existed in one form or another on “The Hill” in front of the George Ruble Woolfolk Building at Prairie View A&M University since his death in December 1927. As a student at PVAMU, I have taken many walks across campus to get from my room in University Village Phase 3 to my morning classes. Since I lived at the back of campus, I had to pass Mr. Davis and the fountain quite often. Though I passed his memorial on numerous occasions, I never really took the time to learn about the history of the memorial or the man. This blog post intends to shine a light on a “gentleman, clean sport, athlete and ideal student,” as one former teammate referred to him, as well as the history of historic preservation and memorialization at PVAMU.
Abner A. Davis was a member of the varsity football team at Prairie View A&M University in 1927. The Panthers were especially good that year. In an October 15, 1927 issue of the student newspaper, one writer exclaimed: “Never before in all footballdom at the college did the Prairie View Panthers show better form and finer spirits than have been shown this season. Vigorous, springy, and full of grit and fighting determination, the Panthers will be greatly disappointing to everybody if they do not smash and stop every gridiron machine that confronts them.” To view the entire article, please click HERE
In a game against Texas College the following month, Davis went to make a tackle on the opposing team and was severely injured during the play. He was hit in his neck by the offensive player’s knee, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Since his injury came in the middle of an away game, the Panthers finished playing the game and carried Davis back to campus. It’s unclear whether or not the team was victorious.
The doctor that treated Davis from November 24 through December 5 stated that he suffered from “paralysis” stemming from the “fracture or displacement of the 3[rd] & 4th cervical vertebrae.” While the doctor confirmed his diagnosis with an X-ray, Davis underwent no surgery prior to his demise on December 5. According to his death certificate, Hempstead undertaker E.L. Watson removed his remains for burial in Eagle Lake, TX on December 8.
The location of his grave, however, remains the subject of debate. In a March 12, 2012 article in the Beaumont Times titled, “Where’s Abner?” David Lisenby reported that the librarian at the Alma M. Carpenter Public Library in Sour Lake, Texas, who was on a mission to find the descendants of Davis, believed that he was buried somewhere in the town of Sour Lake. Yet, Lisenby never reveals the source of this information, and it directly contradicts the information on his death certificate.
Even though no one has ever located the headstone of Abner Davis, his classmates at PVAMU made sure to memorialize his legacy in numerous ways over the years. In a 1933 issue of the Prairie View Panther, one author wrote a poem about the gridiron hero. To view the original poem, please click HERE
IN MEMORY OF ABNER DAVIS (P. U. Hero)
Sleep, 0 brave one, in glory’s field, Time to your name shall honor yield; The summer shall their blooms impart. To fade above each mold’ring heart And fading, mix their lustrous charms With dust that bore heroic arms.
In a January 1934 issue of the Prairie View Standard, one of his teammates L.C. Mosley penned a memoriam to Abner Davis, and he reveals that the first physical memorial to Davis came in the form of light. “The light in the center of the campus proper,” he explained, “is more than just a light to illuminate the path to the library. It represents the life of a gentleman, clean sport, athlete and ideal student, Abner Davis, who was fatally injured in a Thanksgiving Day football game against Texas College in Tyler, 1927. The classes of ’29 and ’30 made it possible for this light to shine in its way as the living light of this football warrior had shone. The entire Alumni mourn with Henry Staton, A. J. Banks, M. C. Bates, S. Prince, L. C. Mosley, O. Mason, Jap Turner, G. Turner, J. J. Mark and Pop Singleton who started and finished the game that Abner started and could not finish.”
The demolition of Kirby Hall as well as “all wooden structures in the immediate campus area” in April 1934 (news about the razing of the slave mansion can be found in a newsletter HERE) provided an opportunity to install a new monument on “The Hill.” The teammates and classmates of Davis decided the replace the monument to slavery with a new symbol in the late 1930s.
A drinking fountain and memorial in honor of Abner A. Davis soon adorned the top of “The Hill,” and student organizations used the fountain as the site of many activities for the next four decades. In 1957, the Student Welfare Committee affirmed the need to beautify campus and spearheaded a “College Clean-Up Campaign involving both faculty and students in an effort to make Pantherland ideal.” Making the first step in this direction, the committee polished the Abner Davis Fountain and “put signs on the lawn asking students to use the sidewalks, thus avoiding making trails through the campus.” [For the entire article, please click HERE]
In 1961, PVAMU student Lois Moore noted that the center of “campus is designated with a water fountain known as the Abner Davis water fountain. Many clubs and organizations meet periodically around this fountain…but many students on the campus do not know why these clubs meet here.” Moore also noted, “Although the fountain no longer exists as a water fountain, it is still the cultural center of the campus.” [For the entire article, please click HERE]
In March 1963, the LES BEAUX ARTS Cultural Club renovated the Abner Davis Memorial. The fountain that once was stained and weather worn has now been conditioned for a new year. “This improvement has certainly played a great role in making the ‘center’ of the campus, all the more attractive, for our yearly high school visitors.” For more information, click HERE
On January 16, 1984, PVAMU observed the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized a special program in the quadrangle area of the campus at the Abner Davis Fountain. For more information, click HERE
In July 1984, the Class of 1930 renovated the Abner A. Davis Monument and added the Texas Sunset Granite. For more information, click HERE
The mystery about the location of Davis’ remains gives rise to many questions about the impact of racial segregation on his life and legacy. Being that his death occurred in the Jim Crow South, he would not have had access to quality medical care, and his death might very well have been prevented.
One day while walking across campus, I watched as landscapers blew freshly cut grass off the concrete walkway. It created a clean path for students. It was at this moment that I noticed the bust on top of the Abner A. Davis Memorial was covered with spiderwebs, leaves, and dirt, and I started to question why no one around campus had taken the time to clean the statue. The grass is always freshly mowed and looks pristine. Indeed, the lawn on campus is cut and trimmed almost daily, and I rarely see any accumulation of trash on the ground.
So I asked myself, “Why is the Davis memorial not well kept?”
The unsightly appearance of the Abner Davis Memorial was on my mind when I walked into work the next day for the Digital PV Panther Project, and I shared my concerns with Dr. Moore. I let him know about the condition of the memorial and how it was not well-kept, and we agreed that we should take matters into our own hands and clean it up.
At the time, we did not know that we were following in the footsteps of many other students and faculty at PVAMU, who had been dissatisfied with existing preservation practices and made it a point to beautify the campus. Thus, we gathered some cleaning materials and headed for the memorial. We began by dusting off the spider webs, which had certainly built up for several years. Once we removed the spider webs, we sprayed the bust clean with water, and we cleaned it with D2 biological solution, an organic cleaning solution that removes fungi and provides a protective coating for the memorial. We also wiped the memorial clean from top to bottom with a soft bristle brush. When we finished cleaning I felt very accomplished and proud to have played a role in keeping the campus beautiful.
This job has given me a new perspective on what it means to study at PVAMU. Many students, faculty, staff, and administrators have paved the way for us, and I believe that other students need to recognize that fact. If we are not careful, we will discount the sacrifices of the past. We must appreciate our history as an HBCU, and I will make strenuous efforts to share insights with my peers so that our heroes, such as Abner Davis, will never be forgotten.