Texas to celebrate area founded by black cowboys

TEXAS CITY, Texas (AP) - The settlement was founded in large part by black cowboys, who were part of the Chisom Trail cattle drives...

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TEXAS CITY, Texas (AP) — An area in Texas City that 143 years ago was settled by former slaves now is on the list as one of the recognized historical places in the nation.

The 1867 Settlement, located in what is now West Texas City, earned the listing on the National Register of Historic Places in May, but descendants of the first settlers are preparing to celebrate next summer when the city marks its 100th birthday.

The settlement was founded in large part by black cowboys, who were part of the Chisom Trail cattle drives, on 320 acres that was divided into three-acre tracts for recently freed slaves who could supply “testimonies of good standing and industrious habit,” according to the settlement’s history documents prepared by the Galveston County Historical Commission. For more than a 100 years, it thrived as a self-sufficient African-American community and included general stores and churches, as well as small farms and houses of the settlers.

Descendants of four of the black cowboys who worked for the Butler Ranch in what is now the League City area and were founders of the settlement — Calvin Bell, Thomas Britton, Thomas Caldwell and David Hobgood — still are very much a part of the community.

While the memory of the settlement was handed down through the generations and within the West Texas City and La Marque communities, very little was known about the significance of the settlement, especially in providing former slaves with the opportunity for economic and social growth after the Civil War. It also was the only independent African-American community in the county.

By 1874, the settlement had its first church and school and its first cattle rancher.

Bell, who has been a tallyman for the Butler Ranch cattle roundups, bartered some of his pay for some cattle. When he settled in the area in 1874, he became the first African-American in the county to have a registered cattle brand.

Meanwhile, his wife, Katie, was named the first teacher at the new school where children and adults went to learn.

The school actually was in the one-room church founded by the Rev. Israel Campbell.

Because the church was pretty much the center of life in the settlement, residents began referring to the community as Campbellville in honor of the pastor. Still, the official name was Our Settlement, which eventually was shortened to Settlement.

That name, too, went away when in 1911 — the same year Texas City was founded — the rail station located in the community was named Highland Station.

As was the case in many communities then, the name of the railroad depot became the name of the community. So the area became known as The Highlands.

The community thrived until, ironically, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended school and community segregation.

With opportunities available in non-African-American communities that had not been available before, many of the younger residents of the settlement area moved to other communities.

A few years ago, some of the descendants of the community joined forces with the Galveston County Historical Society to record, preserve and document the history of the community as part of an effort to recognize the history of African-American residents in the county.

That effort included research done by students of the La Marque school district.

Their hard work was recognized when the History Channel provided grant dollars so that historical markers could be put on areas that include the old Bell house.

Last year, the state historical commission toured the property to consider it for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. In May, the national recognition was announced.

Now, the descendants of the original Settlement families and the historical association are preparing the property for next year’s celebration, which is scheduled to coincide with the Lincoln-Woodland alumni reunion.

To be ready, the historical commission needs about $2,000 to pay for plaques to put on the property confirming its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.