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Published on February 16, 2021

The View from my Seat

Brazoria school that barred her as child now houses Black History Room she helped create

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Every school day in the 1950s, Berniece Smith would board a bus for school.

And every day the bus would roll past the all-white Brazoria Elementary School and drop Smith off at the all-black Henry O. Tanner school, 2 miles farther away.

Years later, after graduating from college and earning her teaching certificate, Smith finally made it to Brazoria Elementary. She was a teacher.

This African-American woman’s journey through segregation earned her and several other graduates of the Tanner school praise in a congressional resolution that was sponsored by then-congressman Ron Paul.

According to the resolution that was read into the Congressional Record during Black History Month in 2008:

“Laws dictating what schools a child can and cannot attend, based solely on that child’s race, are a shameful aspect of America’s history. It is hard to think of a better way to celebrate Black History Month than by honoring those who did not allow the burden of the “Jim Crow” laws to stop them from obtaining an education, and returning to their community to devote their lives to teaching all students.”

Getting named in the Congressional Record wasn’t enough for Smith.

Now retired from formal teaching, Smith is chair of the Black History Room in the Brazoria Historical Museum. The Black History Room is in the very same school building that she was barred from entering as a child and taught in for eight years as an adult.

The old Brazoria Elementary School had been built in 1933 and was saved from destruction in 2003 by the newly-formed Brazoria Heritage Foundation. It was converted into a civic center and museum in an effort to bring the citizens of the community together and honor the great history of the area.

The Black History Room was added to the museum in 2006.

Smith has been a driving force behind the museum, and her personal history makes her a passionate advocate for the museum.

“I tell people who visit that what they are seeing are facts,” she says. “Segregation and slavery really existed.”

In celebration of Black History Month, Smith has planned special events at the museum for each Saturday in February.

The museum features old tools used by the enslaved, a newspaper article advertising the slave trade, old shackles and domestic items used in homes long ago.

“Sometimes people cry when they see things like the shackles,” says Smith.

Most of the items on display were donated from private collections. Smith and the late Billy Sanders were the major donors.

Smith had more to donate, but Hurricane Harvey destroyed her home and ruined art work and many potential museum pieces.

One of the museum’s highlights is the Emancipation Tree, which was carved from a tree under which the Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves after the Civil War. Chevron-Phillips donated the tree from the Sweeny Plantation in Old Ocean.

Hitchcock resident Earl S. Jones called his three-piece carving “Life on the Plantation.”

Many of us in the county know the story of Stephen F. Austin and the first legal settlement of North American families in Mexican-owned Texas in 1821.

Not as many of us know the stories of some of the African-Americans who had an impact on the area. The museum aims to correct that.

The museum features picture displays of:

• Charlie Brown: He was a former slave who, although illiterate, became one of the wealthiest African-Americans in Texas. At one point, Brown was the largest taxpayer in Brazoria County. He has many descendants still in the area.

• Nathan Haller: He was one of the first African-Americans elected to the legislature. He represented Brazoria County during Reconstruction.

• Henry O. Tanner: He was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. The all-black school Smith attended was named after him.

Smith says much of her knowledge comes from listening to her aunts and uncles tell their stories when she was growing up.

She learned what life was like and how hard they had to work.

“Most of the men worked as ranch hands at the Poole Ranch and the women worked in the homes of white families,” Smith says. “We all knew more about what was going on in those families than they did.”

The museum’s hours are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. There is no admission charge but donations are accepted.

If you are lucky, Berniece Smith will be there. She has some stories we all should hear.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)