The first Black legislator in Texas history is being remembered as part of the creation of a new African-American memorial at a park in Kendleton, southwest of Rosenberg. The community was one the first freedmen’s towns in Texas – founded by freed slaves in the 1860s.
Benjamin Franklin Williams was a former enslaved individual-turned State Representative, one of 10 Black constitutional delegates during Reconstruction, and one of the forefathers of Kendleton, Texas. He died 136 years ago and is buried in Kendleton, which is on the edge of Fort Bend County.
Now, Fort Bend County’s Commissioner Dexter L. McCoy has announced a landmark $4 million investment into the very same community Williams helped establish.
“Kendleton, one of the very first freedmen’s communities established after Emancipation, is home to a breadth of important, yet underrecognized Texas history,” McCoy said.
The money will be used to redevelop part of Bates Allen Park, including the preservation of two historic Black cemeteries and a memorial to honor Fort Bend County’s sometimes forgotten African-American History. The site will include a series of trails, one that will connect the two Black historic cemeteries, Newman Chapel Cemetery and Oak Hill Cemetery, to a Juneteenth Plaza reflection pond, a 3-stories-tall monument, and potentially a learning center.
A rich history
Fort Bend County is one of three counties in Texas with official records of lynching and African-American history that range from accounts of lynching, slavery, convict-leasing and the establishment of a Freedmen’s Town, and the first-ever Black elected officials.
McCoy said creating the memorial allows people to learn about untold history in Fort Bend County.
“We have a really unique opportunity here in Fort Bend to tell the full story about the Black experience in this country,” he said.
Kendleton’s descendants also include Barbara Jordan, the legendary Houston Congresswoman whose father preached to the community, as well as Walter Moses Burton, the first African-American Sheriff in Fort Bend County history.
“This memorial will commemorate the Black experience, not only in Fort Bend County, but in Texas, and really be reflective of the stories from Kendleton all the way to Congress and beyond,” McCoy said.
Investing in the community
Commissioner McCoy was joined by a bipartisan medley of local officials, reflecting the apolitical, unifying nature of this solemn project. Former Congressman Pete
Olson, architect Gregory Hines, and Kendleton Mayor Darryl K. Humphrey, Sr. along with other elected officials were present for the festivities.
Olson was outspoken and passionate about the importance of the investment and the legacy that it speaks to. The former Republican congressman said, “This is a great day – a celebration of the heart and soul of Fort Bend County.”
Olson recently found Williams’ tombstone buried face-down in the mud while conducting a research project, and has since led a months-long community service effort to restore the dilapidated burial sites.
“I was surprised, angry, disgusted and hurt by what happened to his grave, and every grave in this park,” he said.
Local organizations were on hand for the recent memorial announcent, including direct descendants and family members of those buried here.
McCoy says they will host community engagement sessions to help imagine the programmatic aspects of the memorial, including subsequent additions and next steps.
“This is going to be a multi-phase project which will require a great deal of community support.”
McCoy envisions the memorial being in line with some of the most prominent African-American memorials across the country, but admits more funding would be needed.
“This is going to be something that people will travel the world to see if we do this correctly,” he said.
The first phase of construction is expected to get underway this year. In the coming month, Fort Bend County will announce public engagement sessions to allow for community input on what type of programs or events they would like to see at the memorial site.