Nonfiction — “New Territory for Old Slavery”

In 2019, New Territory is concentric circles of green grass cloistered by brick houses, brick walls, brick veins. The streets have pretty names like Whisper Ridge and Rippling Creek and Silver Lake, imagining a lost era of folkishness, only this is the knees of Houston and there never was whispering, rippling, or silver anything, only marshland turned to farmland turned to homeland.

The suburb wears a coat of trees which make the residents hostile when the government cuts them down, arguing that the trees have history, roots, are more than shadow-makers, but no one mentions that they were planted, full-grown, in the late nineties alongside the people. A militia of invisible gardeners marches through the parks, and when the trees are bare-limbed, none can tell if the leaves were individually picked or if it’s Late Winter.

An aerial photo in George Memorial Library shows a different New Territory.

In 1986, a small clump of silver petals comprised Houston Proper, and surrounding it were wild marshes being converted into pale fields of sugarcane, cotton, and corn. A railroad like a blocked vein shoved south, a track that carted sugar and blood and today annoys the residents of New Territory when it impedes traffic, but comforts them when they lie in their beds listening to its shaking manmade storm of churning gears and clunking bars—a nighttime reminder that the World is Alive.

If the residents of New Territory could look toward the railroad track that swings around their periphery, I mean really look, pulling back the horizon to 1986, they might feel a little less pride about their man-laid paradise. They would see an image stolen from the South and the Days of Slavery: black men, waxed in mud, picking at stalks of cotton. Behind them, white men on horseback carrying shotguns. Further back: plantation houses called Central Unit but sometimes Central State Prison Farm.

There would be differences. Instead of mule-wed wagon, a pickup truck would sit in the corner of the field, and from an ice chest a man in aviators would distribute red-and-white colas to the mounted guard. The residents might even be blinded by the glint of cars on Hwy 6 and 90A.

This was the new, justifiable Slavery. It didn’t matter what they did: murder, or try to murder, carry a gun or a rock, protest, or be caught wearing skin. The prison took them and put them to work. Six days a week.

But the residents of New Territory don’t have to be time travelers to see the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery which sits on a green robe behind Starbucks. Crows peck at the mushy ground leading up to concentric chain-fences, one short and blue, the other tall as a man. No road leads to the graveyard, nor is there a place to park. Padlocks and the invisible threat of Town Hall are the ultimate impediment for anyone who wants to walk among the dead. Instead, the residents must be content to look from a hundred feet distance at ancient brown monuments, like upturned logs, and a white-wood cross.

Sharp eyes might see a headstone marked “Taylor Loom, Drowned Trying to Escape.” The rest are a haze except for name and date, name and date, as if nothing more needed to be said.