Yesterday afternoon I waded through part of the old Mumford burying ground. Mumford is a hamlet on a low sandy terrace in the midst of the Brazos River floodplain, about twelve miles from here. The terrace is a relic of an older floodplain, formed in the depths of the Pleistocene, and it now stands about five feet above the general level. Five feet may not sound like much, but it sufficed for the terrace to protrude as an island when the undammed Brazos rose and flooded its environs.
When Jesus said it was a foolish man who built his house upon the sand, he was not, perhaps, considering the plight of men whose only alternative was to build on flood-prone mud. Placed in this plight, the wise men of Mumford built their houses upon the sand, and when the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on those houses, those houses mostly did not fall. Except in the great flood of 1899, when they mostly did.
In 1868 a sojourner in Mumford described it as “a noted place of much resort for the bottom clodhoppers,” by which he meant the agricultural laborers, then mostly Black, that farmed the bottoms around Mumford on shares. As the sojourner explained,
Its freedom from the obnoxious mud . . . and the easy acquisition here of the ever-glorious glass of grog, makes it a great point of attraction to the countless number of freedmen inhabiting the surrounding bottom. All of these, irrespective of age, size, or condition in life, could be seen with a navy six- shooter and an Arkansas ‘tooth pick’ suspended to a raw-hide belt buckled around their waists . . . . It has been an established and ever-prevailing custom, from the incipiency of their freedom, for them to abandon business and repair to these prairie grogshops early Saturday morning, to remain until Monday morning, drinking, gambling, horse-racing, quarreling, and sometimes fighting.*
It was in the hope of obtaining agricultural laborers amenable to a six-day work week that a local landlord recruited Italian sharecroppers in the 1880s. Descendants of these Italians now own much of the surrounding bottom. When the first Italians began to rise above the rank of “bottom clodhoppers,” Mexicans stepped into their places behind mules, or at the business ends of hoes, or as the proletarian possessors of two cotton-picking hands. And the mortal remains of these clodhopping Catholics now rest in the sandy soil of these forsaken graves.**
*) A. B. Greenlief, Ten Years in Texas (Selma, Alabama: W. G. Boyd, 1881).
**) Clodhopper is not with me a slur.
Clodhopping is honest toil
‘Though hard and poorly paid
Years bent over lumpy soil
Then underneath it laid.