Growing up in Beaumont’s when non-integrated schools, other children often asked Ramona Young, “What are you?”
“I sort of instinctively knew that was sort of a wrong question to ask somebody,” Young said. “It was early the 70s when I first started consciously being aware of that. I just would be, ‘I’m white. My parents are white. We live in a white neighborhood. I go to a white school.’ ”
As Young got older, she became more interested in ancestry and finding out more about her heritage.
Through Ancestry.com results and research, Young learned that both of her parents had connection to regional “redbone” families.
“Redbones are a group of people descended from families that migrated around 1803 from North and South Carolina, after the Louisiana purchase, to the Southwest area of Louisiana and the Southeast area of Texas that roughly coincides with the Neutral Strip,” Young said. “They were ‘free people of color’ and were originally called the ‘Carolina Mulattos’ when they first settled.”
Redbones were listed in various ways in the 19th century census reports, mostly as Mulattos or Black. In a few cases, they were logged as white, Young said.
“By the turn of the 20th century, when allowed to self-identify on census reports, nearly all identified as white,” Young said. “Redbone was a derogatory term to describe them up until the last 30 years, where now it is a term most proudly self-identify.”
Young found several traces of redbone heritage in her own ancestry.
“I look in the mirror, and I see traces of my ancestors,” Young said. “It’s been very important for me to reconnect with that heritage and to celebrate that heritage and to embrace that heritage.”
During her research, Young discovered that she is related to several individuals, who have ties to the Ashworths — one of the first families of free people of color in Southeast Texas.
In 1831, William Ashworth moved to Beaumont as a free person of color and received a large land grant. William then convinced three of his brothers to join him in Southeast Texas.
“There were four of them here and together, mainly William, they had the largest land, largest cattle concern, largest ranch in Jefferson County,” Young said. “They were fairly well off, they did very well for themselves.”
The Ashworths spent the next nine years building relationships with their neighbors and building up their land property.
The Texas Congress, on Feb. 4, 1840, passed an act to prohibit on free people of color from immigrating into the country. They added a provision that all free people of color who were in Texas had to leave by the Jan. 1, 1842.
“So, you have the Ashworths — the largest landowners in Jefferson County, among the wealthiest people there, who contributed to the freeing of the country from Mexico — and they are now under the gun,” Young said.
Free people of color still in Texas after the deadline were auctioned off to the highest bidder as a slave for life.
However, community members, who were supportive and impressed by the Ashworths, petitioned to allow them to stay in Jefferson County as free people of color.
“In fact, all agreed that the act of February 1840, would ‘operate oppressively upon the said Ashworths,’ and they therefore asked Congress to exempt them from its general scope,” Jason Gilmer wrote in his book, Shades of Gray: The Life and Times of a Free Family of Color on the Texas Frontier. “In an attached petition on behalf of just William and his brother Abner, 72 citizens from Jefferson noted how the two, despite being ‘free persons of color,’ had ‘contributed generously to the advancement of the Revolution.’”
The law, which became known as the “Ashworth Act,” allowed the Ashworths to stay in Jefferson County and remain free.
However, over the years, the Ashworths were increasingly singled out because of their race, according to civil court documents.
Eventually, Sam Ashworth got so angry that in 1956, he killed local deputy Samuel Deputy, who claimed Clark Ashworth had butchered his hogs.
When Sam Ashworth eventually was arrested, most of the Ashworths left Jefferson County.
“Following the events of 1856, a few of the Ashworths started trickling back into Orange County to join one or two who might have remained,” Gillmer wrote. “But the tax records reveal that it was only those families of the older generations, who has proved their worth and earned enough respect from the early settlers to live in the county now openly hostile to free people of color.”
Intrigued by the story and realizing her ties, Young, who is a drama teacher, and her partner Andy Coughlan, a local writer and director, began working together to research and write a play about the Ashworths.
With Young as the researcher and Coughlan as the writer, the two started to write “Exempt” during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are currently still working on and workshopping the play.
Coughlan said they chose to tell the story in part because it is “legitimate, interesting and historical.”
“It’s a story that deserves to be told and being able to tell it through the medium of theatre makes it accessible,” Coughlan said. “There are some journal articles and stuff that are in academia, they’re not very widely (accessible). The idea of being able to go see this and experience the history in a way that is hopefully entertaining and informative at the same time, seemed like a good project to take on.”
For Coughlan, writing the play is about telling a story that needs to be made more accessible than it currently is. He wants to be able to reach people who haven’t heard it or read the academic articles.
“This is very much a personal because it’s history, it’s (Young’s) hometown,” Coughlan said. “I’m looking at it thinking this is a story, that is a good story (that) deserves to be told and I think in that sense, it has a wider impact.”
Young hopes the play will touch Beaumont residents in particular.
“I hope … the citizens of Beaumont will hear a story that they never heard before about free people of color and that that’ll be inspiring,” Young said. “Black kids in our schools today, in Beaumont, they don’t hear very many stories about the contributions that people of color made here in Jefferson County, in Beaumont.”
Young said she also wants to tell fellow residents a story of people they may be related or connected to in some way.
“There’s also a part of it that’s like for just a moment, you see the progress that was starting to be made when people were judging other people based on their character and their contribution, which is what the citizens of Beaumont were doing for the Ashworths,” Young said. “It didn’t go all the way to I don’t see color anymore and I don’t see you as a person of color anymore, but it was way up there in their respect. Then over a period of 20 years, polarization and hate washed all that away. “
Young said the story is important to tell, especially in Southeast Texas, because it shows how people can look past race and instead focus on character — and how quickly those impulses can flip again.
“It’s like a cautionary tale,” Young said. “They say history repeats itself and it does.”
Editor’s Note: Andy Coughlan provides content for The Beaumont Enterprise on a freelance basis.
This story ran in the Feb. 16, 2023 Art of Living section f the Beaumont Enterprise.
2 thoughts on “Local couple use ancestry, Jefferson County history to write play”
I hope to see this on stage some day soon. I know it will happen.