The ship sailed through Sabine Pass in Port Arthur, at the southeast tip of Texas, carrying a group of at least eight Black men, British subjects from Barbados who’d been granted freedom from slavery. It was April of 1836, around the time of other well-memorialized events in Texas. On board were at least eight Black men, British subjects from Barbados who’d been granted freedom from slavery. Among them were William Gunsil, Edward Hicks, Samuel Redman, April Sashly, Henry Small, William Thomas, Edward Whittaker, and an unnamed man. They came aboard a ship whose captain, John Taylor, had a scheme to sell them back into bondage.

Taylor found interested buyers among some prominent early Texas settlers, including A.B. Hardin, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, and Joseph Grigsby, a representative to the Republic of Texas congress. At the time, Grigsby was just establishing his cotton plantation on top of ancient shell mounds left by the Atakapa tribe along the Neches River. 

Only thanks to an accident of history were these men’s names recorded at the time, and the story of their arrival retold in newspapers and historical journals. Hundreds more came here on slave ships without leaving such a record, before being sold in Texas or Louisiana—smuggled in at a time and place in which slavery itself was legal, but it was against the law to import enslaved people from abroad.

For all of them, there was no visible reminder of their arrival at the mouth of the Sabine—not until a few weeks ago. On a Saturday afternoon in late March, dozens of community members gathered near the waterfront in Port Arthur to dedicate a new marker to the men who arrived aboard that 1836 ship and to all those brought to the area in slavery by sea.

“Between 1817 and 1840, there was legal, and extralegal, trafficking of enslaved Africans into these waters and onto this land. . . . We want to remember them today,” said Tianna Bruno, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, who was raised in Houston and has family in Port Arthur. With songs, dances, and speeches, Black performers and community leaders paid tribute to the memory of those who passed through these waters on their way into a country that was built upon their forced labor. This part of the slave trade is known as the Middle Passage—the journey from Africa to the Americas. 

More than a hundred people turned out for the program, which opened with a traditional dance performance by Houston’s Indigo Diaspora Dance Company, and featured line dancing by Port Arthur’s Golden Foxes senior dance troupe. Port Arthur native Richard Perkins, an opera singer who performed for Martin Luther King Jr. just weeks before King’s assassination, gave a booming rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Perkins told the audience that the music had historic significance. “When you hear these beautiful songs, don’t think that they are just that,” he said. “They were messages that slaves passed on.”

“Commemorating the lives of African ancestors who perished during the Middle Passage and those who survived and were transported through Sabine Pass, Texas,” the plaque reads. The sign features a sankofa bird at the top—a symbol from the Akan people of Ghana that signifies honoring and learning from the past—and a QR code with a link to more about the local history.

The new marker was created through a collaboration between the African American Cultural Society (a nonprofit in Port Arthur) and the Jacksonville, Florida–based Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, which commemorates slave ship landings across the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a typical arrangement for the Middle Passage project, which works with communities and local officials to place markers. That approach ensures there’s buy-in from the community where a marker is to be located, and, at least in Texas, also avoids potential pushback from state officials. The marker in Port Arthur is the group’s second in Texas.

With historical markers and public ceremonies, the Middle Passage project remembers those who arrived on transatlantic journeys from West Africa. In Texas, where the maritime slave trade happened later than in much of the U.S., and often illegally, the markers also commemorate enslaved African people who arrived after a stop in the Caribbean.

“It’s been received very well, because ninety percent of us had no idea. It’s opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” says Gail Pellum, head of the local African American Cultural Society. “Most people want more information. They think we should be having classes, and [are asking], ‘Why isn’t this taught in school?’ That’s exactly why we’re doing it.” In a county where one third of the population is Black—the largest proportion in the state—the marker is a step toward sharing a significant, but little-known, piece of local Black history. 

The story of these new markers in Texas—at a time when state leaders have tried to de-emphasize slavery in favor of a more “patriotic” Texas history that downplays racism—begins with a retired high school choir teacher named Joan Holbert-Hubert. In the early nineties, Holbert-Hubert sang in the chorus in a Houston Grand Opera touring production of “Show Boat,” on its performances in Egypt. It was her first trip to Africa, and she became fascinated with the continent. She went on to visit Ethiopia, and then Senegal, Mali, and Ghana. Inspiration struck in a moment of solitude at Ghana’s Elmina Castle, overlooking the Gulf of Guinea. She remembers watching the waves crash against the seawall when she began to sense they were speaking to her. “And every time the ocean waves would hit, a voice said, ‘Remember me’ . . . and then a voice came back another time and said, ‘Remember us.’ After three or four times, I knew I wasn’t really hallucinating. The oceans speak to you. And I said, ‘Okay, what do I do?’ ”

Joan Holbert-Hubert, who has led efforts to place new historical markers about the Middle Passage in Texas, speaks to the crowd in Port Arthur.
Joan Holbert-Hubert, who has led efforts to place new historical markers about the Middle Passage in Texas, speaks to the crowd in Port Arthur. Patrick Michels
The new marker includes a sankofa bird at the top, which is a symbol from the Akan people of Ghana signifying honoring and learning from the past.
The new marker includes a sankofa bird at the top, which is a symbol from the Akan people of Ghana signifying honoring and learning from the past. Patrick Michels

She began by tracing her family genealogy, searching for her own roots in Africa. As a high school choir director, she brought students from Houston’s Kashmere High School to sing in West Africa. And after she retired from the Houston Independent School District in 2005, she began her work to make this history more visible, to create a learning opportunity that can reach all Texans.

Holbert-Hubert began by applying for a marker along the waterfront in Galveston. She made her initial proposal to the Galveston Historical Foundation in 2015—the first step in a two-year process. She says she had to convince board members that, even at the site of the original Juneteenth, the history of slavery on the island runs far earlier than what’s visible there today. “You have to convince people who think they know their history,” she says. The marker was unveiled in 2017, on a wall at the Texas Seaport Museum, in the shadow of the nineteenth-century tall ship Elissa.

On the stage in Port Arthur, her message for the audience drew on her own experience. “Say the names of your ancestors. If you don’t know, look them up. They’re waiting for you to acknowledge them,” she said. “Look up your history, and find out where you come from. I found mine and I’ve never been the same since.” 

It was Ann Chinn, the founder of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, who finally helped Holbert-Hubert trace her own ancestors back across the Atlantic. She remembers the call she got from Chinn, who told her, “I think I found your ship.” Since 2011, the project has worked with local partners to arrange more than forty markers and ceremonies honoring those who came to North America through the Middle Passage, and the many who perished along the way. Holbert-Hubert says more are in the works soon, including at other locations along the Texas Gulf Coast (though she said it’s too soon to give specifics) and in Biloxi, Mississippi.

To choose its sites, the project relies primarily on a vast database of records collected by another group, the long-running SlaveVoyages project. Since its beginning in the 1960s, the group has collected records of 36,000 voyages, documenting the names of more than 90,000 people who crossed the Atlantic (out of an estimated 12.5 million). The project was led, for a long time, by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, but reorganized in 2021 as a consortium of institutions sharing responsibility for the database. It’s now based at Rice University. 

When the SlaveVoyages project announced its new home in Houston, none of its thousands of entries documented a ship or person arriving in Texas. Daniel Domingues da Silva, a Rice history professor and the director of SlaveVoyages, says the relocation created an opportunity to fill that gap in the story.

“For us here in Texas, it was very important because the project came here in the wake of George Floyd’s [death],” Domingues says. “Rice University was also undergoing its own reckoning with slavery and racial segregation.”

Domingues organized a team of students at Rice who analyzed shipping manifests from voyages into Texas from 1827 to 1860. Federal law required slave owners to document any people they transported between U.S. ports, to prove they weren’t importing enslaved people from abroad. The law created a paper trail for coastwise forced migration, showing how more than 15,000 people were trafficked into Texas—a narrow but detailed window into how slavery grew in the state.

“We will never really know how many people were transported via the overland trade,” says Victoria Zabarte, who analyzed these records as an undergraduate at Rice and is now a graduate student at Yale University. “The best thing about these manifests is that we have so much more information about the enslaved people who were transported over the ocean.”

The records, for example, included first and last names, ages, and family relationships—details that can show, say, how frequently young children came to Texas in slavery. The records also include details of the enslavers who organized the passage. Zabarte recalls how striking it was to see Mirabeau Lamar’s name on one record. “He was transporting enslaved people in this traffic. We saw his signature written out, and we know the names of the people he enslaved,” she says. Today, Lamar is better known as the “father of Texas education.”

For the Middle Passage markers in Galveston and Port Arthur—which commemorate people who were mostly smuggled on shore against the law—Holbert-Hubert hasn’t had the benefit of such detailed shipping records. Instead, she has drawn primarily on anecdotal history recorded by local historians in southeast Texas. These include Fred Robbins, who wrote his 1971 dissertation on the covert African slave trade in Texas, and the historian and Beaumont Enterprise columnist W.T. Block.

Robbins and Block, in turn, relied on a mix of primary and secondary sources for their stories of the illicit slave trade from 1816, twenty years prior to Texas independence, until Texas statehood in 1845.

During these years, the United States—whose boundary extended only to east of the Sabine River—had prohibited bringing enslaved people from abroad. (The 1836 constitution of the Texas Republic did the same, with the major exception of enslaved people from the United States.)

From these sources, we get the stories of pirates like Louis Michel Aury and Jean Lafitte, who ran slave-trading operations from Galveston and ranged east to sell people across the Sabine; and of Alamo hero James Bowie, who, with his brothers, bought hundreds of people in Texas to sell in Louisiana.

Block also tells the story of the Elizabeth’s landing at Sabine Pass in 1836, which became a matter of diplomatic intrigue in the new Texas Republic. After making land near present-day Port Arthur, one of the men aboard managed to escape from Texas and tell the story of his journey, according to an account by Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, a French diplomat in Austin.

Taylor, the ship’s captain, maintained that the men had come with him to Texas voluntarily; Grigsby and Hardin pledged they had only hired the men, not enslaved them. Great Britain sent a ship to capture Taylor and recover the men he’d brought from Barbados. They managed to locate five of the men. But not before William Gunsil had drowned (under unspecified circumstances) and two more—Edward Hicks and another man—had been swept across the border into Louisiana.

Tianna Bruno, the Berkeley professor who spoke at the marker ceremony, has spent her life collecting stories of Port Arthur—first as a child visiting family, and later in her academic work. She’s heard stories about Black community-building in the city’s segregated West Side, the cost of living in the midst of toxic pollution, and idyllic days spent fishing with family.

The captive people who landed here, and the others smuggled up the Sabine on slave ships, may not be directly related to families in the town today. But in Port Arthur—“a place,” she says, “with just so many iterations of Black history”—the marker is an invitation to connect to their stories too.

“To have a moment where it’s like, ‘I’m here to read these affirmations for ancestors, and have a moment to position myself within these lineages . . . I think it’s really special,” she says.

Update: A previous version of this story implied that the Texas State Historical Association, not the Texas Historical Commission, manages historical markers. The story has been updated.