Ginny McNeill Raska was born to Levi Jordan McNeill, Jr. and Mary Eloise Dance McNeill on June 20, 1952, in Brazoria County. At the time of her birth, her parents lived on the old Mims Plantation along the San Bernard River. Her great-great-grandfather, James Calvin McNeill, had purchased the property around 1880 and built a new home in the early 1900s after the original plantation house had burned down. Her story was documented in an interview by Carlyn Copeland Hammons in 2005 at the Brazoria Community Library.
Ginny graduated from Sweeny High School in 1970 and attended Baylor University. In 1974, she received a degree in English with a minor in chemistry. She then attended Texas A&M University and received a master’s degree in English while also working as a teaching assistant. Upon returning home to Brazoria, she was unsure what she should do.
“I worked for the Brazoria library for a while and decided I wanted to do that. I’d always been somewhat interested in librarianship and went back to graduate school again and got a master’s in library science from the University of Texas in Austin.”
After receiving her second master’s, Ginny worked in the Houston Public Library System for about a year, then returned to the Brazoria County Library System to serve as assistant director. Ginny worked there for a few years until her daughter was born. She stayed out of work until her daughter was in the fifth grade, then returned to the professional world as the librarian at Sweeny Junior High. She would stay in this position until she retired.
Ginny Raska has always been interested in her family’s history in Brazoria County. She explains that Levi Jordan, her great-great-great-great-grandfather, purchased 2,221 acres near the San Barnard River in 1848. He moved his family from their adjoining plantations in Union County, Arkansas, and Union Parish, Louisiana. Among several family members who moved to Texas with Jordan was his granddaughter Sarah McNeill (Sallie). Jordan’s descendants have had a special relationship with Sallie due to her handwritten diary surviving in the family’s possession.
“The diary has been in the family for a long time. The first I knew about it that I can recall is a fellow named, I think, Platter, did a dissertation on some kind of paper on plantations in the Brazoria County area, and he came and interviewed my father. Dad brought it out and showed it to him. It was stored, probably, in some kind of like lard can.”
Ginny was determined to transcribe and preserve the diary for her family and the public.
“I’m not exactly sure when I first started working on it because I was living in Alvin at the time, and we moved to down here about the early part of 1987… Dr. Brown [gave] me some assistance in it. The diary itself is in a format that makes it difficult to read. It’s not in a bound book…. it’s bound on the side with thread… It doesn’t have any kind of cover. It’s just paper that’s bound on the side with thread. It was stored rolled-up, and so it is kind of permanently curled, so you have to hold it open to try to read it. The way that I did this was I held it open and read it onto a tape, and then Dr. Brown had a graduate student transcribe the tapes, and then I corrected the tapes against the original…”
Ginny worked with Mary Lynne Hill, a professor at St. Mary’s University, to prepare the diary for publication, where Dr. Hill then used the diary in her dissertation research. Originally, the two thought the diary was written by Sallie’s little sister Annie, but after some research, they realized that Sallie was the true author.
“She started her diary when she was a student at Baylor University at Independence in 1858. The diary concluded in, I believe, October of 1867, about a month before she died. It took me a long time to find out when she died, but I did find that in some letters.”
“It was after I began transcribing it and putting it together that I finally began to realize that this was not Annie’s diary. This was her sister Sarah’s, or Sally’s, diary, and she actually says that at one point, ‘I’m called’ who she’s called at home. She really seldom refers to her sister as Annie. Often calls her, writes it in the diary as M- little c, like Mc, and so occasionally she refers to her as Annie, more often with an initial A, that sort of thing.
Throughout her diary, Sallie makes personal, private observations about her life on the plantation. Her writings have helped researchers learn about the many forgotten structures and people that were working and living on the site. She mentions the carriage house, corn cribs, cabins for the enslaved, and a piazza. Sallie also describes the ongoings of her family, their neighbors, and the many frequent visitors.
“In the diary, she speaks of going out and seeing the hogsheads of sugar, and walking along, apparently, along the tops of them and putting her, putting her print on the top of the sugar, which seems kind of gross to our thought, that you would actually put a footprint on the top of a hogshead of sugar—and maybe I’m not interpreting what she meant exactly—but she does speak of going out to where they were manufacturing the sugar.”
Ginny McNeill Raska has been a steward of Brazoria County’s history and education for many years. From her time spent as a librarian to her research, transcription, and publication of Sallie McNeill’s diary, she has played an important role in sharing and preserving the area’s literary history. The Uncompromising Diary of Sallie McNeill has been an invaluable primary source for research into the ongoings at the Levi Jordan Plantation. It is available for purchase at the Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site giftshop.
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