'History Is Written By The Victors,' But The Texas Freedom Colonies Project Works To Change The Narrative
A project out of Texas A&M University is trying to preserve and protect an important piece of Texas history: freedom colonies. These were communities founded by formerly enslaved people starting just after the Civil War.
We spoke with Dr. Andrea Roberts, founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, about her work and how people can get involved with preserving this part of history.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
KUT: What were the Texas freedom colonies?
Dr. Andrea Roberts: There's a lot of different names that we give historic African-American communities that were founded from 1865 to 1930, right after the emancipation of enslaved peoples in Texas all the way up through the Great Depression. And those are called freedom colonies by the author of the book Freedom Colonies, Thad Sitton. However, you can also call them Black settlements, freedmen's towns, freedmen settlements. And these are all the same types of places.
But this particular name was given to these places because, one, they were free. That is, they were away from a lot of the threats to African-American lives after emancipation so they were in remote areas. “Bottomland” people called it near flood-prone areas often because that was the land that was available. These are also places that were anchored by a church, a school, a fraternal lodge, or maybe all that's left now is a cemetery. But these were hustling, bustling communities founded by clusters of early African-American landowners shortly after the Civil War. All the way up to 1930, these communities were founded throughout Texas.
Can you tell us where in Texas most of these communities were located?
When we think back to the 1860s in Texas, 1870s, we're thinking about a largely agrarian place, meaning lots of farming. And so when we think about where the majority of African-American landowners are, it's helpful to think about farmland ownership in Texas because a majority of the state was involved in some way in agriculture. So a majority of these settlements would be in rural areas when they were initially started. So that can be anywhere from what we would see as the edge of Austin to the center of Austin to 20 miles outside of Austin. It's important to remember that it wasn't as urban or as large as it is now. These were areas started by African-American landowners.
Think of this. In 1870, less than 2% of all farmland was owned by African Americans. By 1910, 31% of all farmland in Texas was owned by African Americans, so that means that you have a lot of African Americans who started these settlements as one of many landowners who clustered together out of security, safety and shared economic need and security.
What tended to happen to these communities and these settlements over time?
It really depends on whether or not we're talking about an urban, suburban or rural freedom colony. But just generally speaking, we can think about historically what has happened with African-American populations particularly in Texas.
We have several waves of the Great Migration in which African Americans sought out two things. They sought out political asylum and economic opportunity. Political asylum in that they wanted the opportunity to possibly exercise the franchise, the vote, and without threat of the Ku Klux Klan or other racial violence. And they also wanted to assert their ability to own land safely and not risk racial violence because there was great resentment against African Americans after the Civil War — where whites were trying to recuperate their economic and political stature and had to compete on equal footing with African Americans in the marketplace.
Any accumulation of land in rural areas meant they had to leave because they would soon be threatened by white vigilante groups. And so these African Americans would then have to go to places such as Austin or Houston to seek opportunity and just start over essentially.
Unlike other parts of the United States, where the first wave of the Great Migration in the 1890s would take someone from Mississippi all the way to Chicago, we have such a rich freedom colony culture here because people would go from plantation to nearby freedom colony to another freedom colony and then to a city. And that city was already in the state. So you had a lot of instances in which African Americans were able to remain in the state and cultivate land ownership and remain connected to freedom colonies.
But more often than not, what happened is that they lost population when people moved away. You had infrastructure projects that either bifurcated some of our more famous freedom colonies or freedmen's towns throughout the state, such as in Houston or in Austin or Dallas. We had major freeways destroy what was left of a lot of these communities.
But in the infancy, or when these communities came about, they were often in rural places that saw either development or efforts to take their land either through land dispossession or legal subterfuge by whites. And so if it wasn't land loss, then it was infrastructure projects. And if it wasn't infrastructure projects and racial violence, then it was just the need to find more sustainable employment in the rise of petrochemical, and other industries really drew a lot of people out of rural areas, along with farm roads that led people back out of these areas as we relied less and less on agrarian and timber and all of those sorts of industries. So, those are just some of the reasons.
And then when we get into urban areas, it's really gentrification, people driven out of areas and then disinvestment in these areas when people move to the suburbs. And then there is a lot of disinvestment or lack of investment in these areas. And people left certain areas of Austin in droves, for example. There's a lot of economic, political and social forces that drove population out of these places and also made it difficult to retain ownership of land in these places.
It seems like this part of Texas history, the history of the Texas freedom colonies, the black settlements, is not a part of standard Texas history school curriculum. Why is this not taught? It was not part of any curriculum that I was ever taught or encountered.
I want to give more recent teachers a little credit because I know there are social studies teachers who endeavor to incorporate this into their classes and into their Texas history classes. But I, like you, went to school in the late '80s, '90s, and this was not part of Texas history. Instead, when we learned of Texas settlement, it was all about the sort of settler, Anglo settlers who made something out of nothing and created our great state. And these heroic narratives do not include the stories of African Americans who developed a much different relationship with the land, with native peoples, with the communities in which they settled.
And I think it's not included for a few reasons. One, history is written by the victors. All too often we know this to be the case that those who predominately are in power write the history that reinforces their position in power. And so that's part of what's happened with the writing of history more generally and in Texas.
But we have certain ideas about what makes a community a community [and] what makes a place, a place. The common narrative is that all African Americans ran into cities. They went straight from Galveston and somehow made it all the way to a major city and then began life as an African American. You just jumped from plantation to city or you sharecropped. But the idea that we had literally hundreds of settlements spring up has eluded us because I think it's a much more complicated story that these places don't show up on our maps in the same way that an incorporated community like Austin or any of these other places that we know is a city.
And so these were communities that may have been part of unincorporated areas. Now we know them as a neighborhood, but they might have been an independent freestanding place at one time. They may have fallen off of Texas Department of Transportation maps as they lost population. And so we often equate a place with a place that has an accumulation of people. And these places have part-time, full-time and people who maybe don't live at all in these places but consider them home and are stakeholders in the future of these places. And so that's a much more complicated way of trying to understand whether or not a place exists and has a story and a history.
And the stories of how these places come about are often in the minds of elders, and we lose them daily. And so it's a bit of a race against time to capture not only the stories, but also to connect those stories to the progeny, the descendants of these people who have a rightful say in what happens to land in these places and what happens to cultural assets and environmental and natural resources in these places.
What is the Texas Freedom Colonies Project?
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project is ironically a bit of a way that I describe the relationship that I have with fellow descendants of these places. I have roots in historic Black settlements. I come from several different freedom colonies, whether it be Fourth Ward, whether it be Sunnyside in Houston, or any of the settlements that are in Central Texas and Washington County or in Fort Bend County where I was born. Part of this is coming out of that consciousness that didn't come to me until late in life that I had these roots in these places.
But the Texas Freedom Colonies Project is the name I gave to my dissertation research at the University of Texas at Austin. When I would go and speak with people about what I was doing, when I would interview them, instead of saying, “Give me information for my project as an academic,” I said, “I'm starting this project that I want you to be a part of and build with me. It's called the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.” So, that started in 2014, beginning with trying to understand the relationship between stories of place and preservation of place in the present and preserving and protecting these places from threats, and how grassroots communities were already working to protect these places, but simply needed more public support, investment and validation.
It's a social justice educational research initiative, which basically means that we collect stories. We collect data. We distribute surveys and really have conversation with folks in a lot of different ways, whether it's online through our atlas, whether it's at a public event, which we'll be doing again once we all get shots and get approval to do so. What we do is we find out how a place was created, through our surveys and through our conversations and demonstrations with folks. We record that information either on paper surveys; on recordings; through our Coffee Talk show, which is an online program that we have for descendants to share what's going on in their communities; and of course, through what people are most familiar with, which is our atlas, which is really a publicly available database, which we invite the public to add to.
We started with a baseline of research information that I gathered as a consequence of initial research in a few counties and a database based on Texas Historical Commission data, a handbook of Texas online data. And that initial baseline of research has then become a way for us to build the online holding place or gathering place of all of this data, this Black world of worlds.
And so essentially what we do is we collect and we connect and we co-create new stories of what the story of Texas is, essentially. And we do that through all of the events that I mentioned, as well as our Adopt-A-County program. So we're really a participatory planning, a participatory preservation and participatory research project. So, rather than coming to us for the answers, we ask people to create the answers with us and learn to be co-researchers because we think it's so important that we put the authority of the story of Black people's lives back in the hands of Black folks.
For people who may have some of those stories in their own families and are interested in becoming co-researchers with you all, what would be the best way for them to get started or to reach out to the project?
It's important for everyone to get really accustomed to setting their telephone on “record” whenever they're talking to anyone who, frankly, is maybe over the age of 65. We hold stories, we hold memories in a lot of different forms. And so one of the first things you can do is be a better listener. And to use that cell phone instead of a point of distraction as a place in which you can record and listen. So, that's just baseline what everyone should be doing.
In terms of working with us and collaborating with us, we really, really welcome that, and we don't truly exist if we don't have involvement from the public. So the first thing we'd like people to do is simply email us. You can email us at email@example.com. That is sort of a catch all. You have any basic questions and we'll send you basic information about who we are and what we do and how you can get involved.
The other thing that you can do, which we're really excited about, is to come to our Facebook page and you'll learn about our events. If you go to the events location on our Facebook page, you can learn a great deal about us.
But what's really, really easy is to go to bit.ly/texasfreedomcoloniesproject. And that's a really easy, just one place where you can find all the information about who we are, what we do, what we're working on, what the opportunities for organizations are to collaborate with us. We often collaborate with folks on grants and develop some baseline support. And we have workshops. We have Adopt-A-County workshops that we love for folks to join us at. And this is our community of learners and archivists and preservationists and activists who want to collaborate with us on not just capturing the big, most well-known freedom colonies or freedmen's towns, but really hundreds of settlements throughout the entire state.
Can you tell us a little more about the specifics of the Adopt-a-County events?
There's a lot of things that we do to engage the public. It's been especially challenging for us during COVID-19 because of social distancing, requiring that we do much of our work virtually.
Our Adopt-A-County program started prior to that, but has really, really gained a lot of attention and activity because it's a volunteer program that draws together researchers across the state to begin to adopt a county to research. And our aim is to find more information about freedom colonies for which we already have data, but to also build community among volunteers and find freedom colonies that maybe we didn't know about.
We have a list of communities that we know that at some time existed but they're not on the map, or they're on the map but we don't know for sure that they did have African-American population. And so we have a number of contests through the Adopt-A-County program where we invite people to work together in groups around the county and find more stories, more pictures, more sound recordings. You can upload to our atlas and share with us videos, sound recordings, images, documents, obituaries, funeral programs, newspapers. We invite all of that into our Adopt-A-County program so that we can begin to document and extract out of that data the dates in which these places were founded; who still attends maybe churches in these communities; when individuals still gather together to celebrate or raise money to protect and preserve churches in these communities. So, we're really building an online hub for anyone who's associated with these places to connect.
But we need the public to get involved in gathering the data, organizing the data and identifying all of this valuable information so that we can then build up this database for researchers and for advocates and for policy that can really support those doing the work on the ground to protect and preserve these places.
Those who email us will learn about what they can exactly do to get involved, and they'll get invited to two workshops. We have workshops where we'll be talking about community archiving, have lots of time for Q&A to talk about the nuts and bolts of working with personal archival information, to talking about what makes something historic and what makes a place worth protecting and what might you do to protect your materials.
And then we'll have another session in which we talk about challenges and victories that people have had with finding information. We have an event on Thursday, April 29 at 6:00 p.m. and then we have another on Thursday, May 20 at 6 p.m. And we usually have a pretty good time. We had nearly 30 folks at our last group meeting where we have a workshop or presentation and we have a chat and then we have our contest to incentivize folks finding more information. And so that's part of what we do as part of the Adopt-A-County.
We do have an actual goal in sight, rather than saying, OK, we're just trying to find lots of stories for the next few years until we find all the stories. We have a very specific goal. We have a list of 557 places that we originally found, and we're really trying to match those up with the real live people and stories and images and sounds of these places. And the Adopt-A-County program is the initiative we have that helps us to gather and store and share that information with the world.
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project is collaborating with the Bullock Texas State History Museum to gather photos of artifacts. Can you tell us a little bit more about that collaboration and how people can participate in that?
I would ask everyone as soon as you possibly can to Google Texas Freedom Colonies Storyteller Project and Bullock or go to the Bullock Museum website. And this is a really fun project. All you have to do is take an image of something like a tool that your grandparents had a photo, a picture of maybe a mixing bowl that your great-grandmother made your favorite cake in, and share that and share a few sentences about why that reminds you of the community that your ancestors came from.
It's really, really easy. Scan a picture, take a picture, upload it to the website, add a few sentences. And if you want to share more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or come to us at the site bit.ly/texasfreedomcoloniesproject. It'll take you directly to all of these opportunities, whether it be the Bullock Museum where your story can become part of the Bullock Museum’s online websites so that the entire state can celebrate your community’s or your family's history. Or you can join us at our Adopt-A-County workshops or our Juneteenth Coffee Talk program, an online talk show on Wednesday, June 16 at 10 a.m.
So, we have a lot to do. And it doesn't happen without our descendant community. Whether you're in Austin, you're in Texas, you're in Nevada, you're in Europe, wherever you are in the world listening, you're a freedom colony descendant and your story matters.
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