With each passing year, the crucial role played by post-Emancipation freedom colonies in Texas history becomes clearer.
In our state, these independent communities of landowning people who had been enslaved likely numbered in the hundreds.
Other freed slaves had stayed on plantations to work in the exploitative sharecropper system. Some migrated to cities to take up jobs in the manufacturing or service industries, while still others took advantage of scarce access to schooling to join the medical, legal, educational or other professions.
Time and again, my stories about ancestral Texas families who later rose to prominence include a chapter about a freedom colony such as Rock Springs, Cologne, St. John’s Colony, Peyton Colony, St. Mary’s Colony or Antioch Colony.
Rural or semi-rural, these colonies spread all over East, South, North and Central Texas. Claiming underused land, they almost always centered on a church or a school. Shifting relations with nearby white communities ranged from virtually nonexistent to tentatively cooperative. In the Jim Crow era, however, racist violence broke in unpredictable waves, and social norms in the larger towns varied greatly. So visitors from the freedom colonies remained always on guard.
Almost all these rarely incorporated communities evolved or faded away. Yet the land remained a part of shared memory, and former colonies became the sites for frequent and often large reunions. Some, such as Antioch Colony in Hays County, are even coming back, thanks to treasured memories of country life.
For decades, outsiders generally ignored Texas freedom colonies.
Some Works Progress Administration workers reported on them during the Great Depression. Yet scholars were slow to take up the cause.
In 2005, Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad broke that near silence with "Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow." Minutely researched and detailed, every word in this book was a revelation to me when I first read it.
″(This) historical research creates a good foundation for those of us engaged in activist urban planning and historic preservation practice and research in underserved communities," says Andrea Roberts, professor of urban history at Texas A&M University. "We have been able to build and grow our database in part due to his initial list in the back of his book, which the Texas Freedom Colonies Project verifies in partnership with descendants."
In fact, the appendix in Sitton and Conrad’s book is a great place to start learning more, because they organized the working list of freedom colonies by county.
Look up your county and likely you’ll find a freedom colony, or several.
In 2009, archivist Michelle M. Mears added to this database enormously with "And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928." Mears breaks down life in the 15 or so colonies located in what are now the Austin city limits. Her book goes far beyond the relatively well known Clarksville and Wheatville to examine distinct spots that once circled Austin and now are parts of living neighborhoods.
I consult this volume at least once a week.
Of course, the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which Roberts founded, is the most extensive digital resource today. It also is the great promise for the future, in part because it involves active crowdsourcing on social media, combined with detailed and expert follow-up by Roberts and others.
Another invaluable asset: Photographer Richard Orton spent decades photographing the Upshaw family in the freedom colony of County Line in Nacogdoches County. Several of those grace Sitton and Conrad’s 2005 book, but there’s also a new volume devoted entirely to his images: "The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family."
As Sitton and Conrad point out, County Line reflects a fairly typical placement for a freedom colony — as far away from the white-run county seat as possible.
Day by day, the project identifies more communities and compiles more family stories on this crucial part of Texas history.
I recently went through Sitton and Conrad’s book with a finer-tooth comb than I had before. Here are some preliminary nuggets, with more to come in future columns:
"Southern historians have ignored freedmen’s settlements, and data are scanty, but similar communities seem to have formed all across the South. Former slaves determined to own ’40 acres and a mule,′ after the federal government failed to provide this, moved from plantation districts to wilderness areas of cheap land."
"Freedmen’s settlement residents watched what they said, carefully managed their interactions with whites, and stayed to themselves. In keeping with these inclinations, during the 1960s freedmen’s settlements fought school integration to the end, sometimes in strange political alliances with white segregationists in town."
In July of 1865, only a month after he had freed Texas slaves, General (Gordon) Granger issued General Order No. 3, advising freedmen to remain with their old masters and sign labor contracts. He warned that he would not allow Blacks to collect at army posts, nor would he support them in idleness. Furthermore, he forbade freedmen to travel without passes from their employers."
"Those unattached to a landowner easily ran afoul of stringent ‘vagrancy’ codes that first trapped them into county jails, then placed minors into forced ‘apprenticeships’ and adults into convict-labor gangs, both of which much resembled slavery."
"In very truth, human monsters stalked the land in many parts of Texas where Black people lived — terrifying fleshly manifestations of the Black folk spectacle ‘Old Raw Hide and Bloody Bones.’ To avenge the South, a Limestone County white identified only as ‘Dixie’ killed all the Black men and women he could catch along remote country roads."
"Whether composed of squatters or of landowners, most freedmen’s settlements began in wilderness areas previously untouched by ante-bellum cotton agriculture. As historian Edward Ayers aptly noted, the Black (people) took the ‘backbone and spareribs’ that the whites did not want. Settlements took root in post-oak sand hills, pine barrens, creek and river bottoms, and other places previously uncleared for agriculture."
"Blacks in Evergreen and whites in nearby Sugar Hill shared a hardscrabble existence, dictated by environmental circumstances. Most relied on cotton as a cash crop, though soils between the creeks were sandy and poor. They also raised subsistence crops of corn, field peas, sweet potatoes and peanuts. Most important, probably, was the stockraising of hogs and cattle on the free range, which lasted very late."