Sizing up daily lives in the state’s freedom colonies
Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history.
Last week, we studied the importance of post-Emancipation freedom colonies in Texas.
In that column, I cited four main published sources that bolstered our previous understanding derived from interviews with descendants of the independent Black Texans who founded those colonies, which totaled in the hundreds.
These sources are worth repeating: Andrea Roberts’ primarily digital “Texas Freedom Colonies Project,” Michelle M. Mears’ “And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedmen Communities in Austin, Texas, 1865-1928,” Richard Orton’s “The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family,” and Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad’s “Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow.”
Also last week, I shared some of the salient stories from Sitton and Conrad’s book. Today, I’ll dig out a few more choice historical nuggets, and save others for later. The book is packed with on-the-ground storytelling.
Many interviewees commented on (the) austerities. Interviewed during 1990, Grover Williams recalled with amusement remarkable frugalities and recycling of his early life at the Flat Prairie settlement in Washington County. During cold weather, Williams and his brothers wore “jumper jackets” made of old cotton sack material fastened with baling wire instead of buttons. Baling wire also functioned as all-purpose repair material for the family’s Model T Ford and farming equipment.
Williams fashioned turkey bells for their hen turkeys from snuff cans with little rocks inside. Family members wore every item of clothing until it had patches on its patches, then women salvaged every square inch of sound fabric to make into “britches quilts,” rough quilts suitable for use on the floor. Williams’ brother Cecil went a step too far when he recycled his grandmother’s plum jelly as pomade. At the rural school the brothers attended, a cloud of flies soon made Cecil a laughingstock.
Ed Stimpson offered a wonderful description of Collin County juke joints where wayward folks from freedmen’s settlements might or might not show up. Bootleggers circulated among the crowds in these places, identifiable because “they always wore ducking overalls and a coat too big” in which to carry their wares. Local police normally had been paid off by joint proprietors but operated in an unpredictable way.
Sometimes they raided the joint and arrested bootleggers and patrons carrying weapons; sometimes they came in, sat down, drank free booze, and joked with the ladies. ... Professional gamblers at the juke joint fascinated Stimpson; they were cold, calculating, sober men with hard eyes, who almost always won. Desperate amateurs might cry to their dice, “I need this point bad as a deadman needs a coffin!” but when they played the real gamblers, the dice — or the cards — rarely fell their way.
(A) common pattern of community origin involved a preacher leader and his assembled congregation colonizing the wilderness. After Emancipation, some freedmen felt the call to preach and gradually drew congregations of believers around them, worshiping in private homes or brush arbors. After a few years of accumulating resources, the ministers located cheap or unclaimed land and white neighbors willing to allow Black people to settle, and the congregation pulled up rent-farm roots and followed their “Moses” into the wilderness.
This exact scenario unfolded for the sharecroppers of John Wynn’s congregation at Hog Eye (Webberville) in Travis County. After Wynn found unoccupied sand-hill wilderness along the Bastrop-Caldwell county line and whites willing to sell it cheaply, Wynn and most of his congregation launched a wagon train to the promised land one day in the 1870s. The place became known as Wynn’s Colony and later St. John Colony.
The actual day of Juneteenth each year was first and foremost a great feast and picnic, prefaced by certain ceremonies and competitions. Parades were common if there was someplace to parade. Clarksville near Austin, for example, featured a procession of decorated horsemen accompanying a “Juneteenth Queen” dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
Big baseball games followed the noon meal at many Juneteenths, but Peyton Colony favored horseback competitions. In “needle races, men raced their horses to women partners standing in wagons, handed them a needle to thread then raced back to the starting place. “Cigar races” were similar, but required no partners; the men had to jump up on wagons and light cigars before racing back. Another equestrian competition was called “tournament,” with horsemen trying to spear four hanging rings while riding at high speed.