Andrea Roberts visiting with Oliver Wayne Sadberry, Jr. ’71, the lead curator of the Brazos Valley African American Museum. (Texas A&M College of Architecture photo/John Peters)
Through the painstaking process of ethnographic and archival research, Roberts has found more than 550 freedom colonies established by the almost 200,000 newly freed African-Americans living in Texas just after the abolition of slavery. Her research, which began with her dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin, is building upon earlier research conducted and published by author Thad Sitton in his book, “Freedom Colonies.”
Some of the freedom colonies currently are populated and some are not. Some descendants maintain connections, both close and distant, to these places, while opportunities exist for others to discover their ancestral roots and reconnect with old family and friends.
While certain colonies have homesteads, annual festivals, homecoming celebrations, church services and walking tours of cemeteries, others show little evidence that they ever existed. Regardless, generations of African-Americans have lived in these colonies, and many of them have handed down oral histories, including origin stories, and secured historical markers.
Roberts stresses that the project is critical in preserving a vast, complex and never-before-documented planning history that is slowly slipping away with the passing of each generation.
“History, among other things, is at stake here,” Roberts said. “We want children to know that creating freedom colonies is part of what it means to be Texan and that African-Americans are part and parcel of all of Texas.”
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project Atlas and Study, an interactive interface and digital repository developed by Roberts and her team, serves as a single, centralized location where they conduct crowdsourcing about the colonies and store their research. In the future, data collected will be vetted and shared with interested parties, including colony residents and other descendants, city planners and researchers, among others.
The team is plotting freedom colony locations on maps, identifying geographic characteristics and vulnerabilities, and recording demographics in the online portal. Once Roberts has secured more funding, her team will integrate historical and contemporary humanities information such as origin stories, genealogies, cultures, traditions, news and events, and visual and performing arts, through mediums including narrative writing, photography and videography.
Defining and reclaiming communities
Historical and current census reports do not represent all of the colonies, and, for the most part, land that was colonized just after the Civil War by African-Americans is missing from official archival records. Therefore, many of the colonies also are missing from current-day maps that are produced by the Texas Department of Transportation and the U.S. Geological Survey.
One factor that contributes significantly to this outcome is that even when reporting land ownership through proper channels at courthouses became legal for blacks, their efforts were sometimes thwarted through unofficial means such as threats and violence, Roberts said. Squatting without official ownership of their land was safer.
“You could go down to the courthouse to register your land, but a bunch of men in white hoods might show up on your land that night to run you off of your property,” Roberts said. “It happened to one of my ancestors.”
Immediately following the Civil War, everyone, regardless of race, attained land by squatting until the passing of the Homestead Act of 1866. At the same time, Texas and other Southern state legislatures passed the Black Codes, amending their homestead laws to prohibit African-Americans from taking legal possession of public land. Although the Black Codes were overturned the following year, most of the desirable property already was cherry-picked, and therefore, African-Americans settled in flood-prone bottomlands, Roberts said.
“This [project] is about changing the dynamics so that we’re focusing on accountability, and helping people define and reclaim their communities,” Roberts said. “It’s also about realizing that African-Americans built their own communities, and they should see themselves as part of urban planning, an important field where they are more commonly considered the subject.”