What are Freedom Colonies?
Freedom Colonies are places that were settled by formerly enslaved people during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras in Texas following Emancipation. From 1865-1930, African Americans accumulated land and founded 557 historic black settlements or Freedom Colonies. Freedom Colonies were intentional communities created largely in response to political and economic repression by mainstream white society.
In these places, Black Texans could much better avoid the perils of debt bondage, sharecropping, and racialized violence from white communities, and live largely self-sustaining, independent lives on their own property. (Sitton, T., & Conrad, J.H. 2005) Since their founding, Freedom Colony descendants have dispersed, and hundreds of settlements’ status and locations are unknown. Gentrification, cultural erasure, natural disasters, resource extraction, population loss, urban renewal, and land dispossession have all contributed to their decline. Freedom Colony descendants’ lack of access to technical assistance, ecological and economic vulnerability, and invisibility in public records has quickened the disappearance of these historic Texas communities.
While the name “Freedom Colonies” applies uniquely to Texas settlements, Freedmen’s settlements were by no means solely a Texas phenomenon. After the Civil War, independent black communities emerged across the South. However, in the present day, Freedom Colonies find themselves in a distinct position when contrasted with other black communities across the South. For example, many of the Freedmen’s settlements that receive scholarly or institutional attention, such as Tuskegee and Talladega, Alabama, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and Rosewood and Eatonville, Florida, remain populated, have large anchor institutions like colleges, are well documented, and mapped. In contrast, many Texas Freedom Colonies were often never incorporated and have fledgling populations with have little documentation or legal authority to make planning decisions (Roberts, A., & Biazar, M. J. 2019). Freedom Colonies located in urban areas, though well defined, often compete within larger political systems in which they are relegated to the category “neighborhood,” or are lumped into larger geographical areas based on racial census concentrations rather than being recognized as distinct, politically sovereign communities.
Freedom Colonies as Cultural Landscapes
A majority of known Freedom Colonies are located in the eastern half of Texas. Why? The eastern half of the state contained a majority of the farmland and plantations on which the formerly enslaved once worked. Further, these coastal and flood-prone areas were some of the few areas in which African Americans could obtain land through adverse possession or squatting. In other cases, though rare, former plantation owners willed land to their Black offspring. Though originally concentrated in rural areas, Freedom Colonies emerged on the edges of major cities. Due to urbanization and sprawl, today’s suburbs and major cities are founded atop Freedom Colonies. Common elements and characteristics of Texas Freedom Colonies’ cultural landscapes are their anchor institutions: schools, cemeteries, lodges, and churches. Cemeteries and churches are the most persistent elements in these landscapes. Often several Freedom Colonies accessed the same churches and schools. That is why clusters of homesteads usually best define the Freedom Colony settlement pattern. Finally, the shared belief or knowledge of a community having once existed in a specific area is passed on through storytelling and commemorative events.
Freedom colonies are not, however, static landscapes, but active communities composed of dispersed yet committed social and kinship networks who return to preserve historic churches, homesteads, Rosenwald Schools, and cemeteries. Gatherings for festivals, funerals, church services, homecomings and family reunions are times during which descendants of Freedom Colony founders celebrate their successes and plan for the future of the settlements’’ remaining extant features.
Identifying Freedom Colonies
A way to recognize or identify a Freedom Colony in a location would be to notice aspects of the natural landscape and the property types that remain, and to listen to residents define the borders, cultural landmarks, and the names they ascribe to their own communities. Freedom Colonies would commonly be found in bottomlands and floodplains, which were areas whites found less desirable for land ownership. The land may be muddy, near a water source, and in a lower elevation than other surrounding communities would. Other characteristics to identify a colony would be to look at the remaining buildings, assess what they are/were, and their time period of construction based on materials. A nearby cemetery or gravestones could also identify the evidence of a community, and by looking at the names, dates, and inscriptions, the observer could learn when formerly enslaved people lived in a given Freedom Colony (Sitton, T., & Conrad, J.H. 2005). Churches, particularly their cornerstones, provide helpful clues about local leaders and land owning families. Cross referencing these with county histories or personal archival data like funeral and church anniversary programs can reveal the names of settlements.
Cultural resource surveys, historical monographs, and academic theses are often the best written sources for information on Freedom Colonies locations because public and government records often provide little documentation of their existence. Archaeological surveys, while containing helpful historical information, often omit precise locations to prevent vandalism and looting. Floodplain and Texas Department of Transportation maps from the past sixty years at times contain the names of Freedom Colonies that later were removed when the population there became non-existent. Walking tours with residents and descendants of community founders are particularly important because these are often the only means of accessing and locating some Freedom Colonies.
Texas Freedom Colonies have a variety of factors working against them and threatening their existence. These plots of land are often officially undocumented plots in the government’s eyes, so land ownership is a blurred line. Complex systems of inheritance and division of land lead to divided homesteads with unclear legal understanding of who owns what; and third party actors can purchase individual parcels that destroy the integrity of the community. They are also vulnerable to being forgotten or undiscovered because most accounts of these colonies are from eyewitnesses and oral sharing, mostly by older generations of people, who are quickly disappearing or being forgotten. There is also the struggle to officially recognize these colonies through designation on the National Register of Historic Places, because there are often issues of defining the colonies within the official standards for designation. Another factor making these places vulnerable is their physical location coupled with a lack of maintenance. With limited access to their rural locations and the hazards of being in flood plains, most physical evidence of these Freedom Colonies are being destroyed (Sitton, T., & Conrad, J. H. 2005). There was also a turning point in Freedom Colonies during a decline in population during after-World War 2, part of a national trend of the Great Migration, violence, loss of building integrity, demolition, neglect, and red lining and segregationist zoning all over America (Texas Freedom Colonies).
Distribution of Freedom Colonies throughout the State
According to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project’s Atlas, there are 557 known place names. Of those some 377 Freedom Colony locations have been verified by way of a remaining feature (object, structure, site), census status, or other publicly available databases. However, through online crowdsourcing and offline surveys, the Project has identified the names and locations for another fifty settlements not originally listed.
from Saving Texas Freedom Colonies (2020)