AUSTIN – As a child, Lareatha Clay didn’t know she was traveling to a freedom colony when the family visited her mother’s Newton County childhood home, deep in East Texas.
“People didn’t have a name for it,” said Clay, 61. “We just called it a community.”
In 2005, Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad’s “Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow,” helped give places such as Shankleville Community, the unincorporated place where Clay’s mother came from, a collective label and historic context.
“Freedmen’s settlements were independent rural communities of African American landowners (and land squatters) that formed in the South in the years after Emancipation,” the authors wrote. “These ‘freedom colonies,’ as blacks sometimes called them, were to a degree anomalies in a postwar South where white power elites rapidly resumed social, economic, and political control and the agricultural system of sharecropping came to dominate.”
But while Clay learned her family’s Shankleville story, and the trailblazing book gave historic context, Andrea Roberts is moving into a new chapter with an interactive online mapping project aimed at identifying the locations of Texas’ freedom colonies and preserving their histories.
“We live in one of the highest-growth states in the country,” said Roberts, the Texas A&M University urban planning professor whose Texas Freedom Colonies Project has so far identified upwards of 500 sites. “With that comes development.
“They often build on top of freedom communities. I’m really trying to bring attention to and make visible in real time these historic places that are vulnerable right now.”
The project’s map shows freedom colony sites as far west as Center in Fisher County, but most cluster across the state’s eastern side: Hunt County’s Neylandville; Church Hill, Davenport and Pine Hill in Cherokee County; Galilee and Harmony Settlement in Walker County; and Green Bay and Flint Hill in Anderson County are just a few.
Carol Taylor, a Greenville historian and columnist, knows of two freedom colonies in Hunt County, northeast of Dallas: Neylandville and Center Point.
“Most of the freedom colonies were well off the map,” Taylor said. “It was a very violent time; they didn’t want anybody bothering them.”
Center Point “was an example of a place that developed into a kind of Tuskegee Institute-type place,” Sitton said in telephone interview.
“There were kids who lived there at the school,” Sitton said. “They had communal gardens and canning programs.”
Taylor gave more detail in a paper she presented to East Texas Historical Association.
At Center Point’s foundation was “a freedman, Reverend Andrew Jackson Hurdle,” Taylor wrote.
“As soon as the church was built, the parents in the community worked out a plan for a school to be held during December, January, and February of each year to allow students time for education between planting cotton and corn in the spring, tending crops in the summer, and harvesting in the fall,” Taylor wrote. “Three acres of land were purchased for the church, a community cemetery, and a school for the children.
“By 1900 the school had grown to accommodate two school buildings in different locations, one at Center Point and the other less than five miles away in the community of Dixon.”
Residents fled freedom colonies “in desperation,” during the Depression and post-World War II mechanized farming that ended picking cotton dealt another economic blow, Sitton said.
“People would move away for better opportunities,” Clay said.
But Clay, who lives in Dallas, along with others, returns to Shankleville, where there are three churches and two cemeteries, to visit, attend the Texas Purple Hull Pea Festival and in some cases build new homes.
“I was taught to know my history,” Clay said. “This is an important place.”
With the Texas Freedom Colonies Project – and the map, to which people who learn of new freedom colony sites can add names – Roberts is working to spread the story.
“You don’t know the history of Texas if you don’t know freedom colonies,” Roberts said. “I want people to be concerned about this now.
“It’s about the future of Texas.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.