'History Is Written By The Victors,' But The Texas Freedom Colonies Project Works To Change The Narrative

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Texas

A project out of Texas A&M University is trying to preserve and protect an important piece of Texas history: freedom colonies. These were communities founded by formerly enslaved people starting just after the Civil War.

We spoke with Dr. Andrea Roberts, founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, about her work and how people can get involved with preserving this part of history.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

KUT: What were the Texas freedom colonies?

Dr. Andrea Roberts: There's a lot of different names that we give historic African-American communities that were founded from 1865 to 1930, right after the emancipation of enslaved peoples in Texas all the way up through the Great Depression. And those are called freedom colonies by the author of the book Freedom ColoniesThad Sitton. However, you can also call them Black settlements, freedmen's towns, freedmen settlements. And these are all the same types of places.

But this particular name was given to these places because, one, they were free. That is, they were away from a lot of the threats to African-American lives after emancipation so they were in remote areas. “Bottomland” people called it near flood-prone areas often because that was the land that was available. These are also places that were anchored by a church, a school, a fraternal lodge, or maybe all that's left now is a cemetery. But these were hustling, bustling communities founded by clusters of early African-American landowners shortly after the Civil War. All the way up to 1930, these communities were founded throughout Texas.

Can you tell us where in Texas most of these communities were located?

When we think back to the 1860s in Texas, 1870s, we're thinking about a largely agrarian place, meaning lots of farming. And so when we think about where the majority of African-American landowners are, it's helpful to think about farmland ownership in Texas because a majority of the state was involved in some way in agriculture. So a majority of these settlements would be in rural areas when they were initially started. So that can be anywhere from what we would see as the edge of Austin to the center of Austin to 20 miles outside of Austin. It's important to remember that it wasn't as urban or as large as it is now. These were areas started by African-American landowners.

Think of this. In 1870, less than 2% of all farmland was owned by African Americans. By 1910, 31% of all farmland in Texas was owned by African Americans, so that means that you have a lot of African Americans who started these settlements as one of many landowners who clustered together out of security, safety and shared economic need and security.

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