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Abstract and Figures

A descendant of African-American settlers takes on the task of locating these often-forgotten places. Article serves as an introduction to ex-slave settlements for preservationists and planners. Readers are made aware of remaining settlements' land use and loss issues as well as efforts to preserve these historic communities.
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In 1870, former slaves owned
two percent of farmland in
Texas, and 50 years later, that
number had risen to more than 26
percent. This history of African-
American placemaking, though,
is overshadowed by the myth that
following Emancipation, all new-
ly freed Black men and women
moved to cities for domestic work
or became sharecroppers.
The truth, however, is that from
1866 through 1920, many African
Americans formed settlements “in
places where whites were not look-
ing,” claiming spaces in rural areas,
on the edge of former plantations,
and near the outskirts of cities.1
Properties were attained through
cash purchase, adverse posses-
sion (also known as squatter’s
rights), or pre-emption, which
made public land for homestead-
ing available to Blacks. By these
means, African Americans in Tex-
as obtained acreage and organized
self-sufficient agrarian communi-
ties at a rate far surpassing that of
other Black Belt states.
These fringe settlements, while
spread throughout the state, were
primarily concentrated in East
Texas. A variety of factors, how-
ever, prompted the dispersal of
emancipated Blacks and their
families and contributed to the
invisibility and vulnerability of
these communities, which came
to be known as Freedom Colo-
nies. Within the Lone Star State,
the location and current status
of many of these settlements re-
main unknown.
I am a Black Texan who traces
her origins back to the 1830s in
Fort Bend County, a descendant of
people who helped create and sus-
tain Freedom Colonies. That heri-
tage, in part, influences my per-
spective as a researcher, planning
administrator, and preservation-
ist. My professional experience
has revealed that for annexed or
unincorporated areas, particularly
| Volume 2 2017
Above: Often a destination at the end
of an isolated dirt road, though some-
times found in urban locations, Freedom
Colonies are hidden African-American
cultural legacies. These endangered com-
munities are in need of greater visibility
and a broader stewardship. All images are
courtesy of Andrea Roberts, Ph.D.
Documenting and Preserving
Texas Freedom Colonies
A descendant of African-American settlers takes on
the task of locating these often-forgotten places.
By Andrea R. Roberts, Ph.D.
those places in the way of develop-
ment, recognition of heritage and
preservation of historically signifi-
cant structures can be challenging.
Freedom Colonies are vulner-
able because their cultural ori-
gins and residents (particularly
descendants of founding families)
are not easily identifiable. These
organized communities typically
have undocumented borders, van-
ishing settlement patterns, and
wide-ranging levels of population,
which complicates study and pres-
My work as a planning profes-
sional brought some of those issues
to my attention. Others I learned
through academic work and as I
got to know descendants of Free-
dom Colony founders in Deep East
Texas. Their dedication to revital-
izing and preserving these distinc-
tive cultural communities inspired
me to frame my research within
the context of an extended and
evolving investigation and social
justice initiative.
The Texas Freedom Colonies
Project (TFCP) seeks to docu-
ment the history of African-Amer-
ican placemaking by recording
settlement names and locations,
along with their related origin sto-
ries and cultural practices. Stud-
ies also will identify and address
current preservation efforts and
planning issues with the realiza-
tion that those could change with
time to reflect new challenges and
opportunities. Ideally, the TFCP
will serve as a center for research
to support more effective historic
preservation and heritage con-
servation efforts within Freedom
Texas Freedom Colonies face
three obstacles, namely visibility,
access, and vulnerability. Recog-
nition of these communities is
better described as overcoming
“invisibility. Though the desire
to go unnoticed once kept Black
landowners safe, these settlements
remain largely unnoticed because
they are not officially recognized
as “places.”2 Most colony names
are known only because of oral
history, as many were annexed by
cities or hidden within identified
unincorporated areas. Additional-
ly, some communities are absent
from maps because their small
populations fell well below the
U.S. Census Bureau’s threshold for
Census Designated Place (CDP).3
This lack of attention hampers
assistance. Planning officials and
preservation organizations often
do not recognize Freedom Colo-
nies as locations with an active
constituency and heritage. Groups
that might be helpful often can-
not identify which places are at
risk or how to leverage community
activities such as cemetery pres-
ervation, oral history projects,
heritage tourism, and economic
revitalization initiatives. Even
when known to authorities and
preservationists, Freedom Colo-
nies are commonly viewed only
as historical areas and not as en-
gaged communities to be included
in formal planning processes.
Awareness of where a colony ex-
ists, or in some cases, once was
located, opens the door to access.
Gaining invited entry into a col-
ony’s social system, to speak with
those who call these places “home,
or to observe shared traditions is
Volume 2 2017 |15
Pleasant Hill C.M.E. Church, Farrsville
settlement, in Newton County, is where
descendants gather for annual “homecom-
ings,” a traditional celebration of faith,
family, and shared heritage. Attendees of
these events are a valuable resource for
documenting Freedom Colony cultural
history. Images on this page and opposite
were originally in color.
key to understanding these places
and their history. Often, gather-
ing information requires going
beyond a settlement’s boundar-
ies to locate former residents now
living elsewhere. However, plan-
ners (and preservationists) are
not trained to identify and engage
with resident and non-resident de-
scendants. In addition, because a
settlement’s history often is passed
down through family oral tradi-
tion, Freedom Colony informa-
tion is at risk as the descendants of
founders pass on or relocate.
Discussions with East Texas
Freedom Colony homeowners and
local preservation groups revealed
that there is also a lack of access
to the financial means and exper-
tise needed to support surveying,
rehabilitation, or stewardship of
endangered historic buildings.
Communal ownership of family or
shared anchor sites makes these
places ineligible for federal as-
sistance and grants. Only recent-
ly have libraries and nonprofits
worked to develop archives related
to cemeteries, schools, profession-
al cooperatives, and lodges—often
the last African-American heri-
tage sites remaining within Free-
dom Colonies.
The challenges of overcoming
invisibility and tapping into avail-
able resources, along with gentrifi-
cation and related pressures, make
Freedom Colony cultural assets
vulnerable to destruction or era-
sure. Settlement founders did not
always register the land on which
they squatted.4 For family heirs,
land title status, absentee owner-
ship, and intimidation and trick-
ery yielded “dead” assets (property
held without a legally recognized
title) and land loss. This resulted
in a decline of descendant presence
within a settlement.5 Ultimately,
the forfeiture of family-owned
lands has left these communities
| Volume 2 2017
Above: Gray and black shaded areas of
the map indicate Texas counties with
identified Freedom Colony locations. Also
included is a listing of the number of sites
per county. The graphic is based upon
Texas Freedom Colonies Project research.
Original in color.
Note: “Sitton and
Conrad refers to a
source listed in the
with fewer core residents to sus-
tain, steward, or preserve histori-
cal structures.
While cultural resource manag-
ers often document African-Amer-
ican settlements in cultural re-
source surveys, these areas rarely
are integrated into local or region-
al planning processes for future
land use. Additionally, although
the Texas Historical Commission
Historic Sites Atlas includes sev-
eral freedom communities, an in-
teractive map of all settlements
is not yet available. As a result,
interventions, such as protective
land measures or preservation ef-
forts, are reactive—prompted by
development, changes in land use,
or sophisticated descendants. Pro-
active steps are required, includ-
ing the creation of a centralized
Freedom Colony database, addi-
tional programs to survey these
cultural assets, greater outreach to
local governments, and increased
professional instruction related
to working with descendants and
dispersed constituencies.
Establishing these resources is
the work being taken up by the
Texas Freedom Colonies Proj-
ect and other partners across the
state to ensure that the voices of
these ancestors and descendants
are heard. By doing so, the story
of African-American placemak-
ing becomes visibly enriched both
within these communities and as
part of the state’s written histori-
cal record.
Andrea R. Roberts, Ph.D., will be
continuing the work of the Texas
Freedom Colonies Project as an as-
sistant professor of landscape ar-
chitecture and urban planning at
Texas A&M University this fall.
1 Deborah J. Hoskins, Separate
Streams of Discourse: Identity and the
Rise of the Corporate State in East
Texas, 1919-1935 (Ann Arbor, MI:
University Microfilms Internation-
al, 1993).
2 Thad Sitton and James H. Con-
rad, “Freedom Colonies Indepen-
dent Black Texans in the Time of
Jim Crow,” 2005, 18.
3 U.S. Census Bureau, Geograph-
ic Areas Reference Manual (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2000).
4 Thad Sitton and James H. Con-
rad, “Freedom Colonies Indepen-
dent Black Texans in the Time of
Jim Crow,” 2005, 4.
5 Hernando de Soto, The Mystery
of Capital: Why Capitalism Tri-
umphs in The West and Fails Ev-
erywhere Else.
Volume 2 2017 |17
Restoring and
Preserving Our History
In the heart of the Texas Hill
Country visit 17 historic
one-room schools built between
1847 and 1930 by following
the 120 mile Gillespie County
Country Schools Driving Trail
through the scenic
Fredericksburg,Texas countryside.
Visit our website for a tour map
and information on our historic schools
and community centers.
All schools listed on the
National Register of Historic Places.
Member of Country School Association of America.
FGCCS TXHeritage 2.25x5_Layout 1 12/15/16 4:11 PM Page 1
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project studies and documents evi-
dence of place found in descendants’ rituals, celebrations, and
oral traditions. These are activities that sustain commitments
to a settlement’s survival, even as physical evidence of that
community vanish. To date, the Project has:
Built a growing database of 550+ Freedom Colonies names;
Mapped 25 newly identified settlements in Newton and Jasper
Documented descendants’ origin stories, place-based memories,
contemporary preservation practices, and cultural landscape(s)
through memory mapping tours and event observation;
Detected strategies descendants use to prevent land loss and
build intergenerational wealth in Jasper County;
Chronicled traditions used to transfer cultural and social mem-
ory to youth; and
Identified planning and policy issues requiring further research,
including land loss, access to services, and the ways preservation
policy and organizations reinforce inequalities.
To learn more about the project and read Texas Freedom Colony
stories, visit
November 2016:
During excavation for a repair project adjacent to
Andrews Street in Freedmen’s Town, a contractor un-
intentionally damaged a portion of the century-old
brick road that was hand-constructed by ex-slaves
and their descendants. Protecting this vulnerable
infrastructure remains an ongoing challenge. While
the City of Houston requires that special care be tak-
en when repairs or improvements are done within
the National Register Historic District, incidents like
this have occurred all too often in recent years.
According to Catherine Roberts, RBHYM co-
founder, damage and loss to endangered assets like
the hand-laid brick road can be prevented, but only if
all parties involved—city officials, private contractors,
preservation professionals, and residents—are in-
formed and working together. Current laws, she said,
must be made more “enforceable and meaningful” to
cultivate that more cohesive way of doing things.
| Volume 2 2017
The Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum (RBHYM), in Houston’s 4th Ward, is working tire-
lessly—and with assistance from preservation partners—to ensure that the path laid by
freed men and women remains forever visible, knowable, and celebrated. Since 1996,
the organization has pursued its mission to acquire, restore, and repurpose six historic
properties as a complex of museums that reconstruct and accurately communicate the heritage
story that founded and sustains Freedmen’s Town, a designated National Register Historic Dis-
trict. Marking RBHYM’s most recent timeline are events that serve as examples of the roles vis-
ibility, access, and vulnerability play in preserving Freedom Colony communities.
Victories and Setbacks
in Houston’s Freedmen’s Town
Former slaves and their adult sons paid for and installed the brick streets in Hous-
ton’s 4th Ward. The crossroads pattern of these roadways are African in origin,
replicating a Yoruba tribal design. All images are courtesy of the Rutherford B.H.
Yates Museum. Originals in color.
April 2017:
With multiple site restorations to achieve, the
R.B.H. Yates Museum describes the process as “the
slow, careful progress of historic preservation.”
Ensuring an authentic rehabilitation of these land-
marks requires the acquisition of funding, which in
turn takes time and cultivation of resources. Re-
cently, the Texas Historical Foundation awarded
RBHYM financial assistance for roof protection
on the J. Vance Lewis Homestead, a designated
city landmark.
Admitted to the Texas Bar in 1904, Lewis gained
recognition as the first African-American lawyer to
win a case before a Harris County jury in favor of a
Black client accused of murder. In 1907, the at-
torney and his wife Pauline, a schoolteacher, built
“Van Court, a one-story wood frame cottage, that
served as their home and his law office. Once res-
toration of that structure is complete, the Lewis
Homestead will become the Museum of Legal Pro-
fessions and Educators.
Volume 2 2017 |19
June 2017:
This summer’s debut of the original play In All Thy Getting: The For-
gotten Story of Freedmen’s Town is a significant achievement to add
to Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum’s ever-growing list of accomplish-
ments. The production is the work of Houston native and playwright
Holly Charles, M.A., and is directed by Allie Woods, Jr., a descendant
of a Freedmen’s Town founding family. Proceeds from performances are
earmarked for RBHYM preservation projects. In Houston Style Maga-
zine, Charles spoke of the greater benefit of dramatizing the struggles of
living freely after Emancipation. “I offer this play as a reminder to all of
us about the power of the people, the power of perseverance and, finally,
the power of preservation.
Undoubtedly, these same principles have guided the Rutherford B. H.
Yates Museum throughout the organization’s decades-long journey to
honor the past.—Pamela Murtha
The J. Vance Lewis Home is currently undergoing restoration.
... Freedom colonies -also known as Freedmen's Towns-are historic black settlements established by freed black men and women -who did not move to cities or become sharecroppers-after emancipation mostly in rural areas on the edge of former plantations and near the outskirts of cities (Roberts 2017, Hoskins 1993. These settlements initially were ''individually unified only by church and school and residents' collective belief that a community existed" (Sitton and Conrad 2005). ...
... FCs are vulnerable -especially to natural disasters-since they are undocumented and absent from public planning records due to their geographic location and lack of access to funds and technical assistance (Roberts and Biazar 2018). They are not even recognized as a Census Designated Place because they do not reach the defined population threshold (Roberts 2017, U.S. Census Bureau 2000. ...
... The Texas Freedom Colonies Project began as dissertation research by Dr. Andrea Roberts seeking to document the African American settlements history by collecting their names and locations, and collect their related information and overcome their invisibility by making them recognized (Roberts 2017). It is an evolving social justice initiative aiming to document historic black settlements names and locations as well as gathering information about community origin stories, cultural practices, and providing support to grassroots preservation groups and their planning activities . ...
Freedom colonies are historic black settlements established by freed black men and women after emancipation. They exist all over the United States with a high concentration in Texas. Black Texans founded more than 557 independent rural communities between 1865 and 1930. Today, many FCs are unmapped and many disappeared from public records, maps, and memories. Furthermore, while a comprehensive database or an interactive map of FCs’ location and information is not available the location data for known FCs is scattered across various archives and agencies. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project is an evolving social justice initiative aiming to document historic black settlements names and locations as well as gathering information about community origin stories, cultural practices, and providing support to grassroots preservation groups and their planning activities. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project Atlas and Study is a digital humanities platform based on a research and crowdsourced data about freedom colony place, heritage, and social geographic data in Texas serving as an interactive map and online archive in order to make them visible to policymakers, researchers, and descendants of settlement founders.
... Recognizing these commonalities across Black places of all origins and at all scales, we focus specifically on Black-founded towns like Tamina, which are frequently left out of Black place analyses altogether. Black towns are intentional communities, typically established by Black people, for the purpose of creating the sociopolitical conditions for Black freedom and autonomy (Roberts, 2017;Rose, 1965;Slocum, 2019). From the fugitive antebellum communities of the Great Dismal Swamp (Sayers, 2014) to 20th century incorporated municipalities, such as Langston and Boley in Oklahoma (Slocum, 2019), they are critical sites not only for understanding the nuances of Black spatial imaginaries and governance (Lipsitz, 2011), but also to understand how whiteness is inherent to the structure and function of the town. ...
Full-text available
This article interrogates the “anomalous” case of Black-founded towns, so-called because of their relative absence from discourse on Black place, their unique struggles for self-determined development, and their externally ascribed narratives of absent or dysfunctional governance, frequently invoked to explain their lack of access to basic infrastructure. We propose illuminating some of these so-called anomalies through Charles Mills’ “racial contract,” which we argue structures space at a deeper level than traditional legal arrangements and allows us to look relationally at Black towns in “white space.” We also rely on Cedric Robinson’s “racial capitalism” to demonstrate how white space develops through extraction of value from places racialized as nonwhite. Through the case of Tamina, Texas, we argue that Black towns specifically, and Black places more generally, experience racially predatory governance and resource extraction, often by nearby white places, under the guise of following mundane rules of legal jurisdiction, standard economic planning, and development. To illustrate this, we focus on three overlapping mechanisms of “creative extraction” that reinforce white spatial, political, and economic power at the expense of Black places: theft, erosion, and exclusion. These mechanisms are tied to the environmental harms inflicted on Black towns, as some of the existential threats they face.
... Through a participatory action framework, the project works through placemaking for these historic settlements that have been absent from policy, planning, and heritage frameworks operationalized through a Digital Atlas approach (see more on technology below). 33 New fieldwork on the historic built environment emphasize the buildings and landscapes of enslaved communities through traditional architectural recording, as well as database projects. The dwellings of enslaved Africans in North America and the Caribbean are understood as pieces of complex material culture that provide unique insight into past lifeways. ...
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