Freedom Colonies Trace the Growth of Post Civil War African American Texas

We've all heard the story of Juneteenth...about how Union Gen. Gordon Granger, standing on the balcony of a plantation house in Galveston, told enslaved Texans about the Emancipation Proclamation and informed them that they were free.

But what happened next?  

That's what Texas A&M College of Architecture urban planning professor Dr. Andrea Roberts is trying to find out.

Dr. Roberts has embarked on a project to identify and document hundreds of what were called 'Freedom Colonies' that sprung up all over the state in the decade after the Civil War, where former slaves gathered to begin life as free men and women.

She says these were not people who were without useful skills, ranging from farming to high end planning experience.

"The African Americans were responsible for actually making sure that plantations ran every day that farms ran ever day," she said.  "The every day work and expertise that went into running these large enterprises."

She says since almost none of the former enslaved Texans had any money, these small communities were established under the most difficult of circumstances. 

 Most, of course, are clustered in east Texas, where slavery was most commonly practiced, but Roberts has found Freedom Colonies across the west Texas frontier, generally due to men joining the U.S. military as 'Buffalo Soldiers' during the Indian wars.

She says in many cases, the former slaves intermarried with Mexicans and even with native peoples.

Dr. Roberts says the Freedom Colonies can teach us a lot today, from the natural methods of farming that were successful in frequently infertile Texas soils, to how the residents formed working governments in the small communities.

She says one of her goals in marking the Freedom Colonies is to make sure they don't get paved over by roads and suburbs as Texas continues to grow.  They will also be an attraction and an inspiration to today's African Americans as they find their roots and chart their course, like their forebears, in a changing world. 

 She says many African Americans have no record of their enslaved ancestors because slaves were frequently not counted as persons in the Census, but were instead listed as property, often only by numbers or indications of age and gender.

She says the fact that African Americans moved voluntarily to the Freedom Colonies and were able to turn them into successful, working communities can also inform students of urban planning how to make sure sometimes marginalized people are included in city and neighborhood development.

But she says the key is the message that the Freedom Colonies send us across the span of time.

"Too often, we either just go from Juneteenth straight to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, or believe that all African Americans either fled directly to cities or were sharecroppers," she said.  "But the history is so much more than that."

PHOTO: Dr. Andrea Roberts stands in front of a map where she has carefully documented the location of Freedom Colonies across Texas.  Photo credit: John Peters.  Courtesy: Texas A&M College of Architecture.  Used by Permission

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