In 1865, the Civil War and slavery (supposedly) ended. However, when masses of disenfranchised people were unable to situate themselves within the folds of society, they bonded to form autonomous communities of their own. While this may look to some as self-segregation, the reality was that freed Black people without homes were often coerced back into slavery if they had not formed communities. Thus, freedom colonies were formed all over the United States, allowing freed people to work around a society that was aggressively dedicated to disavowing their existence. Not much is known about these colonies outside those who do racial studies, but there are a dedicated few who work to bring them back to life. Enter the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.
In the beginning in 2014, it was one lonely preservationist with a vision. Trained at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Andrea Roberts earned her PhD in African Diaspora studies as well as Community and Regional Planning, with an eye on highlighting Blackness in the preservation world. Combatting the rise of the obsession with the Confederacy, Dr. Roberts was what the Black preservationists needed: someone with the training to advocate for spreading the knowledge of how Black people related to the land which they worked since the beginning of this country. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project began with her driving across the vast state of Texas and doing what so many communities needed: listening with an open mind. She went to church services and community meetings, and began seeking out grants to build a database full of information this heritage. Soon, people began responding.
During a presentation at the Carver Museum in Austin, Texas, Dr. Roberts revealed that and project like this could only expand with community support and crowdsourcing data. Now in addition to herself, Dr. Roberts was assisted by Schuyler Carter, a doctoral student at Texas A & M University in College Station who assists with the daunting community outreach efforts. For all those areas hungering to tell their stories, Dr. Roberts and Ms. Carter are able to receive the information while cataloging it in a way that protects the integrity of the history and the community it describes. With even more assistance, this project has expanded to display maps, collect data, and encourage the populace to participate. Without revealing the actual locations, this project helps preserve the origins of how Black communities evolved after the indescribable atrocity of chattel slavery.
The challenges of cataloging a history that many would rather forget are many, including few public records from ostracized populations and the fresh emotions when digging up the wounds of the past. Dr. Roberts and her team are taking the first steps, which involve uncovering a past that was unquestionably bloody, but still held people’s communities. As society moves towards a system of justice, there will be more elements of history that will be revealed, and hopefully more projects such as this. By teaching the story of freedom colonies, scholars and the public can understand that despite a complicated origin story, communities can flourish and the bonds that existed in the past can be expressed.
For more information about the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, please go to their site: thetexasfreedomcoloniesproject.com.