After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people settled in communities in an attempt to get out from under the political and economic repression of white society. These historic Black settlements, formed during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, are known as freedom colonies.
Dr. Andrea Roberts says these settlements were founded “to seek freedom [and] safety in the face of racial violence.” Roberts is the founder and director of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which was established to understand, chronicle and share the history of those settlements.
The freedom colonies’ origin story is one of the reasons why their history has been so challenging to document and preserve. The traditional system of archiving history, Roberts says, is not set up to accommodate nontraditional cultural spaces.
“The criteria that determines what is historic and what is not often makes it difficult for historic sites in Black places to qualify,” Roberts says.
Early Texas settlers were given more acres the more enslaved people they brought with them. That means, Roberts says, “we have built into the origin story of Texas a taking of Black life and a profiting of Black life.”
Roberts says the key to understanding the history of freedom colonies is to make space for multiple narratives about the settlements and their founders. She believes the story of the freedom colonies is not another frontier story in which Black people “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and “just mimicked white pioneer settlement.” Freedom colonies’ founding conditions, reasoning and know-how were different.
On Saturday, the Texas Freedom Colonies Project is holding an event at the Bullock Museum in Austin called Reclaiming Our Stories: Preserving Texas’ African American Placemaking History to provide discussion and training about how to preserve the history of Black settlements in Texas.
Listen to the interview above with Roberts, and Texas Freedom Colonies Project research assistant Valentina Aduen, to find out why Roberts says one of the biggest barriers in their work is that “African Americans are trained to question the legitimacy of their voices and their stories.”
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
KUT: In doing the work of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, what are some of the challenges today to the survival and preservation of the freedom colonies?
Texas Freedom Colonies Project Director Dr. Andrea Roberts: I was hearing stories [in my work] that had both a little bit of a folk-life quality to them while at the same time they’d be followed by a very stark reality around why these places were founded in the first place: to seek freedom, safety in the face of racial violence during Jim Crow.
And so the legacy of that is a continued battle against structural racism. Now, there is a regulatory system that explains what cultural resources — that means what historic places, sites, structures, buildings — are worthy of protection or worthy of recognition or not. The rules, that is on the federal level, the criteria that determines what is historic and what is not, often makes it difficult for historic sites in Black places to qualify. That is why so many African-American sites are not necessarily just purposefully overlooked; they’re misunderstood.
What kind of job do you think that we as Texans have done in confronting the origins of the freedom colonies — the very fact that they existed and why they were needed and set up in the first place?
Roberts: We don’t talk about the fact that Stephen F. Austin, 1821, that there was an incentive, that the people who were coming to Texas to start a life were given land grants, and for every enslaved person that they brought with them, they received a land grant of 80 acres. So, we have built into the origin story of Texas a taking of Black life and a profiting of Black life.
And then when we go into the origins of freedom colonies, I think we’re not talking about that as much either because there was so much racial violence. There was so much danger to making it visible that you accumulated land. If you were African American, it attracted white resentment and then white violence. And part of the problem with telling the story of freedom colonies is people sometimes determined that this is really another frontier story. “It has nothing to do with race. See these wonderful African Americans who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and how they effectively just mimicked white pioneer settlement?” That was absolutely not the case. The conditions were different; the reasoning was different; the know-how was different.
And it was infused with several cultural practices that were particularly about organizing, encouraging people to vote, encouraging people to build institutions that reflected back to them their selfhood. Not reflect back to them how good they are at mimicking whiteness, but how much they’re able to show each other to themselves as human. There’s a multitude of experiences, and it’s not simply about how Black people mimicked white or Anglo settlement in Texas.
How do you make room for those multiple narratives in those complex narratives? It seems like a lot of people want simple, easy to define and describe. “This is what happened in history on this date. It meant that and then move on.” But this is clearly not that.
Texas Freedom Colonies Project research assistant Valentina Aduen: One thing that we do — or the many things that we do to build a counter-narrative or building narratives and fostering a space for those narratives to live — is the heritage preservation work. Working with the communities; doing oral tradition workshops; digging into the grassroots archives that people might have in their homes. Things that they keep in their closets and the stories that they might have in letters and recipes and quilts that tell a narrative that is not usually what we commonly accept or think about when we think of things that are in museums or things that we consider preservation-worthy.
Roberts: It’s about creating the space for the stories in all the ways that Valentina describes. And it’s also about validation and support. Validation comes from validating descendants who often the first thing they say is, “I don’t know the exact history. I don’t have it written down.”
Often we have to encourage people to understand that story narrative doesn’t necessarily mean it has a clear beginning, middle, end; that you documented every date; that it was originally in a history book in the first place. That is the work we’re doing. And in the course of doing all of that work, we find most of all people who are downplaying or minimizing the contributions they can make through sharing their knowledge and story because of the expectations that we have in our society for what is determined historic, what is determined legitimate and what is determined to be “the truth.”
We probably all have a definition or idea of what we think “story” means. Story can be much broader than most of us think.
Roberts: So often the conversation that comes to us is someone saying, “Hey, can you help me find legal assistance because we have a title problem?” Or, “We have a cemetery and even though the law says we have access to the land where the cemetery is, we can’t get locals to enforce that law so we can go and visit all our loved ones.”
Because there are so many ambiguities and contradictions in law, in the way that the law operates in respect to African Americans, in respect to these places, the story we’re getting can sound out of order, disjointed, and it causes people to question the legitimacy of that issue or problem.
And then we ask them to tell us more about why the place matters. And then they begin to talk about the institutions and the memories in the origins. And then they also say, “Well, I never lived there full-time, but I went there every summer.” So there’s all these ways that people question themselves. African Americans are trained to question the legitimacy of their voices and their stories. And it’s very often about what we assume to be the structure of history in a story, what we assume to be legitimate. And that is one of the biggest barriers that we have to overcome.
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