In 1865, it was announced that more than 4 million Black people were freed, ushering in the Reconstruction Era. And although formerly enslaved people were told they were free, laws and leaders didn’t protect them from violence, unfair wages, and the lack of adequate land. They had to learn how to be self-sufficient as a community. Popular narratives of Black placemaking are often misrepresented by popular culture by being limited to sharecropper cabins and urban enclaves. But, as Texas A&M’s Andrea Roberts has found, 182,566 of those Black Texans established more than 550 freedom colonies—settlements or towns founded by independent Black Texans—between 1865 and 1930. Most of those settlements and towns were concentrated in the east and central parts of the state and, until recently, those places have been overlooked by urban planners.
Roberts is an assistant professor in landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M and the founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies project, which publishes interactive information on planning, heritage, preservation, and ecological threats in freedom colonies. She also leads a team that hosts ethnographic and archival research workshops with the descendants of people who lived in the colonies. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project online atlas allows families to explore locations of freedom colonies as well as submit historical recordings, photos, and oral histories.
Since the project began in 2014, Roberts and her team have mapped over 350 freedom colonies and are actively working to verify and map 200 more through the information collected from descendants, cemeteries, and churches. Roberts’ aim with the project is to leverage Texas’ African American heritage and culture by creating an open database for contemporary planning in cities as well as for families who may have otherwise never known their history.
The Observer spoke to Roberts about archival research, reclaiming Black Texans’ history, and present day planning.
Texas Observer: How did you start your work on the Texas Freedom Colonies Project?
Andrea Roberts: I learned about this book called Freedom Colonies, written by James Conrad and Thad Sitton in 2005. It was different than the story that was told that after slavery—that everybody ran to the cities as quickly as they could, or they sharecropped. That’s the story that we get told about what happened after enslavement. A lot of people were not publishing these stories in Texas about African Americans creating communities and having the economic and socio-political infrastructures for these communities. I got intensively obsessed with understanding [our] capacity to be place makers: How did you carve out freedom out of unfreedom?
You’re Black and you’re not a 100-percent citizen. And so how did people carve out a whole separate safe space? I wanted to know why it was that all that we knew and that we gained from those experiences wasn’t being leveraged in the context of the work I was doing in cities. The classic idea of how to think about African Americans is thinking of them as living in a neighborhood and thinking of them as voting blocks in urban areas. Most Black people really don’t fit into that kind of identity. We have multiple simultaneous homes and citizenships in rural places. I got my Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in community and regional planning. And I focused on African diaspora heritage in the U.S., as well as how you leverage historic preservation for community development.
How do we get the rest of that data so that we can have a full picture of the footprint of African American history in Texas?
Our map in the platform we’re slowly building is intended to be a space for urban planners and developers, so that they will have no excuse anymore to say ‘I didn’t know’ [about the histories of these areas]. We are going to become a clearing house for all of that data.
How personal is this project for you?
Oh, it’s been intensively personal. In terms of methodology, it’s called being reflexive—you bring your full self with you. And this idea of objectivity, that you’re not bringing a whole wealth of life experiences that impact you and thus you impact the space with them—that’s just a fallacy.
I have so many relatives and, you know, ancestors from freedom colonies in Washington County, Austin County, Fort Bend County, Harris County, Brazoria County, that entire region. I have relatives who’ve been there since before they built the suburbs there.
So when we go back there, we’re not running from the city. We’re just going back where we came from. It’s frustrating that it took forever for me to figure that out. I learned that because we’re not taught to value these places as real places or communities.
How relevant is archival research right now? Why is it crucial to learn these oral histories?
The people that hold the memories not only of kinship but also of land ownership and of where your core story comes from, in terms of places and the names of these places, they are in people’s memories more than they are going to be in a book in a library. And so if you cannot even get to people while they’re dying—you can’t even talk to people with COVID. I mean, people are always leaving us so it’s always urgent, but when it can happen to anybody, this is very urgent.
And so it’s really important that we have an archive of our past, and get it from people who are endangered because they’re so susceptible to dying of disease.
We’re seeing uprisings happening in response to the murder of George Floyd and other injustices faced by Black Americans. I’m curious what this moment means when it comes to not only preserving history in Texas during this moment but also fighting for that history to be taken seriously?
Place persistence is resistance. There’s a certain element of persistence in place that is a form of activism. It’s the right to remain and it’s the right to the city.
These are very classic ideas in geography and urban planning, but it’s really come to the fore right now that people unfortunately don’t know what claims they have to place. If they feel they have no claim, they just see space as a terrain on which to battle but there’s no investment in it.
So people don’t know their full inheritance because they don’t know their history. If you knew your history, you would think about Fort Bend County differently. Not “That’s a suburb and that’s where all the Black people go to live outside of Houston because they don’t wanna be in the city.” Instead, you think, “Oh, wait a minute, there are several plantations that were here. This was a space at one time that was the highest concentration of enslaved people and now it’s one of the highest concentrations of Black homeownership in the country.”
Part of the importance of the archive is central to these struggles over terrain and territory and state. When you get to the suburbs or edge cities or exurbs in the rural areas, the entire idea around what the archives and the history is about is usually very white and very embedded in white settlerism. I’m trying to find ways to make evidence-based, cohesive arguments much in the way that you would make a class action suit argument.
If we don’t have this kind of bottom-up definition of what a free Black space is—one that emerges out of our stories—then we’re going to continue to be divisive and not be able to manifest and work together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction: Between 1865 and 1930, 182,566 Black Texans established free settlements. The Observer originally stated that number was over a million. We regret the error.
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