Freedmen's settlements were independent rural communities of African American landowners (and land squatters) that formed in the South in the years after Emancipation. These "freedom colonies," as blacks sometimes called them, were to a degree anomalies in a postwar South where white power elites rapidly resumed social, economic, and political control and the agricultural system of sharecropping came to dominate.
Beginning as early as 1866, southern whites swiftly assimilated their former slaves into a pattern of cotton rent farming that maintained as many of the social controls of slavery as landowners, local officials, and state governments could devise. Dreams of land and independence ended early for most former slaves. Generalizing about the two decades after 1870, historian Loren Schweninger noted that freedmen
struggled against oppressive white landlords, the debilitating effects of the crop lien system, discrimination in wage rates, seemingly endless debt, and an increasingly hostile racial climate. Even the most diligent, persistent, frugal, and industrious blacks were often unable to overcome the ironlike grip of whites on the land, or the low wages. Most observers of blacks in the rural Deep South during these decades were struck by the continuity with the prewar era: Negroes laboring in the fields on white-owned plantations in much the same manner as they had during slavery. They were also struck by the deplorable living conditions. After observing the circumstances of black sharecroppers in the South, W. E. Du Bois wrote in his classic 1903 study, The Souls of Black Folk: "The size and arrangements of a people's homes are no unfair index of their condition. All over the face of the land is the one-room cabin,—now standing in the shadow of the Big House, now staring at the dusty road, now rising dark and somber among the green of the cotton fields."
Schweninger continued, "The 'cabin,' built with rough-hewn lumber, was nearly always dark, dingy, and dilapidated, without windows, light, or proper ventilation. It smelled of must, eating, and sleeping. Containing eight to ten people, it stood as a silent symbol of the degradation of landless blacks in the Deep South."
So compelling to historians has been this dark image of the "degradation of landless blacks"—of the rise of sharecropping, "debt slavery," the "neo-plantation," and Jim Crow apartheid—that they often failed to notice a counter-movement. From 1870 to 1890, at the same time that what historian Pete Daniel called "the shadow of slavery" tightened its hold on most black farmers in the South, nearly one-fourth of them got their own land. Landownership rose more precipitously in Texas than in any other southern state. In 1870 only 1.8 percent of the state's black farmers owned land, but by 1890 an astonishing 26 percent of them did. Just after the turn of the century, black Texas landownership peaked at 31 percent.
In their focus on the dark side of the New South, historians commonly have dismissed the phenomenon of black landownership as a glass three-fourths empty. Leon Litwack generalized in his 1998 history of African Americans in the Jim Crow South: "Examples of black economic success and landownership existed but failed to proliferate. The great mass of laboring black families, whether they rented lands or worked for wages or shares, remained farmers without land, agricultural workers who compromised a rural proletariat."
"Farmers without land," the phrase of C. Vann Woodward echoed by Litwack, has come to sum up the circumstances of southern black agriculturalists after Emancipation and serves as a chapter title in Neil R. McMillan's history of African Americans in Mississippi. In perspective, however, this dismissal of black landownership seems a strange judgment. That so many former slaves, usually illiterate and disadvantaged in many ways, often beginning with nothing, got their own land surely was a remarkable achievement.
Many—perhaps most—of these new black Texas landowners resided in freedmen's settlements, informal communities of black farmers and stockmen scattered across the eastern half of Texas. These were dispersed communities—"settlements," Southerners called them—places unplatted and unincorporated, individually unified only by church and school and residents' collective belief that a community existed. Up in the sand hills, down in the creek and river bottoms, and along county lines, several hundred Texas freedmen's settlements came into being between 1870 and 1890. Most established themselves on pockets of wilderness, cheap land, or neglected land previously untouched by cotton agriculture.
Southern historians have ignored freedmen's settlements, and data are scanty, but similar communities seem to have formed all across the South. Former slaves determined to get their own "40 acres and a mule," after the federal government failed to provide this, moved from plantation districts to wilderness areas of cheap land. Freedmen pioneered independent landowner and squatter communities in north Florida, the Pine Barrens of western South Carolina, southwest Georgia, the Red Hills of Alabama and Mississippi, and other places.
Focused as they were on the triumph of sharecropping and the accompanying "degradation of blacks in the Deep South," historians neglected the counter-current of black landowner settlements. No account of them had appeared in the Journal of Southern History by 2003. Likewise, the scholarly journal of the Texas State Historical Association, the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, still had not published a single article about black landowner communities by 2003, although the association's six-volume reference work, the New Handbook of Texas, listed over two hundred such places. Historians of the black experience after Emancipation focused instead upon the rise of sharecropping as a replacement for slavery, the move of some Texas blacks into segregated "quarters" adjacent to white market towns, the development of Jim Crow segregation, and the "exodus" of a few thousand Texas freedmen to black developer towns in Kansas and Oklahoma during the 1870s and 1880s.
The desperate migration of freedmen to Kansas and Oklahoma around 1879 resulted from blacks' abiding land hunger and as an avoidance response after white Southerners' resumption of political power at "Redemption." Historians largely missed the similar and more general response of the freedmen's settlements, where ex-slaves remained in the South to establish all-black landowner communities as far away from white authority as possible. Numbers are difficult to estimate, but this ubiquitous, unremarked internal "exodus" to local "freedom colonies" must have dwarfed the famous move north.
Other factors perhaps also contributed to historians' neglect of southern black landowner communities. Most of them never developed past the "settlement" level of organization, remaining dispersed, poorly focused places where a passing stranger might not see a community at all, only scattered farmsteads with perhaps a remote church or school. At the grassroots level, the southern countryside of whites and blacks was organized into these dispersed settlements, but historians have overlooked such places as they have overlooked most of the folk-ideational reality, the "natives'" perspectives, on the now-vanished rural world. Scholars failed to note freedmen's settlements because they failed to note any settlements.
Furthermore, freedmen's settlements long remained especially remote, informal, and unofficial—defensive black communities that went almost as unnoticed by white contemporaries in the courthouse towns as by latter-day historians. Courthouse land and tax records (and even the federal censuses) often poorly recorded freedmen's settlements, and for traditional historians no documents meant no history. (Local historians, conducting marker file research for Peyton's Colony in Blanco County, once returned home from days of work at the courthouse with all of their data in a single coffee can.) Only in the living memories of elderly community residents did the vein of information run deep, but many researchers and many interviewees felt uncomfortable with the practice of oral history across racial and cultural lines. Quite understandably, social awkwardness and lingering suspicions often haunted such interactions. The elderly African Americans whose memories embodied the historical knowledge had lived half their lives under the full force of Jim Crow.
Another reason for the scholarly neglect of freedmen's settlements may have been the decidedly counter-current (even "politically incorrect") aspects of their story. For one thing, a good many Texas landowner settlements began with the aid of former slaveholders, some of them blood-related to the freedmen they helped. For another, freedmen's settlements were communities of avoidance and self-segregation, where black people adapted to Jim Crow restrictions not by fighting back or moving north, but by withdrawing from whites and by maintaining what Deborah J. Hoskins called "a culture of dissemblance." Freedmen's settlement residents watched what they said, carefully managed their interactions with whites, and stayed to themselves. In keeping with these inclinations, during the 1960s freedmen's settlements often fought school integration to the end, sometimes in strange political alliances with white segregationists in town. Some blacks did not want to integrate and most simply placed the greatest priority on maintaining their own independent community schools. Finally, the conventional story of African Americans fleeing the hated countryside for the city does not fit the freedmen's settlements. People there were black ruralists, committed followers of the subsistence lifestyle of "living on the place." They had practiced Booker T. Washington's austerities of landownership, hard work, independence, neighborly cooperation, subsistence farming, and avoidance of debt for decades before Washington began to preach these strategies for black advancement. Many residents stayed on their land until the bitter end, and some of them reside there today.
Because of the general neglect of freedmen's settlements across Texas and the South, the authors of this book found few scholarly shoulders to stand on. There are several studies of such famous "black towns" as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Boley and Langston City, Oklahoma, and Nicodemus, Kansas, but these developer towns are of limited relevance. They were the atypical tip of the iceberg of black landowner communities. Only two book-length studies focus on true freedmen's settlements, and neither of these is about Texas. They are Elizabeth Bethel's Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community (1981) and William Montell's The Saga of Coe Ridge: A Study in Oral History (1970). Bethel's detailed account of a South Carolina landowner community is by far the most important of the two. Patterns of life and history in Bethel's Promiseland coincide in many respects with those of Texas settlements.
Among scholarly Texas sources, two master's theses stand out—Ronald D. Traylor's study of Barrett in Harris County and Michelle M. Mears's account of black neighborhoods and freedmen's settlements in the vicinity of Austin. Perhaps even more important, however, are recent dissertations by Deborah J. Hoskins about certain black landowner communities of Gregg County and by Debra Ann Reid about the "Colored County Agents" of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. These agents did much of their work at freedmen's settlements. Published memoirs of black rural Texans are few and far between but very important—especially the oral autobiography of Reverend C. C. White, which contains information on several freedmen's settlements in Shelby and Nacogdoches counties.
In our attempt to research Texas freedmen's settlements for a reasonable overview of the phenomenon, we resorted to a strategy of utilizing every available source of information, primary and secondary. Instead of concentrating on one community, or a small group of communities, we sought information from all across Texas and watched for patterning in the data. As fragmentary information accumulated from many different sources about hundreds of different places, strong repetitive patterns of community origins and evolution emerged.
The project from the beginning has had a unique relationship to a unique reference work, the New Handbook of Texas. The remarkable six-volume NHT contained information on many communities at a time when scholarly journals failed to acknowledge their existence. Another important source of secondary information was the marker files of the Texas Historical Commission. In recent decades, the THC strongly encouraged county historical commissions to seek historical markers for their important black communities, churches, and schools, and the research supporting marker requests ended up at the THC library. Some of this local research proved very useful, especially that of the remarkable Houston County Historical Commission, headed for many years by Eliza Bishop. Another rarely used source of information has been the reports of "cultural resource management" professionals, employed to conduct "mitigation" research before important historical evidence was destroyed by dam, highway, or reservoir. (Only in such cases do historians, anthropologists, and archeologists turn out to study remote "settlements!") We also examined many obscure theses and dissertations, and a few of these added important information to the story. Finally, in a real grasping at straws, we searched various Texas newspaper files for the weeks before the Emancipation holiday of June 19 in hopes of locating feature articles about freedmen's settlements.
We located some unpublished primary sources—often memoirs—in the files of county historical commissions by a survey mailed to every commission chairperson, and several local collections of relevant oral history tapes were discovered by this same process. We found other important oral history materials at the Center for American History at the University of Texas, the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University, the archives of Texas A&M-Commerce, and elsewhere.
Another important source of interview data was the multivolume Texas Slave Narratives, personal accounts written down somewhat as spoken by mostly white researchers during the 1930s. We made the reasonable assumption that these several thousand interviews of elderly ex-slaves would also contain useful information about the decades after slavery, and that turned out to be the case.
For help in interpreting our oral histories and primary accounts, we learned much from two perceptive eyewitnesses of the Jim Crow South at Sunflower County, Mississippi, during the 1930s—anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker and psychologist John Dollard. This was not eastern Texas, but the southern society that Powdermaker and Dollard described from life seemed uncannily the same.
Dollard wrote in 1936: "The significant, the truly explanatory, data on the South is hidden behind great sets of defensive habits. Much of the relevant material can appear only in intimate relations where fear is reduced. The relationship of friendship is such a one." The primary accounts born of friendship and trust between black informants and white researchers proved most important for the interpretations in our book. These include the interviews of Richard Orton with old acquaintances at County Line, those of Glen Alyn with Mance Lipscomb and other of Alyn's friends, that of Ada M. Holland with Reverend C. C. White, and those of Thad Sitton with the friends—and fellow local historians—of Eliza Bishop in Houston County.
Wesley Taylor Fobbs of Houston County's Wheeler Springs community was one of the latter. Interviewed in 2001, Fobbs had sought out the history of her community from the time many decades before when she first spoke with elderly women about their slave days and recorded the recollections on brown wrapping paper that she kept under her bed. Some African Americans have not cared to look back at their trials and tribulations in the Jim Crow countryside, but residents and former residents of freedmen's settlements often had different attitudes. They were proud of their communities and proud of the parents or grandparents who went forth from slavery with only the clothes on their backs and ended up as community leaders with hundreds of acres of land.
In Texas, as in Mississippi, the life of African Americans in the Jim Crow countryside truly was a Dark Journey, as Neil R. McMillan titled his book about black Southerners. Its main story is that of discrimination, disadvantage, and economic exploitation, maintained by an ever-present threat of violence. This focus on black Southerners as victims, however, must not blind us to their achievements against long odds, such as their acquisition of land and establishment of independent rural communities, "freedom colonies." To many ex-slaves, nothing had mattered so much as getting their own land, which brought the only true freedom. A black representative to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention, speaking in support of that state's land redistribution program, said of his fellow freedmen, "Night and day they dream of owning their own land—it is their all in all."
"Don't ever sell your land, the land will take care of you," Andy Patterson of Houston County told his grandchildren just before World War II, and some of the grandchildren listened. The story of the Texas freedmen's settlements contains many things often left out of our general accounts of southern history, among them the story of the freedmen land accumulators like Patterson, who acquired hundreds of acres to divide among his children, passing down a precious landhold into the twentieth century. Blood told, and at the freedmen's settlements the truncated families of slave times developed almost clanlike solidarity and complexity, based always on the land. Booker T. Washington's programs of black advancement through landownership, hard work, and self-sufficiency came together at the freedmen's settlements, where the Colored County Agents of the Texas Extension Service, the Jeanes School Supervisors, and the Rosenwald Fund and Slater Fund administrators found their natural constituencies and revitalized rural communities. The Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights era had an impact on Texas freedmen's settlements, but many of them demonstrated a stubborn persistence during the decades when rural whites from very similar communities scattered to the four winds, Dallas, and Houston.