Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow

Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow

Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow

Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow

Synopsis

This study is a thoughtful and important addition to an understanding of rural Texas and the nature of black settlements. - Journal of Southern History "Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad have made an important contribution to African American and southern history with their study of communities fashioned by freedmen in the years after emancipation." - Journal of American History

"This book is the first of its kind.... Blacks emerge as thinkers and actors on the stage; that is, they were not merely passive victims; rather, they made their own history by building their own communities and by becoming free farmers." - James Smallwood, Professor Emeritus of History, Oklahoma State University

In the decades following the Civil War, nearly a quarter of African Americans achieved a remarkable victory- they got their own land. While other ex-slaves and many poor whites became trapped in the exploitative sharecropping system, these independence-seeking individuals settled on pockets of unclaimed land that had been deemed too poor for farming and turned them into successful family farms. In these self-sufficient rural communities, often known as "freedom colonies," African Americans created a refuge from the discrimination and violence that routinely limited the opportunities of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Freedom Colonies is the first book to tell the story of these independent African American settlements. Thad Sitton and James Conrad focus on communities in Texas, where blacks achieved a higher percentage of land ownership than in any other state of the Deep South. The authors draw on a vast reservoir of ex-slave narratives, oral histories, written memoirs, and public records to describe how the freedom colonies formed and to recreate the lifeways of African Americans who made their living by farming or in skilled trades such as milling and blacksmithing. They also uncover the forces that led to the decline of the communities from the 1930s onward, including economic hard times and the greed of whites who found legal and illegal means of taking black-owned land. And they visit some of the remaining communities to discover how their independent way of life endures into the twenty-first century.

Excerpt

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 . . .

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