Planning Magazine

The Urgent Effort to Preserve Freedom Colonies and Black Settlements

A conversation about the challenges and importance of place-keeping with Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., founder of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

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Riceville, a freedom colony located in Southwest Houston, Texas, is anchored by Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church, which was founded in 1889 in a brush arbor. Here, Andrea Roberts (top right) is photographed in 2019 after oral history interviews with her family and members of the church. Roberts stand next to her cousin, Charlotte Foote, and behind (from left to right) Arie Arbuckle, Roberts's grand-aunt; Dorothy Miller; Viola Jones, Roberts's grandmother; and Flemmon Hubbard. Photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts.

When Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University, first spoke with Planning in 2020, she was trying to map about 200 Texas freedom colonies — or settlements where formerly enslaved African-Americans lived from 1866 through the end of the Great Depression.

"We are really trying to build a comprehensive assessment of African American communities, not only as historic places, but as contemporary places with Black historic pasts," she said at the time. "Our mission is to avoid the sentimentality and memorialization of these communities by bringing them into discourse and research on contemporary planning and sustainability challenges."

Two years later, Roberts continues to execute The Texas Freedom Colonies Project with a scrappy team of student employees and volunteers. Despite the pandemic, their work has expanded beyond the state with monthly Zoom calls and resources to help Black property owners and farmers navigate land retention issues. Planning caught up with her to learn about how the project is progressing amid increasing urgency, her goals for 2022, and how planners can kick start similar work in their own communities.

On her goals for The Texas Freedom Colonies Project

Our goal this year is to locate and verify 80 percent of our original list of 557 place names.

The initial list was compiled from interviews I conducted, Department of Transportation maps, and the appendix of the book Freedom Colonies by Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad. I started compiling it in 2017, with a list of 557 places and verified locations for 357 of them. We now have verified 423 place names, which includes names not on our original list. We are still trying to verify where some are and if they are in fact Black geographies.

We're beginning to substantiate and aggregate this information into useful data in the form of something modeled after the Urban League's State of Black America report. The goal is to produce one of those reports by late 2024.

On how the pandemic and the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor changed the project

While we have an online atlas, that is the depository. That is not the way that we principally relate with the world. We suddenly had to make this shift [to figure out], 'How are we going to build the community necessary to not just extract the stories but to continue to build — what we see [as] — more of a movement in build capacity among lots of people who feel absolutely alone, that are trying to save these places?'

It took a few months for [COVID-19] to get to Texas, so that immediacy of the shutdown took a little bit longer, but it was around April that things began to convert to online, to Zoom. The big shift we made happened amidst not only the pandemic, but the sort of second racial reckoning. In April, [we did] some soul searching around, "What is it we really need to be doing right now for Black folks from these communities or who care about these communities?"

My students helped me develop [something] called Coffee Talk, a monthly online Facebook Live or Zoom. We have both a descendant of a freedom colony or Black settlement, as well as some type of expert in addressing some of the challenges that freedom colonies have [like property rights].

On the urgency of the project

My urgency is always there, and it's exacerbated by the reality of climate change. It's also exacerbated by the aging of individuals. Every month I lose someone else that I interviewed a few years ago or that I worked with. It's all about, "How can we get the story, train the people how to get the story, and also grow community amongst this room of people whom all care about the same stuff to keep doing it after we leave?"

To me, it's about a system change, a building, a movement, sustainability. Because those elders will go, and we all need to get to them. But I need to help more people get to them quickly.

On the changing scope of her work

There's a demand for me to do virtual public speaking at Harvard — at all types of places. While we started as The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, because of the virtual work that we started to do, during COVID especially, people are looking at us more as a source of expertise about rural planning and preservation, about African-American settlement preservation, nationally.

The Texas Freedom Colonies Project team trains Texas A&M University students to engage in community-based research with descendant communities at public events. Here, Jennifer Blanks (foreground) and Joshua Brown record descriptions, attain permissions, and scan images of freedom colony places and people .

The Texas Freedom Colonies Project team trains Texas A&M University students to engage in community-based research with descendant communities at public events. Here, Jennifer Blanks (foreground) and Joshua Brown record descriptions, attain permissions, and scan images of freedom colony places and people during the Oral Tradition Workshop & Community Archive Drive in Brenham, Texas, in September 2021. The event also included oral history training to support the development of a local museum exhibit on Washington County freedom colonies. Photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts.

I was awarded a $50,000 grant [from] the African American Cultural Heritage Grant Program. I used that grant for two things: I hired a consultant to help us develop a new strategic plan for how we could improve our story map atlas on our website. We also began designing and testing an assessment tool.

One of the things we did [was] we created a program called The Adopt-a-County Program. Our goal was to look at our map and say, 'These are the counties in which we're missing the most information about settlements." We may have a settlement name, but we don't have a location. We may have a settlement location, but we can't really verify that it was ever a predominantly African-American place, or it's difficult to identify that information, but there are a number of people from that county — descendants, county historical commission representatives, planning department representatives, but primarily lay people, African-American descendants of these communities. They could shift their materials there. We could teach them how to preserve those materials.

On what planners can take away from The Texas Freedom Colonies Project

Number one, planners need to always incorporate historic preservationists. If you go into a community, a historic African-American community, and you talk to the historic preservationist community in town, and it's all white, then you need to make it part of your engagement plan to change the color of historic preservation as much as you want to change the color of planning and your outreach and engagement. Get those people in your stakeholder groups and expand your notice of who's a historic preservationist.

A lot of the African Americans that I run into are just feeling really like they're not fully enveloped in planning processes. They're seen as somebody to manage and to call when you need them. We need planners to think about this historic infrastructure as not just something to be preserved in amber, but as another resource for people to gather and figure out how they're going to survive as we face more and more disasters, climate change, and everything else. We need to look at [historical] and social infrastructure as just as important as our roads and our bridges and our freeways.

Tatiana Walk-Morris is a Detroit-native and Chicago-based independent journalist.