Expanding Free Black Space: The Future of Freedom Colony Scholarship & Advocacy

Reprinted from “Letter from the Founder and Director” TxFCP Newsletter, March 2022, https://www.thetexasfreedomcoloniesproject.com/2022/03/txfcp-newsletter-march-2022.html

National Trust for Historic Preservation cemetery evaluation tool testing in Shankleville at the Odom Homestead, August 2021. Pictured: Descendant Lareatha Clay (left) and Dr. Andrea Roberts (right).

The work of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project has always centered on descendant needs and voices. The Project originates from observing the ways urban planning and preservation often work around or in Black communities but not with them. Buildings are often elevated in ways that exclude or obscure place and community meaning and memory. My purpose has always been to make Black communities — invisible, dispossessed, and culturally persistent–-visible within processes and institutions that often treat them as afterthoughts or do not engage them.

Though challenging, I‘ve endeavored to balance being a researcher while prioritizing freedom colony descendants’ interests. It has not always been easy, and any lessons I have learned about balance came from freedom colony descendants. When I began this journey, the freedom colony descendants articulated a need to be recognized and shared goals. Their agenda included: creating a centralized location for information and communication among descendants; Building partnerships with institutions of higher learning, advocacy groups, and agencies; developing a learning community; holding annual meetings and symposia, and preserving heritage memorabilia associated with schools and churches.

Brenham Museum Oral History Workshop (2021)

TxFCP has made considerable progress on these agenda items as a university-based initiative. But there is still much work to be done. We’ve hosted sessions and workshops teaching freedom colony descendant communities to conduct oral histories, assess cemetery conditions, and organize archival materials for local museum exhibits. Our team and courses have mapped and verified more than 400+ communities across the state in order to make them visible in planning and disaster recovery planning processes. We’ve also partnered with public agencies and experts who provide direct support to those seeking grant funds to save buildings or protect them from harmful development. In other instances, we have shared our news coverage and “branding.”

Our website hosts guidebooks which teach descendants how to apply for a historic marker, learn about legal protections that can slow land loss, or simply how to recognize freedom colonies in the landscape. Finally, we’ve elevated the profile of grassroots preservationists and Black placemaking history in the planning profession and in the public consciousness through media and scholarship.

Doctoral candidate and TXFC project research team member Jennifer Blanks with our More than Monuments Students in Centerline Community, Burleson County, Texas (2022)

This next phase of our work requires expansion, breaking academic disciplinary boundaries, and tapping into ancestral wisdom and descendants’ imaginations in new ways. So, I ask you to imagine that freedom colony descendant communities around the state have full access to the technical assistance and university research support they need. Envision an online hub for the entire diaspora of descendants of historic Black settlements in Texas to connect, plan, and “map out” a future for their communities. Imagine that on this same online hub, risks and dangers facing all historic Black settlements are mapped and compared to the development and environmental patterns of risk to be fully included in regional disaster planning and funding allocations. Imagine that hundreds of churches, cemeteries, and lodges in historic Black settlements are identified, assessed for environmental risks, and documented to recognize and protect more sites. Imagine that university scholarship serves this freedom colony descendant-driven work. Now imagine that all this work online mirrors offline work responsive to local needs. Now imagine all of this being achieved in Texas and around the country!

When I join the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture this coming fall as an associate professor of urban and environmental planning and the co-director of the Center for Cultural Landscapes, I will have a unique opportunity to manifest what we only imagine now. Joining the faculty at UVA provides the perfect opportunity to extend the reach and impact of the descendant communities I’ve learned from in Texas. This position affords Texas descendants access to a broader range of supports and resources within the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia region while introducing Virginia descendants to an active freedom colony network in our state.

The TxFCP work of connecting, collecting, countermapping through our Atlas and co-creating through community engagement will continue. Our partnerships and collaborations will continue, with new opportunities and expanded partnerships, from a home base in Charlottesville, Virginia. I will regularly travel between Texas and Virginia to continue our work in the Lone Star State. This transition will be an ongoing conversation, and I welcome your questions (AND IDEAS) at freedomcoloniesproject@gmail.com or roberta318@gmail.com. The heart of our project continues to be you — our partners, descendants, and volunteers.

Sincerely,

Andrea Roberts, PhD
Assistant Professor, Urban Planning, Texas A&M University
Owner/Consultant, Freedom Colonies Project LLC
Sixth-Generation Texan and Freedom Colony Descendant
Founder and Director, The Texas Freedom Colonies Project

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Andrea Roberts, PhD

Founder, TX Freedom Colonies Project/Professor/Writer. Historic preservation & heritage, planning history, insurgent planning, & black feminism/womanism.