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FREEDMEN'S SETTLEMENTS

FREEDMEN'S SETTLEMENTS. Freedmen's settlements were independent rural communities of African-American landowners and land squatters that formed in the eastern half of Texas in the years after Emancipation. These "freedom colonies," as blacks sometimes called them, were to a degree anomalies in a post-war Texas where white power elites rapidly resumed social, economic, and political control, and the agricultural system of sharecropping came to dominate.

Freedmen's strong desires for land, autonomy, and isolation from whites motivated formation of these independent black communities. After the 1865 rumor that the federal government soon would provide all ex-slaves with "40 acres and a mule" proved baseless, most freed persons remained in the countryside and took employments with white landowners as day laborers, sharecroppers, or share tenants. Another large group of ex-slaves moved to settle in segregated "quarters" adjacent to white towns. A minority of former slaves, however, set out to achieve the dream of forty acres and a mule quite on their own, and a remarkable number of them succeeded.

Landownership rates among African-American farmers in Texas rose rapidly from 1.8 percent in 1870 to 26 percent in 1890 to the all-time-high of 31 percent soon after 1900. Many of these new black Texas landowners resided in freedmen's settlements, informal communities of black farmers and stockmen scattered across the eastern half of the state. These were dispersed communities—"settlements," Southerners often 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. Many established themselves on pockets of wilderness, cheap land, or neglected land previously little utilized for cotton agriculture.

Some patterns of community origin are discernable, although their relative importance remains uncertain. As in the case of Barrett, Harris County, many settlements existed for years as squatter communities before residents formally purchased or preempted land. Ministers and their congregations took the lead in founding some communities, as at St. John Colony in Caldwell County. At County Line (now Upshaw), Nacogdoches County, and other places, groups of siblings formed the core pioneers of settlements. As at Shankleville, a single black family with unusual resources for land purchase might serve as patron for a black community, which then grew up around it. Motivated by paternal attitudes toward former slaves, friendships or blood relationships with former slaves, or simply the need for ready cash, whites occasionally assisted the origins of such settlements as Halls Bluffand Fodice, Houston County, Grant's Colony, Walker County, and Kendleton, Fort Bend County.

Freedmen's settlement families clung tenaciously to their lands, although these fragmented into smaller and smaller holdings across the generations. By the 1920s, many residents found it necessary to rent additional agricultural lands nearby, rent-farm for whites, or work in town. The sequential impacts of the Great Depression and World War IIqqv led to the depopulation of many Texas freedmen's settlements, though some survived into the 21st century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Michelle M. Mears, African-American Settlement Patterns in Austin, Texas, 1865–1928 (M.A. thesis, Baylor University, 2001). Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad, Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005). Ronald D. Traylor, Harrison Barrett: A Freedman in Post-Civil War Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1999).

Thad Sitton

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Thad Sitton, "FREEDMEN'S SETTLEMENTS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/uef20), accessed December 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.