Episode 40 - The Texas Freedom Colonies Project w/ Dr. Andrea Roberts
4:28PM May 1, 2023
Dr. Ian Anson
Dr. Andrea Roberts
Hello and welcome to Retrieving the Social Sciences, a production of the Center for Social Science Scholarship. I'm your host, Ian Anson, Associate Professor of Political Science here at UMBC. On today's show, as always, we'll be hearing from UMBC faculty, students, visiting speakers, and community partners about the social science research they've been performing in recent times. Qualitative, quantitative, applied, empirical, normative. On Retrieving the Social Sciences, we bring the best of UMBC's social science community to you.
Perhaps one of the most culturally significant questions that we can ask each other in conversation is a rather banal one. "Hey, where are you from?" For me, as a person who's lived in two countries and four different states during my lifetime, it's possible to answer this question in a few different ways. Where was I born? Where did I spend the most years of my life? Or maybe the years when I was learning the most about who I was? Where do I call home? For some folks, the answer to this question can also be a painful or even an uncomfortable one. We might answer the question by naming a place where we experienced hardship or discrimination or trauma. We might end up naming a place we wistfully long to return to one day, or we might name the place that we are right now. A place we long to one day leave behind us. What I'm driving it is place is a complex and a deeply personal subject.
The significance of place is perhaps nowhere more salient than in the discussion that we're bringing you in today's episode. In just a moment, we'll hear a condensed rebroadcast of a recent lecture the formed part of the UMBC Geography and Environmental Systems Seminar Series. The subject of the talk is the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, the fascinating and renowned work of Dr. Andrea Roberts of the University of Virginia. Dr. Roberts uses the project as a springboard to mentor and train future planners, preservationists, scholars, and community based researchers in order to address the biggest challenges facing settlements in Texas and around the country. According to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, these challenges including visibility, environmental injustice, land loss, heritage conservation and endangered historic structures, and cemeteries. This is a fascinating interdisciplinary project that requires interdisciplinary expertise, which Dr. Roberts possesses in surplus. Dr. Robert serves as Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and co-director of the school's Center for Cultural Landscapes at the UVA School of Architecture. Holding a PhD from the University of Texas, she's a scholar activist who brings 12 years of experience in community development, nonprofit administration, and advocacy to her engaged research and public scholarship, which raises awareness of the entrenched racial biases impeding documentation, recognition, and preservation of historic black settlements, cultural assets. Let's dive in and take a listen to what Dr. Roberts has to say about the Texas Freedom Colonies Project right now.
So thanks so much for having me. And I'm excited to speak to such a group that's very interdisciplinary because it very much categorizes the research that I do. I'm going to speak today about CO creating counter narratives as a foundation for just planning and preservation. So why narratives and to kind of talk about why I sent her narratives in my work. It's helpful, I think, to read this quote by Toni Morrison. She says if my work is to confront a reality, unlike that received reality of the West, it must centralized an animate information discredited by the West, patient dismissed as lore or gossip, or magic or sentiment. And I would add, I will have to add information that's embedded in narratives, stories, oral tradition. So to give further context, in my work, I've worked professionally in urban planning and government administration. And a lot of my study is, while focused in African American settlements is more broadly, a study of anti blackness of sort of structural racism in public history and historic preservation. So when we look about look at narratives and why they're so pertinent to understanding anti blackness, we would be remiss if we didn't recognize that in the last six years, we've had some notable moments history Work shared historical moments in public history, work and history happening in public, and historic preservation. We have Charlottesville and 2017 1619 project and 2019, the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which all led to a heightened awareness of systemic racism, sexism, and anti blackness more specifically about when we talk about public space and public history. It's also important to examine the lack of recognition of historic spaces associated with people of color. Only 3% of the 96,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places represent African American heritage, and they're very in proportion to predominantly white, historic local historic districts, much fewer African American and Anglo less than 6% of the National Park Service's 20,000 employees. American African Americans are less than 4% of academic archaeologists 5% of licensed architects and engineers, and those barriers to African American participation, a lack of compensation and validation of African Americans work and what they bring to the table. There's a lot of change that needs to happen in participatory planning and preservation that needs to validate the time and the local narratives and the value of what non experts bring to the table. And neighborhood change makes organizing around particular places often a challenge and difficult. So we have these kinds of structural reasons for a lack of visibility in the field, in the practice, in the process. And in the landscape of an oral tradition. When I use the word narrative. I also want to make sure I'm clear on what I mean. I'm speaking more broadly about oral tradition which comes in a number of forms storytelling testimony, group accounts, oral history, songs, reminiscence and memory. And under that we have personal memory, cognitive memory, and habit memory, which is very much embodied. And narrative forms also have a number of functions. In communities and in our everyday life. There are catalysts for particular actions, they often give us a proof of the resilience of community. They offer us theories of change. Why were we here and how did we get here? There are our practice stories are facilitate facilitate collaboration, create transparency. And the particular focus of my work has been on foundational stories, those stories that tell communities who they are in the process by which they were created and came about. We talk more structurally, about what narratives do in their sphere of influence in let's say, historic preservation, and even any land use planning processes. We have status narratives that shape net national identity and public history, we have narratives embedded in our public discourse that inform allocations of funding policymaking and advocacy. We have all manner of educational and recognition, statements and documentation that help define areas current historic context statements, for example, National Register designations are actually large. well researched documents that are embedded with a narrative of why a particular place site object building or set of structures in a landscape means something. We have ordinances, leadership, organizational cultures, insider, outsider status, determined are largely constructed through narrative and story. We also have dominant planning narratives to be more specific, that are common in how we shape our thinking, think about black communities. So this particular diagram, the source of the information for this diagram is my own experience teaching for several years, not teaching but rather, actually working in cities working for the city of Houston with city and county of Philadelphia. In some of these tropes or ideas that are dominant planning narratives, exercised in black communities. We seeking a one size fits all solution.
A sense of the aesthetics in an African American community are those of needing repair or change, but not necessarily being aesthetics we associate with that the historic People have very complicated ideas about the historic that don't represent the law, or the regulatory complex that tells us what's historic and what's not inner cities. That's commonly how we think about African American places. Not that it's inaccurate. I know a lot of you are in Baltimore. So this is very accurate, accurate to a certain extent. But it doesn't cover the full breadth and width, of the shape of black communities. memorialization that these are places that have a glory in the past that we can remember, but they don't have a future rooted in that past we're doing something different now is often the posture of planning, and blocks and corridors, is the shape of life, rather than the complex landscapes and then sort of a token or gatekeeper sense of engagement of finding someone that's easy, and safe to relate with when engaging in participatory planning. These are all things that I've encountered, that shaped some of my study of trying to seek the appropriate world, rather the appropriate role of practitioners in black spaces in my work. So I mentioned the National Register criteria, the National Historic Preservation Act originally passed in 1966, but amended several times since that time, has two basic criteria, dimensions that help us understand what matters in the landscape and what doesn't what's worthy of national recognition and what's not, is the age and integrity of the structure or the building primarily or object or site. That is is it 50 years or older? And does it still look much the way it did in the past? And then there's significant so we're using the word significance to mean historic, significant significance. And this is the four core criteria is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past, with the lives of people who were important in the past, but significant architectural history or engineering achievements, and doesn't have the potential to yield information through archaeological investigation about our past? So you might look at these and say, Well, what's black and white or Latin x? Or? Or why? Why is this at all embedded with any so called structural racism? Well, in many instances, there's various reasons for why the structural integrity itself is compromised in African American communities. And there's several reasons for why the stories in the histories and the evidence of that historic significance is to identify document and aggregate in one space to facilitate the access of not only the resonance of cells, but for practitioners to access to be able to argue significance. So we have an argument here for why counter narratives matter. We've seen over the past six years how some of these narratives have foster Life and Death moments, how narratives reveal or hide injustice and erase or illuminate inequity. Counter narratives from the margins, however, reveal new public's to stare at disparities needs and new policy ideas, as I will argue going forward and counter narratives, I also argue should be harnessed translated to the policy space and treated as data. And it is important to prioritize counter narrative integration into government consultation, and discourse by leveraging technology and grassroots communication pathways. So again, about black spaces and planning just to give you an idea of what type of settlements or places I'm talking about. In our popular imagination, some of you are probably already aware of historic black towns such as rosewood, Florida, or Seneca village, which is now the site of Central Park in New York City, or Eatonville, which we've heard a lot about in the news lately, Nicodemus, Kansas and Unionville. Right there in Maryland, Texas freedom colonies in compass, freedmen's town settlements. They were dispersed communities places unplanted, unincorporated, individually unified by church and school and residents collective belief that a community existed. And that collective belief that a community existence that makes it so difficult often to verify whether or not a given landscape, or place is actually a freedom colony. And they're mostly but not primarily rural due to the growth of Texas, which now is 24 million residents. Some of the formerly rural spaces are now completely urbanized. But in 1870, less than 2% of African American kins are African Americans own less than 2% of all farmland in Texas, and by 1900 had amassed 31% of all farmland in Texas. That number is significantly lower now. But it gives us an idea of how African Americans were able to come together in safe clusters to develop these places. But often all we see left are churches, schools, homesteads and cemeteries.
Why the decline? Why do we not see if there were five and 57 at least named places? At any given time that were founded 1865 to 1930? Why don't we see them all now on the map? population decline, mass exodus, in several waves associated with escaping racial violence. The Great Migration in many ways was a flight to areas in which African Americans could more freely exercise the franchise, land dispossession, infrastructure projects, bifurcating destroying communities, and various forms of displacement, and the list goes on. So the current threats to those that remain would be best characterized as vulnerability, whether it be vulnerability due to gentrification, or environmental vulnerabilities. Many of these settlements were founded in particularly low lying areas, because that was where the land was mostly available. The visibility of these places they were invisible in the beginning to facilitate safety and security, but that visibility is clawed away at if you will, by increasing growth and expansion and sprawl. And access whether it be descendants access to historic preservation resources, or historic preservation. Preservation is access to tools and information to properly protect places from demolition sprawl, disaster. So this is a tall order, then, for narratives to say that narratives could do anything to protect, grow, secure, or have us understand the power of historic black places, but I saw narratives in action. And it began in 2011 2012, when I worked on a project called the Austin historical wiki survey wiki, where we were attempting, as a student was attempting to document black places that were already determined to be landmarks. And this is at a time when there was increasing demolition of Historic Places in black and eat in Austin. And what we found in our research is that more and more communities of color expressed interest in a mechanism for telling stories about lost places, and less interested in what our enterprise was, which is really documenting the architectural elements to prove that these places mattered. So we were doing something very important, we wanted an easy, cheap way for people to document historic significance and integrity. Meanwhile, people wanted a mechanism for telling people about what was lost, and talking about more locally grounded constructions of significance, they wanted that documented as well, in terms of invisibility, I also found that, you know, often the narratives are what I encountered as a professional and and our ways of talking about vulnerability was to simply get US census data of African Americans and overlay them with whether it be water quality issues, or incidence of disasters, or heat island effect, or whatever it is. But if we look here, the green points are freedom colonies, and they're not always on top of the yellow areas. And the yellow areas are communities of color, majority communities of color. So what that tells us is that freedom colonies, because of the low population, and their placement of landscape very often are dealing with water quality and access issues. But because they're not, they don't have the highest concentration of black residents. You're not seeing the disparity affecting all of these landscapes as well. And there's the issue of being able to recover after disaster. That means being able to access public recovery funds, you have to prove up often land ownership, which you can do in a variety of ways. Now, FEMA passed something in 2022 to provide four different ways that you can prove up your residency. But still, title status is required in most instances, to access disaster recovery funding. In East Texas, I saw a way that people were able to leverage narratives in ways that supported their own planning and preservation aim. So the deep East East Texas area, those two shaded counties, Jasper Newton County were the focus areas of my dissertation scholarship. Research was started in 2014. We know this more commonly is an area associated with the Jasper dragging death and Jasper County. But what many people don't realize is that the road on which he's thought he was dragged, was actually Huff Creek Road, which was not just a road, but actually was a freedom colony. So there's the need for the obvious visibility and need to tell the story and the power of the story of the hate crime story. But actually a sublimated in the telling of the story is the attempted persistence of African American independence and self sufficiency in the form of cemetery. And this chapel, which was what's a Rosenwald school.
I saw storytelling as a form of preservation practice in a particular settlement nearby in Newton County called Shankle Ville. And they were leveraging their origin story, to draw people back to the community, whether they live their full time or not, in order to raise money for various needs, whether it be maintaining structures, stewarding the cemetery, there, you see at the annual homecoming celebration. These are individuals behind the table from six neighboring settlements. And they have a mutual aid or cooperative movement during these homecoming seasons, where they attend each other's events and raise money to sustain cemeteries, which is an often, you know, difficult thing to do is especially when you don't have these modern perpetual care insurance systems. So we also see individuals from all over the state who come back to the settlement. So this is a settlement that's two hours from Dallas. It's at least 45 minutes to an hour from Beaumont. It's three and a half hours from Houston, Texas. But all of these individuals demonstrate an extreme commitment to this place as place even though they may have never lived there full time. And I was interested in what was so powerful why, and the practice of preservation often hand it happened in oral traditions, and in kin keeping the practice of primarily but not exclusively of women, of maintaining font family, Bibles and written accounts of elders, births, deaths and momentous foundational stories of the place and their foundational story is about two enslaved Africans in Mississippi, one of which he was sold to a master in Texas. And the husband who was still in Mississippi swallow swam several great rivers to reunite with his love in Shanksville, and that was Jim and when he Shankle, the namesake of the community, and they are said to have gathered at a stream. So here on this in the bottom corner, we see Harold Odom, he is at that point, at that point where they are alleged to have reunited, has there been an archeological dig there to explore this? Yes, have there been tools, data and tools and elements dated back to that period of 1840 to 8050? Yes. But the idea is not whether or not to prove the story. Rather not you prove the story doesn't shape why these individuals return. They return without your archeological dig without your so called Proof coming as far away as Australia, New York City, Virginia, to reunite in this place. So what I found in Shenko Ville was that the foundational stories held these memories and values that fostered attachment to place and that was fostered through the celebrations and social networks that then encourage participation of planning, preservation community building that then catalyze real planning outcomes, reinvestment with money and time in preserving buildings in the cemetery. Recognition protection there on the National Register of Historic Places, one of their homesteads is and cultural sustainability. And all of that feeds back into the perpetuation of the story. And I want to know, is it all about Shanksville? Or are there other communities that leverage their stories and how do they leverage their foundational stories started begin to work in those two counties I showed you before during the rest of my time, back and forth between Austin and DPS, Texas a five hour tour Five, to sometimes funny, extended visits, walking tours with individuals co planning, you know events where we could gather more individuals from other settlements to share their stories and experiences, and planning and preservation practices. So all of these were employed these methodologies to document stories, practices, meaning buildings, site names, settlement names, and so are found like in this settlement in Jasper Dixie community, where their collective memory catalyze their return to this space to which was their school gym, a segregation era of school gym that now is a space where they're teaching life skills to students in the area. So when I started the the project, my goal was not to map anything. I was looking at story. And in the process, I thought, Well, why don't I just go ahead and map all the places that I've been to or that people have told me about, to which I could ascribe the latitude and the longitude because in there, and I had my phone, and I was able to tag geotag, or had a structure that I could go into Google Maps and locate in a fixed point, the original listing in the back of the book freedom colonies had 14 settlements, and said in this two county area, there are 14. But when I did my work, I found those 14 actually found that one of those was Miss named. And I found with the aid of individuals 13, or 14 settlements, and places that they refer to as blacker pockets that were also settlements. And so that's several war. So either my map is wrong, or that other map is wrong, right. And someone might say, well, your map is wrong. This is the map. And so there's a use of a counter counter narratives that facilitated counter mapping stories of the places and demonstration or explanation of significance, then enabled a visibility and a mapping of the places in the stories. So the Texas freedom colony descendants, that is the people that I was gathering stories from, I also want to know, what would be an agenda moving forward, I've engaged with you, I've talked to you, you made your map, what are the kinds of things that you prioritize, and in the 50, people that I would talk to over time, these were the things that surface a center that lies location for information and communication. They want to work with institutions of higher learning, they want to develop a learning community for themselves. They wanted to get practical technical assistance, preserve heritage memorabilia associated with the remaining structures, they want to economically sustainable organization, and they wanted a public policy and legislative agenda. I was like, I can't do all that I just graduated. That sorry, I can't. But it did get me to thinking about a an approach to mapping and a way to centralize all different forms of communication and information that helps to find a place existed. And it's still historically significant. And that's what led to the development of texts freedom colleagues project was my doctoral study. And so since 2014, I've been focused on connecting and collecting stories, to counter map and then securing that data in a publicly accessible place. And using that data, then to co create research that ideally will generate solutions or training other researchers to delve deeper into the myriad problems and issues that face these communities. One thing to understand is their 254 counties, 24 million people in Texas. So one approach, one might say is to spend the rest of your life mapping them by yourself, but one that's not sustainable. And to it, the participatory principle in this is what makes it sustainable and actually, principally, a bottom up, grassroots exercise that reflects the needs and wants of the community. So what we do is crowdsource the gaps in knowledge. We didn't start with a blank map, we start with those 34 that are unmapped. And out of the 500 or so in the back of the book freedom colonies. We found an Amana ematic 357 that we could identify on a map that we could identify as having had majority black since this and that we had a physical something in the landscape associated with the name. So whether it was a lake or whether it was As church or school, we also facilitate connection and co creation. That is mentoring, educating, growing leaders volunteer capacity, and CO creating and CO curating. So this is an example of one of the, in public events in which this happens. This was sponsored by the whiting foundation when I was a fellow at the State Museum of Texas, where we partner with a number of local groups on how to amass data, how to record and also for those individuals past the time that my little team of students came in and intervene. How would they continue to work with each other, to list things on the national register or get markers, or conduct oral history. So we had an oral history training with 75 people at once. And that training, led to one individual then meeting up with the Department of Transportation and beginning a long fight to protect Alexander farm. And so we actually try to have narration and connection as catalysts past the time that we're in the midst of trying to gather story and gather information. This is the actual Atlas, which is the home of the data. It's it's the tail end of the process for the public. This is the survey. So if you're wondering, where does the data come in? How do you collect it, the tabs that say tell your story and take the black settlement study survey, or the the surveys in which you can place the data in which there's a map where you can place a point, we also hold stories. So here's an example of one of the stories that you'll see. Some of the stories are from the Texas State Historical Association, because we were able to cross reference and documented stories there. And some actually come from individuals. This is green chapel, by Cynthia Matlock, her entry, and I'm not going to read it, all I want to point out is the dates. The family names the location as Brisby. Chapel, the existence of people still worshiping there. So we can see in two and 50 words or less, a volume of information about location, origin, time, origin, a date of origin, very valuable place based data. This is our most recent image on the Dashboard tab that tells you that we've located in verify for in 68, we have three and 60 pieces of data under review. And we have 83, where we have some information, but we need more research to validate it in 83, for which we only have names and don't have the information, it may be in that 360 which work is slowly coming through. And then I'll end with the way that center, we need to center narrative in planning education research. So mentoring is a big piece of what I do. mentoring community engaged researchers, and project based learning is important to me. In the class, I teach more than monuments preservation social justice, where I teach students to not only ID freedom culling landscape features, it's also a service class in which we engage in cemetery mapping and documentation for communities and make accessible to the people that we work with this class out of all of the fieldwork that they did develop a Burlison black settlements website, which those communities communities can do to make themselves more of a cohesive group that can represent themselves to funders to solicit support. And also, my research team developed a way to continue to do our work during the pandemic. We had a lot of things happen, right? We had BLM protests or toward murder. We also had campus climate issues at Texas a&m around the existence of a Confederate statue. And so this all meant a tremendous disruption to an important holiday to 18 and 2020. This is an advance of it becoming a national holiday. So we thought about what's the core problem? Well, Juneteenth is a peak engagement period, and people cannot engage social distancing as required. So how do we adapt? And what is preservation supposed to look like during a crisis? That's what we those were our research questions. And they were applied, we needed to figure this out. And so what we did is developed talk shows with descendants, and they feature different topics, whether it was COVID and navigating by funerals. These were throughout the entire first year, the pandemic, and in June, we had a tune teeth coffee talk, and the transcripts from those then we coded to look at themes around kinship community, creating community space to see what the community based adaptive adaptions were. We learned a lot, which is in a fourth article in public culture, about org analyzing and engaged Digital Research called Digital giunti. Scholars must utilize participatory transdisciplinary research approaches to help descendants translate and illustrate displacement to policy makers. How do we actually show arratia in creative ways when things are erased, Freedom colonies provide a foundation for just preservation practice in black and other underrepresented communities. Freedom colonies are about a case study for a broader intervention we need in terms of how we utilize and organize data, and practitioners in the seek intersectional spaces. That's the gaps, where oral traditions can be spatialized to make these places visible, and we can teach and mentor scholar mentor scholars to translate and foreground black oral tradition, memory knowledge, production sublimated practices as central to adjust preservation practice. This is an example of that intersectionality, where we're trying to increase visibility. Here we see a layer of upcoming Texas Department transportation projects, and we have an accompanying book, so that if you're one of these areas, let's say you're not living there, but you could see your settlement and whether or not a project is coming, and then we have a guide for what it is you can do to make yourself part of that engagement process. So we've made a lot of achievements we've located verified places, we've made the map. We are at a Texas Water Trends report which will be forthcoming about water quality and access and issues and freedom colonies. We need to find more policy spaces where oral traditions can be spatialized. That's that's the big thing here. And here are sort of the framework for just preservation as I see it. Intersectionality that is seeing those overlapping areas in which there are not appropriate documentation, access and visibility, addressing the inherent anti blackness and much of our historic preservation policy and practice centering, community agency representativeness, cultural humility, not competency can be competent in person, in my opinion, and reciprocity principle of reciprocity. These are the two ways that you can interact with my projects, you can always go to the contact page on my website, but the Texas freedom colleagues Project website is here, Texas, the Texas freedom college project.com and the 2022 National Endowment for humanity Summer Institute for Higher Education faculty at Dunbar notes, which was a summer program that I was the co director of which was about elevating and teaching black and Indigenous histories of the nation's capital. So elevating narratives, and new foundational stories of place rooted in black and Indigenous histories and narratives. Thank you.
Now as always, it's time for Campus Connections, the part of the podcast where we connect today's featured content to the work of others at UMBC. Today, as promised, our production assistant Alex is back with yet another thoughtful Campus Connection. Alex, would you be so kind as to reveal today's connection?
Hey, Dr. Anson. After listening to this episode, I was really drawn to the idea of cultural preservation versus erasure, especially in the context of many generations of African Americans. For this installment of Campus Connections, I'm going to be talking about an article titled "A Monument to Black Resistance and Strength." This article was written in part by UMBC's own George Derek Musgrove, Associate Professor of UMBC's History Department. The article talks about the Emancipation Memorial right here in DC. Many people have mixed feelings about this memorial. While, it does depict the emancipation, it does so in a way that makes people very uncomfortable. A slave kneeling in front of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks to proper preservation, we figured out that the kneeling component of the memorial was actually a choice made by abolitionists and was opposed by many of the contributors. While other aspects, like the kneeling man being made in the image of Archer Alexander, a man who escaped slavery and found refuge with a union general who was shortly after removed from command by none other than Lincoln himself. This memorial shows the idea that both abolitionist and African Americans saw throughout its construction and thanks to proper cultural preservation. we understand that clearly. That's all for this week's Campus Connection. Back to you, Dr. Anson.
Thanks again, Alex, for your intrepid reporting. And thanks to you for tuning in today to hear about these impactful research projects. And as always, keep questioning.
Retrieving the Social Sciences is a production of the UMBC Center for Social Science Scholarship. Our director is Dr. Christina Mallinson, our Associate Director is Dr. Felipe Filomeno, and our production intern is Alex Andrews. Our theme music was composed and recorded by D'Juan Moreland. Find out more about CS3 at socialscience.umbc.edu and make sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, where you can find full video recordings of recent CS3 events. Until next time, keep questioning.