- Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow
As the guns of the Civil War fell silent in 1865, former slaves looked to the future with hope and optimism. After generations of toiling without recompense, they could now work for themselves. It soon became apparent, however, that the road to economic independence would be [End Page 302] long and tortuous, even for the most industrious and fortunate. Indeed, blacks, especially in rural areas of the deep South, were often unable to free themselves from the iron grip of white landowners. Instead of working as slaves, they labored as sharecroppers, remaining in perpetual debt. In the midst of this seemingly endless cycle of discrimination and exploitation, some former slaves left their white employers and journeyed to remote, backwoods areas to form all-black communities, or "freedom colonies."
This study of freedom colonies in Texas offers a new perspective on black independence and land ownership during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How and why did these communities spring up? Where were they located? What were the settlers' social, religious, cultural, educational, and economic values? What did living in all-black settlements mean? These and other questions are explored in this study of independent black settlements. As the years passed, many members of these communities and their children became independent and self-sustaining landowners through hard work and industry. Thus did they remain free from the insults and degradations of Jim Crow. "Nobody had to get off the sidewalk to let a white man pass or be careful not to look directly at a white woman" (61). By examining these settlements, the authors have filled a void in the literature on the black experience. Although Texas, having the largest frontier area of any southern state, probably contained more colonies than the more densely populated areas of the east, a detailed view of how such communities worked in one state should encourage similar studies in other states.
The authors have done a commendable job in looking at these settlements from the inside, but they are less successful in placing them in a larger demographic context or in specifying the "hundreds" of colonies that came into existence. Nor do they emphasize that only a tiny fraction of black Texans lived in these separate enclaves. In addition, the authors rely almost exclusively on secondary sources and oral history, avoiding county court records that contain a wealth of information about land transactions and race relations. Consequently, they missed the opportunity to understand more fully how the settlers became independent landowners and to discuss how and when settlers came into contact with whites. Indeed, it seems doubtful that those who settled in the freedom colonies lived in the "splendid isolation" that the authors suggest.