Emancipated slaves received little help from whites

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War was widely unsettling to all concerned.

During the war, it did not have an immediate effect in the North or South except psychologically.

It did not cause an immediate mass exodus from the South or any surge in the North. But its effects were felt during the Reconstruction period.

For slave-holders in the South, emancipation meant the loss of a valuable asset and the loss of free plentiful labor. 

For slave-holders in the Border States that did not join the Confederacy, there was even a proposal in Congress to compensate these slave-holders for their financial loss. 

There were few proposals to compensate or help the freed slaves. They were free but with no certain prospects for a place to live or a livelihood. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” for every slave was never carried out by the Federal Government.

One solution for freed blacks was to work as a share cropper for their former owners. But many wanted to escape the system that had enslaved them.

Another path was to found an independent freedmen’s or freedom community on land that nobody wanted.

An example was the freedmen’s community that was started in the 1870s in the swampy area to the west of downtown Houston. But most of the freedom communities were small agrarian settlements established on the margins of former plantations.

In Texas, most of these freedom settlements were in East Texas.

None of these freedom communities was incorporated and most were situated to be “invisible” to the white establishment.

This meant that they were not places, but were hidden, independent and self-sustaining.

There were something like 600 of these freedom villages established between 1866 and 1920. Land ownership by blacks went from two percent in 1870 to 26 percent in 1890.

Some freedmen settlements were aided by white former slave-owners. Some were organized by a minister of a church. Some were based on groups of siblings. Almost all were started from scratch.

Over time most of these freedom settlements have disappeared as the residents have moved on or died. The one in west Houston has shrunk due to gentrification, but the spirit there is still alive. 

There are now projects among historians and descendants to recover and document the histories of long-lost freedom colonies.

Most of the sources for this research are family oral histories and archeology.

Bastrop County has just opened an exhibit at its Historical Museum of the freedom colonies that existed in Bastrop County.

The project has identified about 40 freedom settlements that ring the town of Bastrop.  

Fortunately, the project had access to the detailed records and notes kept by Prof. T.C. Franklin, a black educator and historian who served as the Bastrop County Superintendent of Colored Schools.

His files were augmented by oral histories and photographs by current and former residents and other school and church records.

The exhibit has brought forth other descendants. Some freedom settlements even have annual homecoming events.

So, the project is ongoing and may become a permanent exhibit at the museum.

The freedom settlements were an important attempt at a transition from slavery to independence and autonomy with little or no help from the established society. 

Their history is a largely unknown chapter in the history of the South and the United States.

It now is finally coming out of the shadows through the fond recollections of the descendants of the colonies and their continued process of emancipation.

Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of the book, “Texas Gulf Coast Stories,” published in December 2010 by The History Press. His second book, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier,” was published in May 2013. Email at cherndon8695@sbcglobal.net.