As I was reading about Andrea Roberts’ research into “freedom colonies”, the name bothered me. Freedom ––as I’d always understood it from elementary school, from the Pledge of Allegiance we recited every day, facing the flag and with our hands over our hearts, from Woody Guthrie songs and the Star-Spangled Banner–freedom should be general across the nation, from sea to shining sea, from the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters, one nation, liberty and justice for all–and not confined to a colony. The word “colony” (per my trusty Barnhart) means “a settlement dependent on another country”–though further back it’s found to derive from cultivation, tilling, inhabiting.
Andrea Roberts is a Vassar graduate, and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Texas A and M University. She is researching the thousands of historically black settlements, often called “freedom colonies,” that emerged across the United States after the Civil War. There are hundreds of these kinds of communities, these colonies, formed for mutual care and support and protection after the Civil War. “These weren’t places where [African American families] were pushed to,” Roberts said. “They were created on purpose and had ‘anchors,’ such as schools and churches and cemeteries around which the settlements were built.” There are hundreds of communities like this, based on race or religion or gender or just shared values–formed by groups distinct from the dominant culture.
And the dominant culture during restoration the Ku Klux Klan also rose during Restoration in the South. The Freedom Colonies rose during this fraught period and protected their inhabitants against the generalized racism, violence and hostility of that time, which is still with us today, and rising. History and the past are not the same, and it’s important to bring them closer together. But when I see efforts like this one to restore a lost past, I think of what Toni Morrison said about racism:
It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art. So you dredge that up. Somebody sats that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
If you’re black, or queer, or female, or a member of a group that is not the group controlling the story , you’re used to mentally rewriting or actively resisting/ignoring/correcting history as it is told. History and the past are not the same. Do your work! And if your work is history, and the history shows your kingdoms, so be it.
A significant fight to preserve African-American history is playing out through the auspices of the National Trust and the National Historic Preservation Act, which through its criteria of “architectural significance” has blocked the preservation of modest buildings such as slave quarters, tenements and cabins. Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, is leading the charge on preserving much of this history, including Nina Simone’s childhood home, Joe Frazier’s gym, and John and Alice Coltrane’s home.
In my other alumnae monthly, from Smith, I was struck by a related quote from Deborah Archer (Smith ’93): “My parents…understood that access to opportunity meant entering spaces where we were not expected and were not welcome. And, of course, we were met with resistance.” You need to go places you’re not wanted, and say things that the people there don’t want to hear. Archer was a student at Smith a few years after I was–I spent my freshman year there. Even at Smith, Archer had a note slid under her door that said “N—— go home”. She was not surprised. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut “KKK” was once sprayed on the side of her house.