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'Everyone's Story Matters': Texas Freedom Colonies Project Challenges What Counts As An Artifact

 An image of girls from Washington County, TX attending a state 4-H camp at what was then Prairie View College. Texas Freedom Colonies Project Founder Dr. Andrea Roberts says many people possess photos, documents, yearbooks and other memorabilia they may not consider important but that can actually be integral to understanding a community's full history and culture.
An image of girls from Washington County, TX attending a state 4-H camp at what was then Prairie View College. Texas Freedom Colonies Project Founder Dr. Andrea Roberts says many people possess photos, documents, yearbooks and other memorabilia they may not consider important but that can actually be integral to understanding a community's full history and culture.

The Texas Freedom Colonies Project is holding a workshop Sunday in Brenham about gathering artifacts and stories. The initiative is challenging long-held assumptions about what materials are seen as suitable for museums.

Texas freedom colonies were communities set up by formerly enslaved people starting just after the Civil War in response to economic and political repression at the hands of white society. The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, based at Texas A&M University, works with preservationists and descendants of the colonies to secure and promote those settlements' histories and properties, like schools and churches.

The workshop will be focused on encouraging people to share memorabilia or artifacts or any stories they might have from Washington County's African-American community.

And that work raises some interesting questions: What counts as an "artifact?" Whose stories qualify as "official" historical accounts?

"We have an understanding generally in society that what makes you important is: Were you the first? Were you the wealthiest or the biggest landowner?" says the project's founder, Dr. Andrea Roberts. "Did you have the biggest proximity to power? Did you have the biggest proximity to Anglos?"

But very often, she says, "that is far from the whole story."

The project's doctoral research assistant, Schuyler Carter, says "unintentional bias" on the part of curators can mean "museum-caliber status is not placed upon a lot of histories and heritage artifacts of communities of color, specifically African American."

So, what kinds of items can fill in this incomplete history?

"We have a wealth of photographs, archival material that may be underneath someone's mattress or in a bag in the back of the closet," Roberts says. "And contained in those materials are the entire histories of churches and schools and foundational institutions that tell us the story of communities."

Carter emphasizes that the stories behind those items are just as important.

Having recently interviewed her 99-year-old grandmother, she says, "It's a beautiful experience if you take a moment to take it all in, because you realize how much life people have lived."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more about building out the history of the Texas freedom colonies and how to get descendants and others to share their stories.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: How do people know if something is an artifact or appropriate for a museum?

Carter: [Museum-caliber collections] is a really tricky phrase, because I don't think that is a thing because there are so many stories, so many diverse cultures that have so many things to respect and so many things to honor personally, internally, as well as in public. But there are so many things that should be acknowledged, I feel.

And with a lot of museum spaces, you have the unintentional bias of curators, and it seeps into the collections and things fall through the cracks. Or again, that caliber status, a museum-caliber status, is not placed upon a lot of histories and heritage artifacts of communities of color, specifically African American.

Roberts: A lot of what we spend our time doing is convincing and reinforcing the idea that everyone's story matters. We have a wealth of photographs, archival material that may be underneath someone's mattress or in a bag in the back of the closet . And contained in those materials are the entire histories of churches and schools and foundational institutions that tell us the story of communities.

But part of it is getting people to value and believe that they have museum-caliber material that’s important for the public good. That it's important for us to get the full story, to get the whole story.

If they don't see stories about themselves represented in museums or archives or other places, they may not be thinking that way for themselves — that, "this is something I can save" — because they don't see it yet?

Roberts: We have an understanding generally in society that what makes you important is: Were you the first? Were you the wealthiest or the biggest landowner? Did you have the biggest proximity to power? Did you have the biggest proximity to Anglos? And very often, that is far from the whole story or the way to understand who's of value and who makes a place a place and what makes a community a community.

That's part of what we're doing is really trying to model for folks and continually validate that the story of the woman who had a small store and made candy and cookies and sold baked goods after church has a story that can help us better understand how African-American women survived or how they cultivated a community of care or how they sustained entire families through political or racial or economic distress.

They’re embedded in every single one of those stories — in funeral programs, obituaries, homecoming, church anniversary programs — all of those little pieces of paper tell us so much about the everyday life and fabric of those communities.

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Carter: I know we've had that conversation about recipes and food having a specific role in Black settlements, in freedom colony communities, especially because a lot of people can connect with the recipe that they haven’t tasted in years. But it takes them right back to auntie’s house, grandma's house, somebody in that community. And you have that common memory.

What are some ways that people can encourage conversations with relatives and with friends about the history that goes along with these items?

Roberts: One of the ways is to take advantage of natural times that we gather. Holidays are great times for asking people if you can record them in the course of their conversation, because you don't always know when the golden nugget is going to come out of information. When you're talking to, let's say, an elder, you want to think about — is this the time for us to have what's called a life-review conversation, or is it a topic conversation? Life review, which may take a few different visits, where you sit and ask, what was it like growing up as a child in your community? What was it like to go to school the first time in the 1950s? What was the first day of school like? Those are the kind of conversations where there's literally a time and a place, and you want to make sure that you are not trying to, in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, do a long life-review conversation.

We really want to also teach people how they can use materials; they can use photos; they can use documents; they can use books. You want to ask them: Who are these people in the photo? Because too often, we have the photos, we have the materials, but we don't know who's in them.

Carter: I literally just went through this with my 99-year-old grandmother in Chicago. Having all these books, photo albums — it was so much easier talking with her about family members and whoever was seen in these photos, as opposed to me going and saying, hey, can I interview you?

Schuyler, can you just tell us a little bit about what it was like to interview your grandmother?

Carter: Well, she's a tough cookie, but it really was a beautiful moment because we didn't get to spend a lot of time with each other growing up, her being in Chicago and me growing up in Oklahoma and being in Texas for the better part of my childhood. But I would say just to encourage those who don't have proximity to their elders and relatives, it's a beautiful experience if you take a moment to take it all in, because you realize how much life people have lived. And it's a lot that people want to share. They don't know how to share. It sounds cliché, but be in the moment. It will just open up those opportunities for conversation and for knowledge.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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