Freedmen’s Settlements remember the past, heal in the present, and imagine the future

Urban Resilience Project
5 min readJun 5, 2024
Photo credit: National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

By Jacqui Patterson and Denise Fairchild

James Baldwin once observed that, “History is not the past. It is the present.”

From 1865–1920, hundreds of “Freedmen’s Settlements” across the South and beyond were established by people emancipated from enslavement who strived to ensure land and housing security — a place to call home and build community. These communities embody the arc of our history: the scars of slavery, the hopes of Reconstruction, the federal government’s broken promises, the enduring harms of racism, and the solidarity, determination, strength, and resilience that has sustained African-American communities for centuries. The past is alive in the present.

Many Freedmen’s Settlements have managed to thrive despite adversity.

Freedmen’s Settlements have been historically deprived of basic necessities; some have literally been burned to the ground by those who resented the very notion of Black people doing well. Working against tremendous odds by relying on their ancestral cooperative and collective traditions to meet their economic, spiritual and social needs, several have risen above and through sheer determination and fortitude, they have carved out an existence full of promise and possibilities!

For example, Edmondson, Arkansas, emerged in the early 20th century as a thriving hub of Black-owned businesses, churches, and cotton farming, governed by African Americans from the start. Although the town’s white neighbors’ stole hundreds of lots from the original Black owners in the 1930s, Edmondson residents persisted and persevered, rebuilding churches, homes, and community after floods, fires, and storms. Even though it has yet to return to its fullness in thriving, the fact that it still exists as a Black community is a testament to the power of determination.

Allensworth, California, is the first town in California to be founded, financed, and governed by African Americans. Once a thriving town off a main railroad line, Allensworth faced a series of racially motivated blows: the Santa Fe Railroad moved its train station to another town; a white-owned development firm diverted the town’s water supply. Subsequent drought and groundwater pollution left the town under-resourced and sparsely populated. But Allensworth residents have since organized to revitalize the town through agriculture and historic preservation, securing $40 million in state funding in 2022.

Langston, Oklahoma, Eatonville, Florida, and Independence Heights, Texas are three additional examples of communities that have paved a path to fulfilling the dreams of the ancestors who founded these communities.

While others struggled to overcome blatant ongoing efforts to oppress and erase.

Deprived of water, sanitation services, health care, healthy foods, and often targeted for violence, predatory development, and more, Freedmen’s Settlements have had much to overcome.

The unincorporated community of Sandbranch, Texas was established by formerly enslaved African Americans in 1878. Today, life in Sandbranch is a struggle. Most of the town’s 100 residents live in poverty, and the community is surrounded by polluting facilities — gravel mines, a wastewater treatment plant, and a trash dump. Unincorporated, it lacks a school, trash pickup, or a municipal water or sewer system. Incredibly, the people of Sandbranch had no access to clean running water for over 30 years, since local wells became contaminated. Most have relied on limited donations of bottled water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. Even amidst all of these challenges, the community has managed to organize, develop a short-term solution for drinking water, and is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to finally secure a water system for the long term.

Africatown, Alabama, was established by descendants of people from nations in West Africa who were stolen from their homelands brought to the United States aboard the ship Clotilda in 1860. Today, Africatown’s 1,215 residents are surrounded by polluting industries, including a chemical refinery and an asphalt plant, resulting in toxic exposure, contamination, and cancer in residents. Yet still, the community is rising, organizing, and establishing local institutions for cultural preservation and for the wellbeing of its residents!

Randolph, AZ, Ironton, LA, Brooklyn, IL are just a named few of the scores Freedmen’s Settlements across the nation that share the fate of intense struggle while being besieged by polluting industries, deprivation of basic infrastructure, vulnerability to climate change driven disasters, etc.

How did we get here?

The formerly enslaved people who built Sandbranch, Africatown and other Freedmen’s Settlements sought to create safe, self-sustaining, and thriving communities away from racial violence and economic discrimination. The federal government, acknowledging their plight, established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (the “Freedmen’s Bureau”) in 1865. The Bureau was intended to “ease the transition of formerly enslaved African Americans into American society by providing education, food, healthcare, shelter, and land.”

It didn’t work out that way. Soon after its creation, the Freedmen’s Bureau faced opposition from President Andrew Johnson; the Bureau was under-funded from the start. We know what followed: terrorism against Black communities; ruthless exploitation of Black workers; discrimination and disinvestment.

The Freedmen’s Settlements, founded with such optimism, bore the brunt of that history. Today, many of those Settlements remain unrecognized and/or unincorporated. Passed over for investment, they are damaged by environmental and health hazards and lack access to critical infrastructure and services.

We owe it to the people whose enslaved labor built this nation’s infrastructure to ensure that their legacy thrives.

Today, there is growing effort to preserve and document the history of Freedmen’s Settlements.

We must also ensure that these communities — and the people who call them home — are healed and protected. First, the federal government must work to identify all Freedmen’s Settlements and designate them as historic communities.

Building on the models of places like Edmonson, Allensworth, Langston, Eatonville, and Independence Heights, these communities, whose founders’ freedoms were sacrificed to build this nation, must universally have: 1) essential infrastructure created and maintained 2) dedicated allocation of resources that afford priority status in seeking funds from federal agencies for community-led economic development, small business creation, workforce development, etc., 3) ongoing funding and technical assistance for historic and cultural preservation, and 4) measures in place to ensure protection from unwanted development from external entities and environmental hazards from industrial facilities and otherwise.

As we commemorate Juneteenth 2024, let’s fulfill the unmet mandate of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

To accomplish this, the federal government can create a new “Freedom Bureau.” In conjunction with the Government Accountability Office, the Bureau can undertake research on historical injustices and current conditions in the Settlements. Through strategic investments in new regenerative economies, The Bureau can support communities in having decent and sustained standards of living, including clean water and sewerage, transit, healthy and nutritious food, clean and efficient energy, emergency services, and overall climate-resilient infrastructure.

As Baldwin well knew, history is alive in the present. Freedmen’s Settlements embody a long history of hope and betrayal, oppression, and resilience. It’s time for our nation to own that history and make good on promises made long ago.

Jacqui Patterson is the Founder and Executive Director of The Chisholm Legacy Project: A Resource Hub for Black Frontline Climate Justice Leadership.

Denise Fairchild is the Founder and Executive Director of the Ubuntu Climate Initiative: A Project dedicated to catalyzing a climate movement rooted in Ubuntu values dedicated to the Commons, restorative economies and lifestyles.

--

--

Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP