Discovering My Roots Down Home
The Texas Story Project.
I grew up in inner city Fort Worth in an African-American neighborhood set in the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Black teachers and doctors were the mainstays – living next door to plumbers, undertakers, domestic servants, and packing house workers who kept well-maintained homes as well.
Educating their children was up at the top of the list of ideals. When school recessed in June, many of my childhood friends were sent “down home” to spend summers with their grandparents. “Down home” places were rural communities mostly in East Texas country whose provenance dates to post-Civil War. Freedmen built self-sufficient, independent “freedom colonies” into successful family farms but as descendants dispersed to large cities for better economic opportunities, settlements declined. At the end of summer when my friends returned, I listened spellbound as they shared stories of milking cows, fishing in creeks, roasting sweet potatoes beneath ashes, even sleeping outdoors under the moonlight. My vicarious power dominated as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes. I begged my mother to send me "down home" for the next summer, but the reality was that my grandmother lived only five miles away, so "down home" for me was literally down the street. My grandfather had died when my mother was a teenager, leaving his young widow—my grandmother—to raise several children alone. Now that my grandmother was confronted with the challenges of single-handedly feeding her family, it’s no wonder that she was unable to maintain the familial bond between his family who lived far away. By the time I was born, contact with the branch of that family had virtually vanished.
It was not until adulthood in the spring 2016 while searching on Ancestry.com that I discovered my grandfather's family down home in a freedom colony. Today, these freedom colonies are endangered due to natural and exploitative forces. As I perused U.S. Census records, it was the divine intervention of God that led to my uncovering the life of George Duffy, my freedman ancestor.
According to the 1870 U.S. Census, George was born about 1848 in Arkansas and was a farmer living in Tunis, Texas, of Burleson County, located a few miles outside of College Station. Land records disclose that in 1882 George purchased a tract of 170 acres in Tunis that lie within a freedom colony assigned the moniker “Old Bethlehem,” after the church which was the core of the community. The church, though not the original structure, and a cemetery still exist. I learned there were descendants of other freedom colonies in Burleson County and set out to document their stories.
When I interviewed Doris Workmon of Dabney Hill freedom colony, she asked me to help find resources to renovate their historic church building—115-year old Dabney Hill Missionary Baptist Church—that was on the brink of destruction after a storm in 2018. What happened next was serendipity. I retrieved a YouTube video online by randomly entering keywords and found Dr. Andrea Roberts, founder of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project and Texas A&M University assistant professor of urban planning. She was the mentor I had been praying for to guide me on this obscure journey. Her dynamic scholarship and foundational work of protecting endangered freedom colonies were the tools I needed to move forward. Reaching out to Roberts proved invaluable. She connected me with multiple resources as well as her research. A key player she involved was colleague Priya Jain, assistant professor and A&M’s Center for Heritage Conservation associate director. Jain wasted no time in responding, scheduling a morning for students in her fall 2018 Preservation Technology class to survey the church’s architectural features while taking 3D laser scans and photos from a drone and ultimately providing a valuable permanent record of the building. Learning of Roberts’ groundbreaking work was the flame I needed. Without her influence, I may have been tempted to abandon the cause.
Gloria Lawsha Smith is an independent historian in Fort Worth, Texas who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from The University of Texas at Arlington in Arlington, Texas, and a master’s degree in journalism from The University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Her writing experience spans various industries including the media, banking, telecommunications, and technology. Following a career as a technical writer and editor for IBM Corporation, and upon mutual agreement with her husband—Charles, she decided to leave corporate America in exchange for a calling to homeschool. She fulfilled her goal and taught each of her six children at home through high school.
Editor's note: This story was produced by the Bullock Museum for the Texas Story Project.
Posted February 01, 2020