I like the word “wander” as a noun: she went on a wander; the wander was productive; she had a case of the wanders. I had a hankering for a good wander on a rare cool, gray, restless day this month. I set out south toward a historic town I’ve been to a few times, hoping to see an old jail, a train depot and an historic opera house, but to no avail – all were shuttered.
I decided to people-watch for a while, but the coffee shop I chose was closing early and I and my latte were shooed out before I’d seen anything to report. Somewhat dejected, to-go cup in hand, I decided that perhaps I was being overly purposeful. Choosing a destination and wandering are, after all, somewhat at odds with each other. I pulled the car into the town square, circled once or twice, and let the busy flow of traffic spin me out onto a random highway.
My day almost immediately improved. Outside of town the canopy of trees opened into pasturelands, with foals and calves in abundance. The sun came out to shine briefly on the new life and the roadside wildflowers which are spectacular this year. I was headed south and west, zipping along toward Stephenville, a nice historic town in its own right. Perhaps there would be something…
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a sign for “Colony Road” followed by “Freedom Court.” On a hunch, I doubled back and drove down Colony. It was a lovely off-highway jaunt, once I got past a few blocks of industrial storage lots and a mysterious field of rusting pipeline. There was little to note for a number of miles except for the wildflowers and rolling hills, and this suited me fine. The empty road of rolls and curves made for relaxing driving. After a bit, I turned back toward the highway, stopping along the way for photos of flowers I am getting to know. The bluebonnets have mostly faded, but other blues are beginning to emerge.
I turned back onto the rural highway for Stephenville, but any further exploration had to be curtailed because bad weather was developing. I was lucky to find partial space under a gas station awning, where I spent 30 minutes finishing my forgotten latte while waiting out a hailstorm that flung ping-pong ball sized missiles through 65 mile per hour winds. Texas weather knows no bounds. By the time the storm was in the next county, the radio was warning of softball sized hail!
When I finally reached my little home – after driving through more fields of wildflowers and taking pictures of some domesticated bison (my first bison in Texas!) – I had a different kind of exploration to undertake: down the rabbit hole. Here is a little bit of what I found.
Colony Road and Freedom Court are named after a vibrant community that is no longer there, but still of historical interest and importance. During Reconstruction there were “freedom colonies” in Texas which were self-determined communities of freed slaves along with their children and grandchildren. These were places where people could support themselves and each other, on land they owned, independent of sharecropping arrangements and other forms of servitude. They established churches and schools, worshiping when and how they wished and receiving the education they desired.
Colony Road references Mt. Zion, or “The Colony,” a freedom colony that at its height had as many as 400 residents. It formed shortly after Emancipation and the last residents left in the early 1940s. The Colony Cemetery is all that remains.
For more information about these colonies, you can visit the Texas Freedom Colonies Project website. In their own words, “The Texas Freedom Colonies Project is an educational and social justice initiative dedicated to supporting the preservation of Black settlement landscapes, heritage, and grassroots preservation practices through research.” Prestigious academics, interns and lay researchers are collecting oral histories and physical artifacts to preserve knowledge about these important places and people from a critical time in the nation’s history. Their findings are collected on an interactive, searchable map. I find it an inspiring endeavor.
On the website I found the text from a Historical Marker:
“Residents of the community known as The Colony came to Hood County with their white southern owners as early as the 1850s. After emancipation they began to settle in this area, and many acquired land under a state law which provided settlers with the opportunity to live on land for as many as seven years before securing a patent for the property. “Doc” Foster and Simon and Hettie Hightower were such landowners.
The Colony grew rapidly in the last years of the nineteenth century. A church called Mt. Zion, which also served as a temporary school, was established. The earliest marked grave in The Colony Cemetery is that of Mary Edwards, who died in 1876. The Colony residents played important roles in the development of Hood County. They helped clear land for the courthouse site, executed their masonry skills on the buildings on the Granbury square, and worked on area farms. Church fundraising events and celebrations such as Juneteenth, the celebration of Texas’ notification of the end of slavery, were an important part of the colony’s community life.
By the end of the Depression era of the 1930s, most of the adult residents had left The Colony for nearby towns, and many of the community’s youth left the area completely, though they often chose to be returned to The Colony Cemetery for burial. The last three residents of The Colony left in the 1940s.
The Colony Cemetery is an important chronicle of the history of Hood County and particularly of the generation of African Americans who were born in slavery and who forged new lives after emancipation, paving the road of freedom for their descendants.”
Up until 1991, a surviving resident was able to take care of the cemetery; however, in the late 1990s a Cemetery Committee was formed to reclaim it from the elements and cows. A sturdy fence was erected. For a few years, there were well-attended Juneteenth celebrations at the site. I will be looking for news about this piece of local history in the future.
I may not have seen much on my wander, but it was a good wander nonetheless, with flowers and scenery and interesting things to learn and think about. May your own wanders be as satisfying when you find yourself restless.