The Dallas Examiner
“This is the summer of family. This is the summer of learning about history.”
– Charlene Edwards, Project Unity
Shankleville, an East Texas community,is one of more than 500 independent colonies in Texas that were organized by emancipated freedmen between 1865 and the early Twentieth Century.
“Freedom Colonies are ’historically significant communities’ that were settled by formerly enslaved people during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras in Texas following Emancipation,” as noted on The Texas Freedom Colonies Project website.
Charlene Edwards, director of programs and events at Project Unity, and Beaumont native and Dallas resident Lareatha Clay recently presented The Shankleville Story: A Family. A Community. as part of a Listen & Learn Speaker Series hosted monthly by Project Unity NTX.
To Clay and others across the state, a freedom colony is simply the birthplace of family; a place where men and women could carve out their own societies, unshackled. As a great-great-great-granddaughter of the original founders, she credited her mother for planting within her an interest in the family’s saga.
“She was always the person who was always talking to people in Shankleville, dragging us around Shankleville when we were little kids, to cousin-this-house, cousin-that-house,” she said, “… and talk to them about their families – and she eventually started writing all those stories down.”
Her mother’s influence, family reunions since 1949, and African American history yet to be officially chronicled landed the preservationist some screen time on ABC’s Good Morning America last month.
She met her cousin, GMA host Michael Strahan, and welcomed him and his mother to the site of his earliest traceable ancestry within the U.S. A few years before, an episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots, revealed that his great-grandfather came from the Shankleville community. During his trip to Texas, he was able to visit the graves of both his grandfather and great grandfather, neither of whom he got to meet.
Clay explained the origins of the colony in the unincorporated region of Newton County during the GMA episode.
“Jim and Winnie Shankle were enslaved in Mississippi. And Minnie was sold to a Texan,” she explained.
She asserted that Jim missed Winnie so much that he asked around about where she had ended up.
“And so he ran away,” she added.
Four-hundred miles on foot later, evading police and professional slave hunters, Jim managed to find his beloved across the Texas border. He arranged to be purchased by Winnie’s owner. Together, the couple had six children.
After emancipation, the more permanent seeds of Shankleville were planted; the couple and a friend bought land with money they had earned from jobs they found as free individuals.
When the more than 4,000-acre community was most thriving it was filled schools, farms, a store, a cotton gin, grist mills, churches and undertakers – rare things in Black communities at that time, according to Strahan.
It was 1973 when the community got a historical marker from the state. Clay admitted that for years the meaning of Shankleville was “fuzzy” to her, little more than a place where her family came from. That outlook changed while she was living in Orlando, Florida.
“I happened to get appointed to the Orlando Historic Preservation Board,” she remarked. “That’s when I learned there was more to this than just a bunch of nice stories.”
She found that there was a scholarly way to view freedom colonies and their connected oral traditions.
“There are actually rules and stuff around preserving these stories and preserving the places where these stories take place,” she said during the online talk, and offered suggestions to those who are interested in the historical preservation of Black settlements in Texas, even if funding is scarce.
Getting a place of history publically acknowledged should be the first step, Clay affirmed. Grants can assist with that; most recently, her family used grants in order to preserve the homestead of her grandfather.
“The easiest way to get money is to be recognized by preservationists. So we’re already recognized by the state, but it would be even better if we could have Shankleville recognized on a national register,” she offered.
But, because it took her some time to fully realize what it entailed, many out-buildings had been altered to the point that they were no longer considered to be historically significant. Still, the family was able to get a grant to hire a historian to “come and put all these pieces together,” from physicals structures to documents to film and photographs.
“She was able to put together a very compelling story about not only Shankleville, but its place in Texas history, its place in Newton County,” she said, commenting on the family’s early doings, as well as activities during The Great Depression and WWII, “… so she was able to put all that together and we were able to get on the national register.”
Clay acknowledged that finding money would inevitably have to be the next step in preservation. Getting the property restored has taken a combination of grants as well as donations from the extended family. Much of those funds went to finding an architect who could handle such a job.
She said of Donna Carter, the African American architect hired for the renovations.
“She was able to do piece by piece by piece of helping us. You know – we raised $20,000; ‘Ok, this is what you need to do. This is how we need to get this done’…” she said.
The efforts of an architect skilled enough to work within the constraints of time and a budget parceled-out as funds were available have been indispensable, she added.
“It’s taken a while, but we’re almost at the end of having the house restored to [its] 1945 appearance.”
She described reservation and restoration as her “mantra” over the years when she connects with people undertaking their own efforts to save their history.
“Yeah, my story is really great, and I like it and I’m really proud of it, but you have a story as well,” she said in an imagined conversation.
“And if you get nothing else, but use what we have been able to try, to do similar things in your community – maybe you have just a cemetery. Well, it might be a good idea to have the cemetery designated as a historic cemetery,” Clay offered as an example.
“We hear all the time how cemeteries are being run over for a road or a development, or whatever. So these are the ways to preserve your stories as well.”
The full Shankleville video can be viewed online at https://youtu.be/JYkNQrSvJQM?si=SLWB2OVYEMtZJE9i.