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With African American Cultural Center, the legacy of freedom colonies perseveres in Bastrop

Jasmin Lee
Austin American-Statesman

For Black people in Texas, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom that was long overdue. However, the history of what happened after Juneteenth is unknown to many people, even Black Texans. 

Doris Williams was born in Bastrop County but was raised in Lubbock. When Williams’ grandmother told her she wanted to be buried in Hills Prairie in Bastrop County, it sparked William’s interest to look into her family’s background.

“I gathered that my grandmother and her ancestors were descendants from that plantation” in Hills Prairie, Williams said. “That was her home. And that’s why she said to me as a child that when she died, she wanted to go back to her home.”

As Williams and her extended family went to research their heritage, they found there was not a place to recognize and honor their history –– many others felt the same.

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Members of the Bastrop County African American Cultural Center stand outside at the Kerr Community Center on Friday, June 17, 2022. From left, Dock Jackson, Donnie Colter, Leon Benford, Doris Williams, Belinda McDonald Davis, Heath Jones, Doris De Shay Sampson, TC Clemons and Ruth DeShay Jones.

“I had an idea: Let’s build a cultural center in Bastrop County,” Williams said. “This cultural center will primarily focus on African American history. Other cultures are welcome to be a part of it but most of the information, we want it to focus on African Americans to not only Bastrop County, but the nation as a whole.”

In 2019, Williams met others who were descendants of the freedom colonies in Bastrop County, and together they founded the Bastrop County African American Cultural Center, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and commemorating the 13 freedom colonies in Bastrop County.

Although a fairly new term, freedom colonies refer to the settlements African American slaves in Texas founded after Juneteenth, when the last slaves in the South were set free after the Emancipation Proclamation. While there are many locations and different terms used to describe freedom colonies throughout the southern United States, the BCAACC board is working to share the history of African American self-determination to their community.

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Dock Jackson talks about his family history on display at the Bastrop County African American Cultural Center's Freedom Colonies Museum at the Kerr Community Center on Friday, June 17, 2022.

Dock Jackson, president of the Kerr Community Center and BCAACC board member, works to connect both organizations in which he serves to preserve the artifacts and history of the freedom colonies. Currently, the Freedom Colony Museum curated by the Bastrop community is located on the second floor of the Kerr Community Center, another landmark in Bastrop County’s African American history.

“The people (in Bastrop County) have artifacts and they have history and through oral history, people have passed down that knowledge,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to make sure we capture that and place it in our brick and mortar building when we get it completed.”

Artifacts sit on display at the Bastrop County African American Cultural Center's Freedom Colonies Museum at the Kerr Community Center on Friday, June 17, 2022.

When it comes to sharing this history, Jackson wants young people to know about the strength that it took former slaves after Juneteenth to create independent communities.

“It took a lot of grit and strength and everything,” Jackson said. “So, I tell (young people) that we come from a proud heritage of people who have really worked hard and have contributed to society in so many ways.”

Jackson is also involved in local efforts to commemorate Juneteenth around Texas. He has donated family artifacts to local museums in Austin and even spoke to prisoners about the history of Juneteenth. Being part of the BCAACC is another way Jackson advocates for Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth ties into the freedom colonies because it’s what happened after Juneteenth and what’s still happening today,” Jackson said. “Now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, we are getting a chance to explore even more and learn more about it.”

The BCAACC is currently trying to raise funds to own a building for its organization. Many people, including BCAACC secretary Belinda McDonald Davis, want a cultural center to honor their ancestors through having a physical building in Bastrop County.

“We are standing on the shoulders of some strong and courageous people and this center will honor them,” McDonald Davis said. “Their lives mattered. They still matter to us. We want our history to reflect that (with) a center where we can celebrate what they’ve done.”

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Board President Doris Williams speaks about her family history at the Bastrop County African American Cultural Center's Freedom Colonies Museum at the Kerr Community Center on Friday, June 17, 2022.

Williams wants the cultural center in Bastrop County to be more than just a museum. She envisions a place where people from all over Texas and the nation will come to Bastrop County to learn about their African American culture and learn about other cultures as well. A resource center, landmark signs, and tour buses are all part of Williams’ vision to remember the legacy of the freedom colonies.

“It would be a dream come true,” Williams said. “These communities deserve this center. They deserve this African American Cultural Center.”

Williams also emphasized that anyone can be involved in the BCAACC. With inclusion and education at the forefront, Williams wants everyone to learn about the history of the freedom colonies.

“Some people, (who) are residing in freedom colonies, are not African American,” Williams said. “They don’t know that they are living in a freedom colony. They don’t know the history of that particular community.”

While there is still work to be done, Williams remembers why she felt moved to find her family history and wants to make sure others are able to find a space to do so as well. 

“We want to leave this legacy via our cultural center in Bastrop County and we want younger people to know that they have something to be proud of and that there is significance.”

As of Saturday, the Freedom Colonies Museum is open to the public and located at the Kerr Community Center. Any visits to the museum will be available by appointment only. Visit its website for more information.