The creek is the worst one I ever saw. It rises very suddenly and its channel changes frequently. It is near our house, but out of sight. One day last week it was very rainy and toward evening, Harry Stratton went down on foot to cross the creek but it was too high, so he came in here, and while he was here the rain poured down. Father was over at the schoolhouse, and not before dark Mother felt anxious about him, and as it had started she went down to the creek and just as she got there he came up on the other side but although he was on horseback it was impossible for him to cross, so he turned back. It had stopped raining and the creek had fallen as fast as it had raised.”
October 12, 1875
Courtesy of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College
The creek rose and fell, like the fortunes of the former slaves who lived in Grant’s Colony near Huntsville during and after Reconstruction. In small settlements that sprang up after the Civil War, newly freed blacks made their homes and learned to navigate as free people in what we now call freedom colonies.
Zachary Doleshal of Sam Houston State University didn’t intend to study freedom colonies. He first discovered Grant’s Colony not as a history professor but as a newcomer to Huntsville. His wife was hired as a math professor at Sam Houston State first, and he set out to explore his new hometown. He traveled down Grant Colony Cemetery Road east of Huntsville and found himself on a gravel road surrounded by forest. At the end of the road, true to its name, he found a cemetery.
“When I saw it, I thought ‘What is this place?’ ” Doleshal says. His curiosity was piqued, and when he was assigned to teach public history, he knew discovering who Grant was and how he came to have a colony named after him would be a focus.
Freedom colonies developed in varying ways in Texas. Historian Thad Sitton, author of Freedom Colonies, says some communities sprang up organically as families looking to escape life on the plantation created homesteads in unincorporated parts of counties throughout the South. Others were created when philanthropic whites donated, or sometimes opportunistic whites sold, land to the newly freed slaves. Those created by blacks on unincorporated parcels of land often had very little interaction with whites. Grant’s Colony was different, however.
It was founded by George Washington Grant, a wealthy, white slaveholder and landowner who had a spiritual awakening after marrying his beloved wife, Mary Jane, a charter member of the First Christian Church in Huntsville, now known as Disciples of Christ. The religious conversion was swift and his conviction deep.
He made a fortune in the 1850s ferrying passengers by stagecoach on the two-and-a-half-day journey from Austin to Houston, and he plowed the profits into purchasing more than 11,000 acres of land in Walker and Grimes counties.
The Civil War exposed tensions over the issue of slavery in religious denominations such as the Quakers and the Disciples of Christ. Many members and their churches were strict pacifists and often abolitionists. They believed that the church and nation should be unified under Christ. Through their church, the Grants had ties to a Quaker congregation, called “Friends,” in Ohio. This friendship would prove fortuitous for Grant’s Colony.
George Grant had a vision for bringing his newly discovered religious ideals to life. In 1866, he dedicated 6,000 acres around Harmon Creek to create a community. Over the years, he advertised plots of land for lease or sale to anyone and everyone. He envisioned a colony in which blacks and whites lived together in harmony. He called his colony “Harmony Settlement,” and he worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau to make it happen. Freedmen’s agents were almost universally despised in the South, and partnering with them to help create an integrated colony in the 1870s was perceived by almost all as a ludicrous idea. But the newly freed slaves were very interested, even if white citizens were not.
The integration experiment Grant conducted is especially intriguing in light of what was happening in Texas at the time. The late 1870s were particularly treacherous for blacks in Texas. Gains made by blacks in the years immediately after the war were rolled back by Gov. Richard Coke and the Democratic Party, which aligned itself with white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Violence and intimidation were so pervasive that many black Texans joined freedmen from Louisiana and Mississippi or migrated to Kansas to seek equality and escape Jim Crow, voter disenfranchisement and the Klan.
Grant’s Colony, although certainly not immune to the inequality and terror beyond its borders, did enjoy some protection.
“In many cases, having a white benefactor was enormously helpful to the freedom colonies,” Sitton says. “It gave the community a spokesperson on their behalf to the white citizens.”
In his research, Doleshal found very little unrest in the colony. “Not to downplay the violence that did happen, but Grant’s Colony was a place of peace, more or less,” he says.
Grant donated land to build two churches and a school. The school attracted more than 100 students ranging from ages 6 to 20. With the school built, Grant turned his attention toward securing teachers using his connections with Quaker congregations in Ohio. After the war, Quakers were dispatched to the South to run schools for newly freed slaves. The Williams family, Edward, Hannah and daughter Sarah, had met Grant before, and he persuaded them to manage the New Harmony School.
The school grew under their tutelage. Dozens of letters written primarily by young Sarah Williams to family still living in Ohio catalogued daily life in the colony over six years. At its peak, in the 1870s and 1880s, more than 400 people called Grant’s Colony home. They grew sorghum, cucumbers, tomatoes and peaches, which they canned or dried and sold. They built the school and all the furnishings for it. The town had a mill, cotton gin and post office.
Grant’s Colony also spawned leaders. It was run by an all-black, 12-person council. The community’s leadership extended beyond the boundaries of the settlement when Richard Williams, a former slave and member of the council, was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1870 and re-elected in 1872. He is mentioned with admiration in the letters Sarah Williams sent home.
For a few decades, the colony thrived. But by the 1900s, it began to falter. Grant died in 1889 with substantial debts. In his will, he asked for the colony to remain intact and only the remaining land sold. The sale of the remaining land was not enough to satisfy his creditors, and, in 1900, all the property was sold. Homesteads remained, including the Grant family’s, but by then the school and the post office were gone.
The decline of the colony is chronicled by the headstones in the cemetery. “The 1880s and 1890s tombstones were not elaborate by any stretch, but they were nice. Legible. Clearly professionally made,” Doleshal says. “But in the 1910s and 1920s, you see gravestones that are poured with rough concrete and the name written with fingers.”
Around 1910, the bridge over Harmon Creek that connected the two sides of the colony washed away. The school was moved from the property in the 1920s, signaling the end of the community. In the late 1930s, the land was sold to the U.S. Forest Service, and any remaining families left the area. The earth reclaimed what was left of the colony, and the area sat undisturbed for almost 80 years.
In 2016, Doleshal’s students stood in the forest outside Huntsville, looking for anything left of Grant’s Colony. “All we had to work with at the beginning was the cemetery. That was our starting point. I had students just walking around in the woods. I hate to say it; I told them, ‘Just walk around and maybe you’ll get lucky,’ ” he says. “They did not,” he adds ruefully.
The class then found an old topographic map, which they matched with property deeds from a Walker County Appraisal District map. The students pieced together where the old roads had been. Things took a positive turn when they received a 1936 aerial photograph from the Forest Service.
Walter Kingsborough, archaeologist for the Forest Service, joined the search. Armed with aerial photos and old maps, the students were able to determine where key structures, such as the school, existed. The Forest Service provided metal detectors, and the group scoured the area for remnants of lives long forgotten. They found a few things but not much.
Artifacts lend context, but they rarely tell the stories—people do. Doleshal still is looking for descendants of the residents of Grant’s Colony. His students have managed to find some using genealogical studies, but those who remember hearing about life in the colony have proved elusive.
In the meantime, Doleshal hopes the work he and his students are doing will provide a nuanced picture of Reconstruction in Texas. For blacks, it was an alternately heady and terrifying time to be an American citizen. But buried among those oft-recounted struggles in our nation’s history, there are also stories of great courage and imagination.
For Doleshal, Grant stands out in Reconstruction-era Texas, even if he isn’t well-known. He is proud to share with others the story of the man who dared to build a community reflective of his faith and the promise of a newly reconciled nation.
LaDawn Fletcher is a Houston-area writer who enjoys writing about Texas.