Harvard GSDOct 26, 2021
In Texas’ freedom colonies — African American settlements founded 1866-1930 — descendants of community founders engage in heritage conservation by keeping folklife, sacred rituals, and other cultural expressions that sustain communities’ Black sense of place. However, rural, vernacular African American placekeeping strategies are rarely framed in planning and architectural history as transgressive or expressions of Black liberation. Presenting an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Never Sell the Land, Dr. Roberts shares case studies in which descendants of Deep East Texas freedom colony founders leverage heritage conservation to revitalize community cores. In contrast with urban cores defined by density and transit, the author conceptualizes freedom colony cores as embodied, rhizomatic, and dynamic. Placekeeping descendants, who live simultaneously in urban and rural Black settlements, act as interstices between freedom colony full and part-time residents, contest local land-use decisions, and rehabilitate properties. Heritage conservation activities sustain the diaspora of descendants’ commitment to and financial support of homestead rehabilitation, land retention, and adaptive reuse of a segregation-era school. The author will share ways freedom colony descendants co-opt, subvert, and reinvent community cores to resist placelessness and create “free Black space.”
Following Dr. Roberts’ presentation, she will be joined by current Loeb Fellow, Monica Rhodes for a discussion.
Dr. Andrea Roberts is Director of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project™ and an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, and co-founder of the African American Digital Humanities Working Group at Texas A&M University (TAMU). She is also a fellow with TAMU’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, Center for Heritage Conservation, Institute for Sustainable Communities, and the Africana Studies Program. Dr. Roberts holds a Ph.D. in community and regional planning from The University of Texas at Austin (2016), where her specialization areas were African diaspora studies and historic preservation. She also holds an M.A. in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania (2006) and a B.A. in political science from Vassar College (1996). Her 12 years of nonprofit management, community development, and government administration experience inform her efforts to move disappearing African American communities — facing sprawl, gentrification, and resource extraction — from the margin to the center of public discourse, pedagogy, and research.
Her research frames planning & historic preservation practices as avenues to social justice. Her scholarship and digital humanities platforms tell the story of freedom colonies, African American settlements founded after Juneteenth in Texas between 1865-1930. The Journal of Planning History, Buildings and Landscapes, the Journal of the American Planning Association, the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage, Planning Theory & Practice, and Environmental Justice have published her peer-reviewed scholarship on Black planning history, cultural landscape theory, Black feminist preservation, and participatory preservation. Her commentary has also appeared in Newsweek, The Conversation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Leadership Forum.
She is also a 6th generation Texan, whose ancestors were formerly enslaved and founded freedom colonies. In 2014, she founded The Texas Freedom Colonies Project. The Project’s student researchers, volunteers, and the freedom colony diaspora contribute to The TXFCP Atlas, a publicly accessible map and database containing descendants’ memories, images, and reports on contemporary life in nearly 400 settlements. The Texas Department of Transportation and the Council of Texas Archeologists use the platform to identify Black historic resources at risk.
Dr. Roberts is also the Consultant/Owner of Freedom Colonies Project, LLC, which provides research design support and DEIA workshops for preservation organizations. She is a Texas State Board of Review member and a National Monument Audit Advisory Board member. She has received awards for her engaged scholarship from The Vernacular Architecture Forum and the Urban Affairs Association. Dr. Roberts is a 2020-21 Whiting Public Engagement Fellow and was a 2020 Visiting Scholar at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, Abolition. Currently, she’s writing a book about Black historic preservation practice for The University of Texas Press.