photos courtesy of Andrea Roberts
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Old Developments: Sovereign Spaces Reclaimed

by Andrea Roberts

Images courtesy of Andrea Roberts


Reports from the field indicate black futures are processes, destinations, and perpetual quests. Black futures are reclamations. Lawyers, mail carriers, oil and gas executives, teachers, and factory workers from Dallas, Houston, and Beaumont, find their way back to once sovereign black spaces. They sing me their spirituals, their blues, their hopes. In their Baby Boomer cyphers, over fish fry’s, at the edge of springs, underneath trees their great grandmothers planted, they feel out loud in spaces their ancestors created.

The first step of reclamation is recollection. The homesteaders, the keepers of the home place, reclaim stolen territory—communities, houses, schools—through strategic deployment of creativity, of remembering: music (spirituals and the blues) and storytelling. The spiritual sounds like:

Homesteader Herman: “Sovereignty,” when you look at definition is a variation on freedom. It also means that you’re in control of your environment, free of others control. Homesteader Gwen: Its ownership, you own yourself. We acquired land so nobody could control you. Homesteader Herman: The entire mortgage crisis, country people like ourselves, revealed through the crisis – people in cities don’t own anything, the bank owns everything

photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts

photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts

Gentrification, dispossession are old stories made new. The stories are scenarios, pantomimes, gestures, and facial expressions constituting a system of explanation which geographer Clyde Woods called a “blues epistemology.”[1] Homesteader Bobbie Joe’s blues sound like

These people have told me some of the stories. They horse traded some of that land. Let me break that down to you. See, these are the people who would convince you that there was nothing like a valuable horse. So if you had a need for some finances, they would trade you that horse you had for some land. And they had a way of fixing it up, documenting it, to where they got possession.

White landowners, under the guise of bartering, used these innocuous transactions to claim black land and document it at the courthouse as their own. Whites strategically appropriated parcels that would form a barrier, cutting the original Black owner off from their right of way. The African Americans were landlocked, captive once again.

The blues is a perpetual lament, a longing, and a knowing. This is the sound of a freedom song inside Homesteader Bill’s blues:

I’m going through withdrawal today sitting here with you. If my other truck was not in service with the guys, I’d be up there. So I’m going through withdrawal, because it’s fruit time. And I’m going Saturday, but sometimes I go twice a week. In two hours, I can be at our place. It is just so much solitude and tranquility out there and my thoughts flow. I think of jobs, how I am going to unfold them and design them, and so I write a lot of proposals while I am out there…I dig deep with my Rollerball pen, and I commence to write plans, projects, and I settle those jobs when I get back.”

photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts

photo courtesy of Andrea Roberts

Homesteader Bill and others recall the future our ancestors envisioned. Like the beginning of the universe, our pre-capture, our reclaiming sounds like:

We raised the best crops. We had the most connected families. Our cousins were helpless, but our crop – we helped them with their crop. We were well connected, and there was an unwritten rule of discipline and respect that was held at community gatherings. You could get disciplined at any house, and you could get a certain discipline when you get home. So it kept us in shape.

They face the loss—freedmen’s towns, freedom colonies, pockets, corners, streets, subdivisions and enclaves—with an indefatigable urge to build and reclaim; to recall the pre-capture state. Black futures are a journey to a pre-capture past.

[1] Interviewees’ last names have been omitted to preserve anonymity. Research and interviews conducted 2014-16 in Fort Bend, Harris, Newton, and Jasper Counties.

[1] Woods, “The Blues Epistemology and Regional Planning History: The Case of Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission.”

Images courtesy of Andrea Roberts

Dr. Andrea Roberts is an Assistant Professor Urban Planning and Faculty Fellow of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A & M University. Roberts was a 2016-2017 Emerging Scholar Fellowship in Race and Gender in the Built Environment of the American City at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Her research and teaching explores African American diasporas and heritage through ethnographic study and documentation of the history of African American placemaking and planning in early ex-slave settlements as well as contemporary grassroots planning and social constructions of “free Black ” communities.

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