February 5, 2021
A Safe Place to Call Home
Early All-Black Towns & Settlements
First Baptist Church (left) and general merchandise store (right) in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, c.1907
Since the United States gained independence, African Americans have also gained their own kind of independence through the establishment of all black settlements. By the end of the Civil War, in the north, south, and expanding west, these places dotted the entire country, offering a safer place for African Americans to raise families and make a living. Some of our HistoryMakers hail from these places or have made efforts to preserve them, and offer us great insight on their incredible histories.
The Turner-Burr House, the last structure of the Parting Ways settlement which burned down in 1908, c.1900
Museum director and state representative Byron Rushing points out one of the oldest of these towns, “outside of Plymouth [Massachusetts] called Parting Ways, and Parting Ways was… a small African American community… developed after the American Revolution by free black people, some of whom had gained their freedom because they fought in the American Revolution.”[1] These men were Plato Turner, Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin and Quamony Quash, who “cleared the property and resided there, with the Town of Plymouth’s permission until 1824… descendants of some of the men lived on the site into the early 20th century, the last remaining dwelling being the ‘Turner-Burr House’ which burned down in 1908.”[2] The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the cemetery can still be visited.
Residents of Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, undated
The village of Mitchelville, located on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, was actually established in the middle of the Civil War as part of the Port Royal Experiment. This experiment of self-governance by formerly enslaved people came to fruition as the plantation owners fled South Carolina, leaving behind their many slaves. Cultural heritage chief executive Emory Campbell further explained: “Officially this was one of the first places where… [a] massive number of people had opportunity to buy land and to live as free people… in 1862 they actually established a village called Mitchelville… named for [Union] General Ormsby Mitchel who was in charge… they had their own town council… school board… garbage collection… a police department. It was the beginning of self-governance for black people… that was one of the ways he [Mitchel] wanted to solve the problem of the blacks getting in the way of the war… they don't have time to deal with civilians. So he said, ‘Y'all gone on over there and take care of yourselves.’”[3] The site has been preserved as Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.
Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilde slave ship, in his home, Africatown, Alabama, c.1920s
Africatown in Alabama, too, has a remarkable story, founded in 1860 right before the Civil War. Civil rights activist and city council member Sala Udin pointed out: “Africatown was… established by the slaves who were on the last slave ship [Clotilde] to dock in the United States. Right after slavery was abolished, there was a slave merchant who decided to try to see if he could sneak in a final boat load of Africans. They were stopped, arrested. The Africans freed themselves and… set up this town.”[4] Col. Roosevelt J. Lewis grew up in this area, and provided further details: “As a little kid… our aunt… lived down on Bay Bridge Road and… there was a lady that lived on the right side, Ms. Tempee [ph.] that was a descendant of Cudjo Lewis of… the boat Clotilde… many of those descendants as a little kid growing up, they lived in that area.[5] This town still has around 2,000 residents and is incorporated into the City of Mobile. In 2012, it joined the National Register of Historic Places.
The family of A.T. Odom, residents of Shankleville, Texas, undated
Family reunion at the Odom homestead, Shankleville, Texas, 1949
Shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, many African Americans traveled west to the new territories to claim land. Texas was perhaps the most popular destination, with about 500 settlements. In 1867, the community of Shankleville was established. Educational psychology professor Asa Hilliard, III (1933 – 2007) explained its history and namesake, his ancestor, “Jim Shankle… I think its two more generations beyond my mother's grandfather. And they were from Mississippi… Jim Shankle ran away from a Mississippi plantation, because his wife [Winnie] was sold to a family in Texas. And he was able to swim across the Mississippi River and walk four hundred miles barefoot and find his wife… he accumulated a lot of property… immediately after slavery. And it's that property that was named Shankleville.”[6] Here, 4,000 acres were eventually acquired, home to “prosperous farms, churches, a cotton gin, grist mills, sawmills, schools– including McBride College (1883-1909)… annual homecomings have been held since 1941.”[7]
Main Street, Boley, Oklahoma, c.1900-1920s
Like Texas, Oklahoma was another popular destination. Founded in 1903 by an interracial group—including Thomas M. Haynes, a black farmer and entrepreneur from Texas—Boley, Oklahoma quickly became the largest predominantly black town in the U.S. Here, “there were numerous cotton gins and banks, schools both public and private, several fraternal clubs… churches of every denomination… a black tuberculosis hospital and the State Training School for Negro Boys… By the 1930s, Boley began to experience a sustained population decline… Boley remains mostly black and is home to many descendants of the town’s original settlers.”[8] This is where retail entrepreneur Bezelee Martin grew up: “It was a place where our police… was black, our school superintendent, our post office, all of our peoples we looked up to, they was of our own… you didn't encounter a lot of things that you hear that people were encountering… we grew up almost like a big, huge, family.”[9] This was also the hometown of airplane pilot and television reporter Jim Tilmon, who recalled how the town had to protect itself: “It was pretty well understood that attacking Boley was a losing proposition because the residents and the merchants and all were armed to the teeth, always on alert for anything that might affect the safety of that town.”[10]
Left: Visitors at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 2011
Right: Allen Allensworth, who retired in 1908 as the highest ranking African American officer in the Union army at the time, a lieutenant colonel
Further west in California, there was just one settlement “fully financed, governed, built, designed and populated by African Americans.”[11] African American history professor Ronald Gerald Coleman told of the founder in his interview when asked about his favorite historical figure, “Allen Allensworth… a soldier, chaplain in the [U.S.] Army. Started an all-black town in California called Allensworth… in 1896,[12] and officially founded the town in 1908. Here, “Allensworth bought 800 acres along the railroad in Tulare County and recruited African Americans from all over the country start businesses. Former Buffalo Soldiers made up most of population… Between 1909 and 1918, Allensworth was home to several hundred… Farming was good, the town had several stores, and the school and library were full.”[13] Decline occurred after the death of Allensworth in 1914. The town lost their water rights due to a late payment and World War I called many into military service. Still, some “decedents of the original town continued to live in Allensworth until the 1970s,” and it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated California Historical Landmark.[14]
Mural painted by Irene Vázquez on a street in the historically black neighborhood of Independence Heights, Houston Texas, August 2020
Though many of these communities have since declined, just last year we saw nineteen black families purchase nearly 97 acres in rural Wilkinson County, Georgia as part of the Freedom Georgia Initiative, with the goal of building a safe place for black people to live. Real estate agent Ashley Scott, who started the Freedom Georgia Initiative, provided an explanation not unlike the ones given over a century ago: “Being able to create a community that is thriving, that is safe, that has agriculture and commercial businesses that are supporting one another and that dollars circulating in our community, that is our vision."[15]
Our Donor
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham 
We are very grateful for the support both inside and outside the classroom of HistoryMaker and Professor of History, African Studies, and African American Studies at Harvard University. For the past four years, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has been a huge proponent of The HistoryMakers Digital Archive and its use in the classroom as well as helping The HistoryMakers forge partnerships with ASALH (The Association for African American Life and History) where she serves as chair of the board.
In her seminar course “African American Lives and the Law," Higgingbotham champions use of The HistoryMakers Digital Archive as a way of bringing history alive while providing personal stories and narratives as context for the legal issues discussed in the class. Course topics such as voting rights, reparations, housing discrimination, and policing are all linked to interviews in The HistoryMakers Digital Archive, adding another dimension to student’s textbook understanding of the material. In fact, Higginbotham shared this e-mail recently with The HistoryMakers:
"Dear Professor Higginbotham:
My name is Andrew Zelermyer, and I am a 2020 Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow hoping to audit your course, The Northern Side of the Civil Rights Movement, virtually this semester. I was excited to learn about your course, and your use of oral histories from The HistoryMakers. I’m particularly interested in using stories and oral histories of civil rights leaders to effect social change and fight racism today. I believe I would benefit greatly from your teaching as I seek to broaden my understanding of this topic, and that my experience could also add value to classroom discussion."
African American history runs through the veins of Evelyn Higginbotham. In 2014, Higginbotham received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama for her work illuminating the African American experience. Higginbotham’s Richmond roots run deep. Her great grandmother, Lucy Goode Brooks, led the effort to found the Friends' Asylum for Colored Orphans, an orphanage for black children after the American Civil War, and her great grandfather, Albert Royal Brooks, was on the petit jury formed to try Jefferson Davis for treason, although circumstances were such that the trial never occurred.
[1] The Honorable Byron Rushing (The HistoryMakers A2006.013), interviewed by Robert Hayden, February 8, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, The Honorable Byron Rushing recalls the archeological investigation of the African Meeting House.
[2] Lynda M. Thomas-Legay. “Parting Ways Plymouth Museum,” 2006, accessed November 3, 2020. https://partingwaysplymouth.org/
[3] Emory Campbell (The HistoryMakers A2007.035), interviewed by Denise Gines, January 30, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Emory Campbell describes the founding of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
[4] Sala Udin (The HistoryMakers A2008.104), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 12, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Sala Udin talks about potential family ties in his paternal ancestry.
[5] Col. Roosevelt J. Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2007.246), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 6, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Col. Roosevelt J. Lewis talks about his family's move back to Mobile, Alabama after his father returned from military service.
[6] Asa Hilliard, III (The HistoryMakers A2003.098), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 6, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Asa Hilliard recalls his family history during and after slavery.
[7] “Welcome to the Shankleville Historical Society,” accessed November 4, 2020. https://shankleville.org/
[8] Melissa Stuckey. “BOLEY, OKLAHOMA (1903- ),” Black Past, April 15, 2007, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/boley-oklahoma-1903/
[9] Bezelee Martin (The HistoryMakers A2007.337), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 1, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Bezelee Martin remembers the community of Boley, Oklahoma.
[10] Jim Tilmon (The HistoryMakers A2003.023), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 28, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, James Tilmon reflects on the all-black Boley, Oklahoma of his youth.
[11] John Bartell. “Black History Month: Remembering the historically black town of Allensworth,” last edited February 6, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/abc10-originals/remembering-the-historically-black-town-of-allensworth/103-74ff339f-e498-419c-bc17-cc17d67a4ff5
[12] Ronald Gerald Coleman (The HistoryMakers A2008.057), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Ronald Gerald Coleman talks about his favorite historians.
[13] Bartell, “Black History Month.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] Pamela Kirkland. “19 families buy nearly 97 acres of land in Georgia to create a city safe for Black people,” September 12, 2020, accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/12/us/freedom-black-cooperative-toomsboro/index.html