Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Former slaves forged new lives, settling in The Colony





Roger Enlow grew up in Granbury, graduated from Granbury High School in 1973, and worked at the Hood County News from 1976-2021. He is a member the Bridge Street History Center Museum’s Board of Directors.


I failed to find any mention of The Colony — a settlement of freed slaves west of Granbury — in Thomas Ewell's 1895 "Hood County History," the definitive history book of early-day Hood County.

"Just one of those things back then," observed a native Hood Countian. "Blacks weren't important."

In recent decades, however, the history of The Colony has been brought to life. Newspaper and magazine articles have been written about the cemetery and vanished community between Granbury and Tolar four miles north of Highway 377. A state historical marker was erected in 2001.

Many of The Colony founders had been brought to Hood County by white southerners to avoid the perils of the Civil War and who wanted to find new land. Former slave Simon Hightower was considered the first landowner, thus becoming known as the founder of The Colony. 

As The Colony slowly grew, a church called Mt. Zion, which also served as a temporary school, was established. The Colony's population peaked to about 400, with residents growing cotton and corn. It was said that each family had a garden and orchard.

The residents played important roles in the development of Hood County. Their masonry skills were instrumental in the construction of the buildings on the courthouse square, later becoming the first town square in the National Register of Historic Places.

"You know," one of The Colony's descendants was once quoted, "they wouldn't even have that square if it weren't for the blacks who built the buildings."

Others farmed. Several of the men bought a pecan grove in the Stockton Bend area north of Granbury and grafted pecans.

"Every morning," late historian Mary Kate Durham once said, "we would see the wagons of workers going down the road on their way to work their land. They were very hard-working people. I was taught by my father to respect the blacks. The black men were highly respected by the townspeople."

The women were industrious too, wrote the late Hood County News journalist Kathy Smith. "Many of the ladies who moved into Granbury became — what the 1870 census called 'kitchen help.' One such woman was Hettie Hightower, Simon Hightower's wife. Hettie worked for W.B. Daniels in his large house south of the square. Also, her daughter Phoebe worked for the Daniels family."

Pre-Lake Granbury residents (1969 and before) probably remember Phoebe. She lived most of her life in a small clapboard house on Travis Street just north of the library. Phoebe spent her latter years sitting on her front porch, waving and calling to children as they passed by. Other times, for a small fee, Phoebe would take your hand, study your palm and tell your fortune. During Halloween she served small bowls of chili to the trick-or-treaters.

By the end of the Depression era of the 1930s most of the residents had left The Colony for nearby towns. The last three residents of The Colony left around 1940. As the families moved away the land was purchased and combined with a large ranch, thus offering natural protection of the cemetery site.

R.D. Edwards, Simon Hightower's great-grandson, cared for the cemetery until his death in 1991. No one saw the upkeep until the 1997 formation of The Colony Cemetery Committee. During the cleanup day volunteers reported seeing scattered building stones of limestone remaining from the houses and pieces and white china plates and brown crockery.

Longtime Granbury resident Joe Perkins helped lead the cleanup and restoration efforts. He knows of no relatives buried there but said his parents used to go to The Colony and get fresh black-eyed peas. Perkins owns Perkins Concrete and has repaired broken headstones in the cemetery and other cemeteries in the county.

The cemetery, which may hold 100 graves, sits on a hilltop shaded by oak trees. The earliest marked grave is Mary Edwards, who died in 1876. Some of the gravesites have pieces of field stone displaying hand-etched phonetic spellings of names and others have yet to be identified. (The cemetery is on private property and not visible from the nearby county road. The historical marker is at the public roadside park on Highway 377 West.)

The following was shared at a celebration at The Colony Cemetery in 1998:

"The Colony's significance — its conception, short physical existence and its lingering memory — can perhaps be best expressed by the words of a freedom song one taught to the children who grew up there: 'You may be a poor man, but you'll never be a slave. Shout-shout for the battle cry of freedom.'

"For in The Colony, former slaves began living such freedom. Even though the church and the houses are now gone, the cemetery remains as a reminder of days long past and a community where lives were begun anew -— in freedom."