The Williams Family and Neighboring Communities
It was common for late-nineteenth-century farm families to have many children, and one historian noted that "the average black farm woman in the South" had nine children. Sarah Williams, thus, was typical in this regard. She was about 25 years old when she had the first child and 41 or 42 years old when her last was born.
For the Williams family, running a successful farm for almost three decades had to have been a family affair, with the children playing important roles in operations. As soon as a child was old enough to walk, he or she was probably given household and farm chores to do. Their responsibilities increased as they grew older, and by the time they were 9 or 10 years old, they would have been expected to help raise their younger siblings, feed the pigs and chickens, collect eggs, and wash dishes. Older children took on some of the harder chores, such as working with the horses and cattle, hauling water, chopping firewood, and repairing fences. Unlike other African Americans living in freedmen settlements, however, the Williams family likely had to travel farther for assistance from neighbors and community support.
Early Neighbors in the Bear Creek and Rose Colony Communities
In 1875, Ransom and Sarah Williams were the only African Americans living on Bear Creek. The Williams' first neighbors were a handful of white farmers who plucked up the undeveloped parcels around him, south of Bear Creek. John Wilkins, Daniel Labenski, the Murphys, and the Townsleys were pioneers on the south side of Bear Creek. These earliest settlers in the McGehee League had no easy access to stores, blacksmiths, machinists, doctors, schools, or churches—the basic amenities that defined communities at that time. The city of Austin lay about 12 miles to the north, and the rural community of Mountain City, in northern Hays County, lay about 6 miles to the south. However, there were no established roads leading to the Bear Creek settlements. As far as we know, there was never any church, school, or store in the Bear Creek area that would have served as a community anchor. Nevertheless, these early pioneers endeavored to form a community of like-minded farmers in the 1870s.
Because of his race, Ransom Williams was probably excluded from many activities in the Bear Creek rural community, especially social events. When other freedmen started moving into the nearby Walker Wilson and S. F. Slaughter leagues in the 1870s, Williams and his family likely associated with them. A community of black farmers began to coalesce between Bear Creek and Slaughter Creek by the mid- to late-1870s. Among these pioneers were Ben Van Zandt, Chatham Perry, Richard Washington, and John Rose. These families were the core of the freedman community of Rose Colony, which later became the African American section of Manchaca, a town which sprang up after the railroad was extended from Austin to San Marcos in 1880. Other African American families who came to the Bear Creek-Rose Colony-Manchaca area were Alexander, Coats, Dodson, Dotson, Hargis, Hughes, Pickard, Owens, Scroggins, Slaughter, and Sorrells.
These first African American farmers in the Bear Creek-Rose Colony area were true pioneers. They were newly freed from bondage yet somehow managed to buy their own land. It was poor quality, upland farmland in a raw wilderness, but it was their land nonetheless. For the first time, they were able to make life decisions and govern themselves. They married with the assurance that their families would not be sold away. They owned their own land and labor. They formed their own associations—churches, schools, and fraternal organizations—for inspiration, education, and the betterment of their created community.
During the 20 years between Ransom Williams' land purchase in 1871 and the arrival of the Dodsons in 1891, the pioneers of Bear Creek-Rose Colony joined together to form the framework for their own community, one of several hundred such "Freedmen's Colonies" in Texas. In her book, And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928, Michelle Mears states that rural freedmen formed remote, scattered, informal, and unofficial communities in rural areas throughout the state by the last years of the nineteenth century. This pioneer generation succeeded in establishing a fledgling community for later African Americans who came to live in south Travis County.
In the 1870s, Ransom and Sarah Williams and their small children probably socialized with residents of the Antioch Colony, the freedmen settlement that had emerged in the Mountain City area during the late 1860s. The colony was 4.5 miles south of the Williams property, in northern Hays County. While some other African Americans lived on the east side of Onion Creek, the Antioch settlement was the only established freedmen's community in northern Hays and southern Travis counties when Ransom and Sarah Williams first came to the farm. Comprising 12 to 15 extended families, the community provided a church, a school, and social opportunities that were unavailable to the Williams family in the Bear Creek community of the 1870s.
Rose Colony had its own school for African American children by 1877, and it probably hosted church services on Sundays as well. Because it was closer to the Williams farmstead, it may have supplanted Antioch Colony as the base community for the Williams family. By the time the first of the Williams children were of school age, around 1882, the Rose Colony School (originally called Union Grove School) for African American children had been in operation for five years. From deed records, it appears to have been about 2 miles to the east of the Williams farm, and in the area that grew into the town of Manchaca. The school was likely the focal point of African American life in southern Travis County, drawing students from throughout County Precinct 5, which spanned much of the Bear Creek, Onion Creek, and Slaughter Creek watersheds. For the parents, few of whom could read or write, education represented an opportunity for their children to get ahead in the world. A decade after the school was built, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was erected on an adjacent half-acre of land in the Slaughter League, and within the community of Manchaca. Today, the AME Church is represented by the New Bethel AME Church on Manchaca Road. This congregation dates its origins to Jack Dodson's 1891 AME Church.
Changes in the Twentieth Century
In the first decade of the twentieth century, a series of events occurred in the Williams family which were to influence the family's decisions for the future. Ransom Williams was probably 55 years old when he died about 1901, and this certainly changed the family dynamics. Central Texas also experienced a severe drought in 1901, and the added stress of dealing with this might have contributed to Ransom's death. The two oldest boys, Will and Charley, were the farmers in the Williams family, and they had purchased 12 acres of land immediately west of the original 45-acre homestead in 1900. But a year later, Will married Clara Franklin, and the couple moved to Creedmoor to be near Clara's family. The next oldest boy, Charley, may have died between 1904 and 1906, as he is absent in all subsequent records. We know that Sarah left the farm by about 1905 and moved to east Austin along with her two youngest children, John, who was about 16 years old at the time, and Emma, aged 13 or 14. Along with the records, this history is corroborated by archeological evidence that indicates no one was living at the Williams farmstead after about 1904.
Although they no longer lived on the farm, the Williams family continued to own their land for three more decades. They might have farmed the land themselves or leased it to someone else, perhaps one of their neighbors. In 1934, however, the family sold the original farmstead property, and in 1941, the adjacent property.
Like many thousands of blacks throughout the South, the Williamses gave up the rural farm lifestyle in the twentieth century and became urban city dwellers. Three of the great grandchildren of Ransom and Sarah Williams grew up in East Austin and still live there. Corrine Williams Harris, Lourice Williams Johnson, and Jewel Williams Andrews were active informants in our oral history project, and their recollections bridge the gap between rural life at the Williams farmstead and urban life in East Austin. They are descendants of Ransom and Sarah's oldest son, Will, and his wife Clara. Before the project, they knew little about their great grandparents' lives on the farm.
The African American community at Manchaca thrived into the twentieth century, and some things changed very little. School and church remained the anchors that tied the people of the community together. Robbie (Dotson) Overton, who was born in Manchaca in 1935, remembered attending "an all-black school, one-room school" where "one teacher taught everything." When asked what religion and church meant to her family growing up in Manchaca, Earselean (Sorrells) Hollins stated that "We grew up in church. It was important to me basically because we could all get together, we'd see other people besides our regular family members. We played ball, and then we'd have lunch on the grounds. It was just a fun time."
Jim Crow and Racial Discrimination
No history of a freedman family in Texas would be complete without a frank discussion of the racial discrimination that was codified all across the Southern United States by Jim Crow laws. For Ransom Williams and Sarah Houston, emancipation offered the hope of equality for freed blacks, but the harsh realities set in when the promises failed to materialize by the end of Reconstruction. After the U.S. Army ceased to enforce Federal law in the state, discrimination and the threat of violence against blacks increased.
Racial discrimination was a fact of life for the Williams family in late-nineteenth-century Travis County as it was all across the South. Schools andchurches were segregated, and African Americans were not allowed to take part in many social or political activities. Too easily, African Americans could be accused of crimes and severely punished or executed without being given due process of law. Lynchings were reported in Texas and across the south.
As defined by historian John Ross, "Lynching is the illegal killing of a person under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition. Though it often refers to hanging, the word became a generic term for any form of execution without due process of law." The violence often began because a black person offended a white person or was accused of a crime with little or no evidence.
Against this backdrop of racial segregation, discriminatory laws, and the constant threat of racial violence, the Williams family apparently kept a low profile, and their farm was a safe haven located well off the beaten path. While Ransom Williams and his family worked hard to become successful farmers, such success could have caused considerable animosity from many in the white population.
When the family moved to East Austin early in the twentieth century, they faced a more codified type of discrimination. For many years, the white leaders in the city of Austin debated how to deal with the negro population. Although it was progressive in many ways, the City of Austin wanted to keep its black population segregated into East Austin and took formal steps to do so. In 1928, an engineering firm working for the city came up with a solution that was published as the City Plan for Austin, Texas. The plan reinforces the degree of racial discrimination that existed in Texas and across the South. The authors of the City Plan noted that “negroes” lived in small numbers all over the city but were most concentrated in a specific area of east Austin. They decided that this area should be established as the city’s “negro district. In effect, the Williams family traded the forms of racism common in rural areas for an urban variety of racial discrimination.