Beginning in 2015, despite initially being held in a sparsely populated corner of the state, this one-day outdoor event has featured renowned speakers and presenters from across the nation and Texas, including The Jemima Code author and James Beard Award winner, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Texas Monthly Food Editor, Pat Sharpe.
The Festival Symposium focused on food-centered presentations, as well as sessions that explored the histories, social foundations, and people associated with the more than 500 Freedom Colonies in Texas – especially Deep East Texas. This Freedom Colony focus has included presentations from Dr. Andrea Roberts, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University, the Texas Historical Commission and other historians, preservationists and archeologists.
In 2017, the symposium was expanded to two days, and began operating as a program of the nonprofit, Clay History and Education Services, Inc. Through a partnership with the Region 5 Education Service Center, CPE credits were made available to all Texas educators in attendance. 2017 also marked the start of an ongoing project to video-record the symposia sessions and distribute them via a dedicated YouTube Channel.
Symposium organizers decided to take another huge leap forward in 2019 – changing the venue to the campus of Prairie View A&M University, changing the date to Juneteenth annually, and changing the moniker to the Aya Symposium, named after the Adinkra “fern” symbol, which connotes endurance and resourcefulness – the epitome of the Texas Freedom Colonies. The basics, however, remain intact, including the focus on Freedom Colonies, adherence to the broad symposium objectives, and an association with the Texas Purple Hull Pea Festival.
About Texas Freedom Colonies (From the Texas Freedom Colonies Project)
Former slaves African American families aggressively pursued land ownership after the Civil War in Texas. Clusters of agrarian, land-owning settlements or "Freedom Colonies" emerged from secluded areas (Leslie 2013; Baum 2009; Sitton and Conrad 2005).
Freedom Colonies is a name coined by historians Sitton and Conrad in a book by the same name. However, they didn't "discover" these places. Freedom Colonies also were known as Freedmen's Towns, "my family place", "where we go for homecoming", Black settlements, or "the Black side of town". Former slaves in Texas founded these communities 1866-1920.
Nearly 150 years later, most settlements have lost population, and their landowners have lost property through auctions, partition sales, or outright theft. Few remain on maps or in current census records, but these settlements live on in memory, church anniversaries, and family reunions.
Still, a small number of Freedom Colony descendants have retained land and continue to live in rural AND urban settlements for generations.
Our mission is to develop education and training programs for Texans of all ages in the areas of history, the fields of Historic Preservation and conservation trades, as well as STEM, both as an individual organization and collaboratively with history and education organizations that have similar goals.
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