When the American Civil War ended in 1865, millions of slaves who were freed suddenly realized that they had to make tough decisions, such as where to go, what to eat and how to survive in the years ahead.
“To some, it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it. Some of the slaves were seventy or eighty years old; their best days were gone. They had no strength with which to earn a living in a strange place and among strange people,” writes Booker T. Washington in his autobiography, “Up From Slavery.”
Sadly, a quarter of the four million freed slaves either died or suffered from illness, according to Jim Downs in his book Sick From Freedom.
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Other historians say that some of the freed slaves stayed on plantations to work as sharecroppers while others left their slave quarters in search of jobs in the cities, despite a majority of them being unable to read and write.
Others owned nothing and had no money. Yet, with the little that they had, these freed slaves knew that buying land was important. Even though they had to pay more for land than the whites would do, they were not perturbed, as they managed to purchase some lands just to ensure their independence without any interference from a white world.
By 1888, at least 200 black towns and communities had been established nationwide. According to an article on The Washington Post, some of these towns were modelled on black towns that had been formed after the American Revolution and during the antebellum era — from the late 1700s to 1860.
Sugarland, Md., was one of the hundreds of all-black towns and communities established by freed slaves after the Civil War. Founded in 1871, it is documented that the all-black town got its name because its founders believed that “the women here were as sweet as sugar.”
Three freed slaves originally founded the town. William Taylor, Patrick Hebron Jr. and John H. Diggs, on October 6, 1871, bought the land for a church from George W. Dawson, a white former slave owner, for the sum of $25.
The three men made a small down payment and continued to pay until the debt was settled. The deed dictated that the land be used for a church, a school and “as a burial site for people of African descent,” The Washington Post report said.
Thus, Sugarland, about an hour’s drive north of Washington, operated as an independent township, with a church, post office, school, and a store; a neighbour to the town of Poolesville, MD.
According to 73-year-old Gwendora Reese, who is a direct descendant of the town’s founders, the church was one of the first community buildings residents built.
“By them being in slavery, they learned trades. Some were blacksmiths. My great-grandfather made bricks. They took the skills they learned in slavery and helped each other building log cabins,” she told The Washington Post.
Growing up in the town with her cousins Nettie Johnson La’Master, 74, and Suzanne Johnson, 65, Reese said they remember living in wood-frame houses built by their fathers who were direct descendants of freed slaves who founded the community.
They also remember the fruit orchards, siblings “skipping along dirt roads”, as well as, the hard benches in the church built by former slaves.
“In those days, Sugarland boomed. It was a hubbub of rural activity, a community of self-sufficient black farmers who scorned working white folks’ land, instead cultivating their own tracts. There was a post office here, a general store, a pub; the schoolhouse was established in the late 1920s. There was also at least 180 acres of healthy farmland, almost all of it owned by black folks,” writes Washington City Paper.
Today, just as other black towns established after the Civil War, Sugarland is mostly “horse country with million-dollar homes that sit on rolling hills”, writes The Washington Post. Many of the houses built by former slaves have been pulled down, winding dirt roads have been paved while the forest has overtaken a lot of the areas where freed slaves used to live.
In spite of the loss of most of these all-black towns, historians believe that they were of great value to African-Americans as these black communities helped them “escape racial oppression, control their economic destinies and prove black capacity for self-development.”
“Sugarland wasn’t Utopia. Families sometimes had to hire their labour out to more prosperous white farmers. Other residents had to take jobs as domestics to keep food on the table.
“But Sugarland belonged to its people, something that black sharecroppers and tenant farmers throughout the country could not claim. Sugarland was a Garveyite’s dream: an independent community of black people who only asked the surrounding white community to leave them be,” writes The Washington City Paper.