Andrea Roberts: The Homeplace Aesthetic: Principles of Place Preservation in Deep East Texas's Vernacular African American Landscape

Men and women in a church

Jasper and Newton County, Texas, Freedom Colony Homecoming Presidents (2014), in Shankleville, Texas. photo / Sarah Junek

Andrea Roberts is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University and founder of The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, a research and social justice initiative documenting African American's placemaking history and their contemporary planning practices and challenges. Roberts's critical scholarship aims to diversify planning history, expose promising replicable grassroots preservation practices, and amplify minority communities' concerns in policy arenas. Roberts teaches planning history and theory and an interdisciplinary course for planners and architects called Cultural Landscapes and Ethnographic Methods. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, and she is currently developing a book proposal. She is also a guest curator for the Institute of Texan Cultures' Black Settlements exhibition.

Most recently, Roberts was an emerging scholar fellow of race and gender in the built environment of the American city at the University of Texas at Austin's (UT) School of Architecture where she also earned a Ph.D. in community and regional planning. While a student, she supported beta testing for the Austin Historical Survey Wiki and served as a historic landmark commissioner. In 2012, she created The Fifth Street Project, a community-based planning initiative and market study conducted under the auspices of UT's Center for Sustainable Development.

Prior to joining academia, Roberts was a deputy budget director for the City of Philadelphia, an analyst for the City of Houston's Finance Department's TIF Division, and planning division manager for Houston's Housing and Community Development Department. In these roles, she helped cities address budget shortfalls and underfunded pensions, improve government transparency, and increase public engagement.

In addition to her Ph.D., Roberts holds an M.A. in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in political science from Vassar College.  

Abstract:

From 1870 to 1920, formerly enslaved Africans founded hundreds of "freedom colonies" or freedmen's towns across Texas. The principles and cultural continuities informing freedom colony descendants' approaches to planning and preservation are the focus of this presentation. Findings based on ethnographic and archival research conducted within East Texas freedom colonies indicate that a homeplace aesthetic shapes descendants' approaches to heritage and place conservation including informal stewardship of their cultural landscapes through homestead preservation, commemorative practices, and place enumeration. These practices problematize in some instances (and reinforce in others) normative planning principles and regulatory frameworks. Finally, the author asks that practitioners and scholars consider the implications of understanding the aesthetic for discourse, practice, and policy. For example, might understanding the homeplace aesthetic prompt practitioners to seek traditional recognition and protections for historic Black settlements while adapting current policies, making them inclusive of descendants' culturally specific ontology of place and preservation priorities?

Sponsored by the Russell Van Nest Black Lectureship Fund.