Reprinted from Granbury Magazine dated May / June 1984
Written by Candace Ord Manroe
R. D. Edwards knits his brow and, for a moment, permits a soft, pensive cloud to settle upon his strong black face. His gaze is transfixed by the empty, rolling ranchland which engulfs the tiny graveyard of his ancestors like the sea around a bar of sand. In a way, it is real ghosts that loom before him. Raising a hand, broad-knuckled and steely after years of hard work on an even harder land, he signals to imaginary points on the horizon. “Over there stood my uncle’s place. Then down here lived some of my cousins. This was a regular community. One of my uncles gave the land where they built the Mt. Zion Church up by the road, and the school was over there. All the families lived here and each one gave so much — whatever they could — to help the community survive.”
All that remains today of The Colony, an early Hood County settlement of former slaves, is the dusty patch of ground beneath Edwards’ feet. The school, church and dwellings are gone. What is left is a cemetery of between 75 and 100 graves, many unmarked, whose only distinction from the encircling cow pasture is a rickety, long-rusted fence. And even that not always does the job. With the good grasses gone, cows amble into the diminutive graveyard to graze between and around headstones, oblivious to the sacrosanctity of what lies below.
“At one time, we had lots of land in this part of the county,” says Edwards. “Different ones just built different houses and farms. But after most of the old ones died, the young ones drifted away till there’s nobody left today.”
Edwards knows. He was among the last to leave. The Colony’s death knell sounded when he and brothers Daniel and David McCormick moved from there to Granbury in 1939.
Located between Granbury and Tolar, four miles north of Highway 377 on County Road 103, the ten square miles of countryside once comprising The Colony are today private property belonging to the John R. Black Ranch. To reach the cemetery it is necessary to open a private gate fronting the county road and continue along a deep-rutted dirt drive to the hilltop gravesite. In addition to the property owners, only Edwards possesses a key to the entry gate, and he alone is responsible for maintaining the cemetery.
“Used to, several of us would come out here and straighten up the tombstones and mow and clear out the place. Now it’s just me. With the weather better, I need to get out here and do some work.”
At 76, Edwards not only is the sole person answerable for the future of The Colony graveyard, he is the solitary voice left to recount, firsthand, The Colony’s past.
The community was settled by Edwards’ great-grandfather, Simon Hightower. Like so many other members of Edwards’ family, Hightower is buried in the secluded, oak-shaded cemetery. Edwards says Simon Hightower came to Hood County from Atlanta, Georgia by wagon train with his former master, Tob Johnson. “This white man Tob Johnson brought Simon here after the freedom and gave him the land. It was known for a long time as ‘old Granny’s place’.” (Other Hood Countians recall having heard the settlement called Dogtown, in reference to the many dogs owned by inhabitants.)
Simon Hightower and his family received their last name from a former owner who was a Hightower, according to Edwards. Historian Viola Block, in her History of Johnson County and Surrounding Areas, concurs. “When the freed slaves ‘assumed’ the name of the former owner, which was a common practice, Simon and his family became Hightowers,” she writes. “Later their former owner told them their name was really Barney.” Block, however, states that it was not Tob Johnson but a man named Hightower, a teacher at the old Add-Ran College in Thorp Spring, who last owned Simon Hightower, brought him to Texas, and directed his settling of The Colony.
Despite Block’s theory, historical records and present-day Hood County residents confirm the presence of a white man named Tob Johnson in Granbury during the mid-1800’s.
“Tob Johnson was my grandfather,” says Mrs. Charles McCarty, a Granbury resident and schoolteacher and daughter of the late Clay Johnson. “He was a man who hopped around here, there and everywhere else. He had holdings all over Texas. At one time, he owned a railroad in East Texas; at another time, he owned the Driskell Hotel in Austin, and at one time, he owned a stage line which ran from Brownwood to Fort Worth. He was what I guess you would call a regular man about Texas and even entertained the governor. He is listed as an early resident of Fort Worth, but he also lived in Granbury. You won’t find his name mentioned in the history books for this, but he actually was one of the early settlers who assisted in helping to determine where the town site of Granbury should be.
Mrs. McCarty says Tob Johnson was originally from Tennessee where he also died. She has no records or recollections to prove that her grandfather once owned Simon Hightower and brought him to Texas, but she notes that the family’s Johnson Brothers Ranch was only a short distance from The Colony, lending credence to the possibility. That ranch, like The Colony, is now part of the John R. Black property.
She also recalls a story about her mother’s family, the Gardners, having freed a slave who approached the former owner saying, “Miss Ollie, I’ve come to take care of you for the rest of your days.” The former slave was up in years, says Mrs. McCarty, and “was actually the one who ended up being cared for.” The relevance of the anecdote to The Colony’s history lies in the link it provides between slaves and a member of the Johnson family.
History shows that the 19th-century Johnsons, white, and Hightowers, black, not only were within close physical proximity, they were of the same time period. Mrs. McCarty says her uncle, Americas Gardner Johnson, a child of Tob Johnson, was the third baby to be born in the Granbury area. He was the second white child to be born here. “There was another white child born here before him, and there was one black child — a Hightower,” remembers Mrs. McCarty.
After the Civil War and emancipation of slaves, carpetbaggers began a campaign to register the former slaves to vote. They promised each registered former slave 40 acres and a mule. In Hood County, whatever land actually was awarded lay in the area which was to become known as The Colony. Whether Tob Johnson or others, certain white individuals thus had a hand in precipitating The Colony’s settlement.
When Block researched The Colony for her book in 1969, she interviewed two of Simon Hightower’s grandchildren, Amanda Allen and Henry Hightower, cousins, both now deceased. Mrs. Allen, 87 at the time, recalled a freedom song that was taught to her as a child growing up in The Colony: “You may be a poor man, but you’ll never be a slave. Shout — shout — for the battle cry of freedom.” Mrs. Allen’s father was Barney Riley Hightower, a black man who helped clear the Granbury square for erection of the county courthouse.
Henry Hightower, who was Edwards’ uncle and once resided with him, said that families living in The Colony grew cotton and corn, each family having its own garden and orchard. “It was a good life, no money but we were happy.” Hightower worked as a farm hand, cook and yardman — occupations also pursued by Edwards — and at one time worked on the Johnson Brothers Ranch. The ranch operated a whiskey still, he said, and supplied corn whiskey for the Juneteenth (June 19th) celebration of emancipation which was The Colony’s most festive annual event.
Juneteenth was observed on the creek behind Simon Hightower’s farm. The women began cooking days in advance, baking pies and cakes and preparing numerous chickens. At midnight preceding the celebration, the men began cooking the meat — a hog or two, a steer, sheep, goats and the chickens. According to Mrs. Allen, her own father was the best cook, making his own barbecue sauce “and it was better than anyone else could make or buy.”
At noon, after the mealtime blessing and songs, the feasting began. It continued well into the night, until all the food and drink were consumed. During The Colony’s halcyon days, some 200 to 300 people attended the Juneteenth holiday, with relatives coming from Fort Worth, Stephenville, Cleburne, Weatherford and Annetta. The celebration included dancing and baseball games for the adults and playing on swings for the children.
Hightower remembered barrels of beer and kegs of whiskey as holiday staples, but Mrs. Allen said her memories focused more on alcohol as a vice than pleasure. Her mother, she said, promptly emptied onto the ground any whiskey she might find.
The last survivor of The Colony, Edwards spends his days much as his ancestors before him. Onions grow in the garden of his Granbury home, and each day he tends five head of his own cattle and manages another 30 for someone else. For 25 years, he has been on the payroll of Granbury’s First National Bank, working first on cutting the bank’s archways, then continuing as a custodian. He is friends with Granbury’s early families, having worked odd jobs or done yard work for the old-timers, many of whom are now deceased.
Perusing the old tombstones at The Colony graveyard, Edwards grows quiet. Nearly every name, it seems, is that of a member of his family. Hightowers buried in the cemetery include Simon, Joe, Frank and Anthony. Others remembered by Edwards are Henry “Uncle Doc” Foster and his brother Hills, and “Uncle Steve” and “Aunt Sarah” Haley. The Haleys were among The Colony’s oldest residents and were former slaves.
The headstones themselves tell the story of the erstwhile lifestyle of Hood County blacks more articulately than any words. Some markers are of cut, finished granite but the majority are merely pieces of jagged field stone, broken by hand and positioned at the graves. The names, like the stones, look primitive, faintly etched by hand with some sharp implement. Occasionally, the names are phonetic versions of the more accepted spellings. The gravestone of Mary Edwards, for instance, bears the inscription, “Mary Edards, Dau. of Mr. and Mrs. Wash. Edards.” That same stone is a telling sign of The Colony’s age — Mary Edwards, born in 1855, died Nov. 13, 1876. On other markers, letters are printed backwards. On Kathreen Hamber’s headstone, the “n” in Kathreen opens to the left instead of right, like a mirror image.
As the final torch-bearer of The Colony, Edwards proves worthy of the task. Though his memory becomes fuzzied when forced to recall whether a certain great-aunt or uncle was on his maternal or paternal side, on other points, he is meticulously mindful. Near the county road, beneath the shade of a sprawling live oak, he motions towards some broken boards and rusted nails laid flat upon the ground. “That’s where the old church used to be,” he says. “When some of the people moved away, they built another church in Granbury. This one they built 26 feet by 28 feet. This is all that’s left of it, and there’s not anything at all left of the old school that was here.” At the time it closed, The Colony school had 18 students. According to Mrs. Allen, the quality of education available there surpassed that at the black school in Granbury.
Edwards is understandably solemn about The Colony’s fate, but, with memories as his companions, he is not completely alone. “I’m just glad somebody’s interested. This used to be quite a place. Quite a place.”
UPDATE – 11/15/98
R. D. Edwards and Juneteenth
You asked about R. D. Edwards of The Colony. He is now buried in The Colony Cemetery. I don’t have the exact date, but it was about 1990. The cause of death according to the autopsy report was that he was murdered. The circumstantial evidence was that he was struck by a vehicle near Tolar and dragged to death. No suspect was ever identified. His cousin, Catherine McCormick, 83, is still pressing to continue the investigation but to no avail. It was long ago, and the small police force is not equipped to make a real investigation. No evidence was collected – only the coroner’s autopsy report.
The Juneteenth Celebrations at The Colony ended about 60 years ago. However, the celebration was revived this year, 1998 – by white newcomers to Granbury. I attended this Juneteenth revival and talked to several Simon Hightower descendants – including R. A. Edwards’ cousin, Catharine McCormick and also the son of the last Mt. Zion Church minister.
A couple of white and a couple of black families arrived at the cemetery the day before and set about barbecuing some pork ribs, chicken, and beef. Families brought all the fixings, including a bean dish you would “kill for” – several kinds of potato salad, black eyed peas, corn breads – all kinds of pies and cakes – generous supply of soft drinks and ice tea – no beer. The whole affair was free as the Cemetery Committee, backed by local merchants and ranchers, paid for everything. Many of the Hightower descendants were well known and respected by the local ranchers and older business people, as well as past sheriffs and the current one. It was a happy homecoming. The attendance was over 100 people, 70% white. There were several hot domino games, but most people just visited and walked through the cemetery. I did not meet a single black person that now lives in Hood County. Most were from Dallas and Tarrant Counties.
The cemetery has been cleaned up and a really strong barbed wire fence erected to keep the cattle out. A fundraising raffle raised enough money to pay for the construction of a stone base for a flagpole and metal plaque.
I plan to attend again next year – this time I’ll bring my horseshoes.
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