The story of Grant’s Colony complicates the narrative of the Reconstruction Era in Walker County, which is typically one of violence, despair, and intimidation. For while the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1867, the Walker County Rebellion of 1870-71, and the defunding of public schools in 1876, all played a negative part in the lives of those who lived in Grant’s Colony, rising literacy rates, political activism, and economic independence equally marked the experience of the 350 or so residents of the Colony.
Grant’s Colony began in 1866 when freedpeople began moving into and organizing an area of land approximately five miles east of Huntsville. The land belonged to George Washington Grant, a local elite who had made a fortune in transportation in the antebellum economy and had purchased over 11,000 acres in Walker and Grimes Counties. A 6,000-acre parcel of this, which stretched on both sides of Harmon Creek, would be the site of Grant’s Colony.
Grant’s wife, Mary, introduced him to the religious philosophy of the Church of Christ (later to become The First Christian Church) in the middle of the Civil War. This was a philosophy closely connected to that of the Quakers, and, accordingly, held a strong condemnation of slavery, a commitment to education, and a desire for racial harmony. Thus, once the Civil War had ended, Grant helped to organize a community on his land east of Huntsville he optimistically named “Harmony Settlement.”
In 1867, Grant deeded over to a twelve-member board of trustees a two-acre plot for a schoolhouse. This was at a time of considerable unrest in Texas and Walker County, as Assistant Commissioner for the Freedmen’s Bureau, General Charles Griffin, had entered into Texas politics with considerable force, removing Governor Throckmorton and replacing him with Elisha Pease, integrating the Army with the Bureau, and providing real assistance and encouragement to Bureau agents in the field to enforce the Reconstruction Acts. In Walker County, dramatic and violent scenes played out. However, Grant’s Colony became a site of remarkable safety and opportunity.
In 1869, Grant attended a Friends Meeting in Jackson, Mississippi where he met and recruited Ohioans Hannah and Edward Williams and their teenage daughter Sarah to teach in the Colony. They would stay until 1878, keeping a remarkable record of the daily life of the village. The Williams helped to build the “Colony Grove” schoolhouse and organized a Temperance Band. Hannah and Sarah were the primary teachers, and their classes totaled over 120 pupils per year. After their tenure, Edward Williams, the first African American in Walker County to obtain a teaching certificate, came in to replace the Williams. Their collective efforts yielded impressive results. Literacy levels for the census district rose from 16% in 1870 to 66% by 1900.
The Colony grew into a significant center for African-American politics as well. The first African-American representative from Walker, Polk, and Livingston Counties, Richard Williams, lived in the Colony. In the Quaker Williams’ letters, we see Richard Williams as one of the Colony’s social leaders. Later, in the 1880s, Grant’s Colony became the center of the populist movement for Walker County.
Despite the vibrancy and importance of the community, Grant’s Colony had a significant weakness in that most of the land remained in the hands of Grant, which meant that the majority of the residents of the Colony were tenants. When Grant passed away, his estate was in considerable arrears and, though he wished desperately that it be passed down to his adopted daughter, the majority of the land was purchased by his main creditor, Sallie Mae Gibbs, at a cash auction in 1900. The Gibbs continued to rent out most of the land but the political power of Grant’s Colony drained away. Little is known about what exactly led to the Colony’s total demise, but by 1936 the two churches, the schoolhouse, the political meetings, even the bridge that connected the two halves of the Colony had all been destroyed or moved. The National Forest Service purchased the Gibbs’ acreage in 1936. All that remains today are fading ruts of what used to be Main Street and Church Street, Grant’s Colony Cemetery, and a few pillars still standing in Harmon Creek.