ST. JAMES — As a child, Shandria Smith would sit and listen to the stories her great-aunt told about growing up in a community founded by former slaves.
By the time she was 12, Smith was writing down the things her great-aunt told her and trying to learn as much as she could about the Freetown settlement, founded in 1872 in St. James Parish.
Almost 20 years later, Smith used what she learned as a child to make sure the settlement wouldn’t be forgotten.
This spring, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office designated the community — which lives on today as two single-lane, residential streets in the community of St. James — as a historic landmark.
“It means a lot,” Smith said. “It’s the first historic marker site established by people of color along the River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”
Residents, St. James Parish officials and a handful of descendants of Freetown’s founders gathered Thursday for the official unveiling of the state highway marker on the levee side of La. 18, which hugs the west bank of the Mississippi River.
The highway marker lists the names of the former slaves and others of African-American descent who, after the Civil War, bought and cultivated land that had once been part of the Landry-Pedesclaux Plantation.
It took five years of research on Smith’s part to earn the Freetown site its historic designation.
“They have to have documentation on everything, and they have to be primary sources as well,” said Smith, 35, an event planner and St. James Library Board member who spent much of her spare time in recent years gathering documentation from local and state archives.
Smith said her great-aunt, Florestine Adams, who died at the age of 100 in March, “often expressed the importance in knowing my family’s history and genealogy, leaving a legacy for the next generation. I thought, what better way than to accept the torch she passed and make her vision a reality.”
The parcels of land that became Freetown 142 years ago were once part of the Landry-Pedesclaux sugar plantation, owned by a woman who in the years after the Civil War struggled financially, Smith said.
In 1871, the plantation was seized, divided and sold at a sheriff’s sale to four different parties, she said.
One of those buyers was a lawyer who, in turn, had his own financial difficulties, Smith said.
“He went and found former slaves and free persons of color (interested in purchasing land) and in the fall of 1872 sold the majority of the property” to them, she said.
Freetown in the years afterward produced many firsts in St. James Parish, including the parish’s first black sheriff, constable, lawyer, state representative and female school board member, Smith said.
There are other communities in Louisiana established by former slaves that also took the name Freetown, Smith said. One is in St. Charles Parish, and another is in Jefferson Parish.
The settlement of Freetown in St. James Parish is the first to receive a historic landmark designation, she said.
Irving Smith, Smith’s father, said he, like his daughter, grew up hearing stories about the founders of Freetown.
“They were family people, coming together as neighbors and friends,” he said. “They made gardens and everybody shared their gardens. They reached out and helped each other. They didn’t have that much.”
Freetown Hall, a simple structure built in the 1900s, served as a community meeting place and still does.
Since 1908, the hall has been home to the Rising Sun Benevolent Association, which was established to “help the sick and bury the dead,” said Milton Cayette, president of the organization, which continues to help families with funeral costs.
“We are the group that is still alive from the founding of Freetown,” Cayette said.
On Thursday, residents of the St. James community met at the Welcome Senior Center and traveled a short distance east on La. 18 by bus and car to the site of the highway historic marker, swathed in black plastic and festooned with balloons, before it was unveiled.
The marker stands across La. 18 from Freetown and Communie streets, the lanes that were once home to the former slaves who became property owners.
Katherine Dennis was at the unveiling. Her grandparents, Sedonia and Elfere Mitchell, were among Freetown’s founders.
Elfere Mitchell, a master carpenter, helped build the Freetown Hall, Dennis said.
The process of securing the historic recognition for Freetown “has been a spiritual journey,” Smith told those present.
“I hope the Settlement of Freetown’s historic marker ignites community dialogue, empowerment and a sense of pride for our culture, history and heritage,” she said.