Part of the Juneteenth issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
As a mysterious new virus spread across the globe and outrage over police violence spilled into the streets, Stone Mountain resident Renee Walters spent 2020 in a state of growing isolation and shock. Her distress gave way to depression as the year wore on and fears about her family’s safety consumed her.
“What can I do [so] that my son won’t have to be a hashtag?” she wondered.
Across town, her church friend Ashley Scott was experiencing similar feelings. After several therapy sessions, Scott was convinced she was suffering from racial trauma — the symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder that result from major or repeated experiences of racism.
More than ever, they found themselves questioning if there was a place in America where they, as Black women, could feel safe, supported, and free.
An answer started to appear when Walters came across a news headline: “You Could Buy an Entire Town in Georgia for the Price of a Luxury Apartment in NYC.”
Joined by another friend, Laura Riley-Cooper, the women drove more than two hours south from their metro Atlanta homes to Toomsboro, a central Georgia town of fewer than 400 residents. They knew nothing about this region of their state: Wilkinson County, a rural area that is 38 percent Black. Still, they wanted to see if this was a place — with its “40 acres of land and 36 parcels of property” — where they might be able to create a safe haven for themselves and their friends.
After attending the open house for the town of Toomsboro, the group decided not to purchase the property, Walters said. The price had increased to $2.3 million because of the attention brought by the viral posts about its sale. Instead, they had developed an attachment to a nearby 97-acre plot in unincorporated Wilkinson County.
“It just felt like this [was] ours. We took ownership as soon as our feet hit the ground,” Walters said, noting that land cost “significantly less” than what they would have spent purchasing Toomsboro. She envisioned developing the space into a pro-Black community.
On the drive home, the women began calling friends to pitch them on the idea of collectively purchasing the land. This wasn’t the first time the serial entrepreneurs had gone into business together — they had joined a number of multilevel marketing companies together, Walters said — but it would certainly be their biggest undertaking to date.
Nineteen families total agreed to join their effort. The planned settlement grew to 502 acres. And Scott came up with a name for the community: Freedom.
Building a town from scratch
Eventually, the founders want the Freedom settlement to obtain a charter and become a city, though they don’t plan to begin that process for another three to five years. First, they need to recruit at least 200 residents, attract business owners, and conduct a feasibility study on the community’s strategic plan, Riley-Cooper said. Then they plan to make a formal request to have their city charter approved by the Georgia Congress.
The women are fundraising through campaigns on GoFundMe and IndieGogo. Their GoFundMe has amassed more than $110,000, which they say helped fund temporary electric poles, a well and well-water pump, and clearing of 5 acres of land, among other things.
The founding group of families have financed the purchase of the original 97 acres and have secured a “substantial” hard money loan for the additional 400 acres, Scott said. Hard money loans typically are very high-interest loans used to purchase investment properties. Lenders generally use the property as collateral instead of relying on the borrower’s creditworthiness.
Freedom’s founders plan to develop and sell the land to residents in phases, Riley-Cooper said. The first phase includes 13 parcels of 6 acres each, which the founders hope to sell at $55,000 per plot to residents who will build homes or businesses on the settlement. Once they’ve paid down their loan, the women hope to secure a construction loan to build out 10 acres for a mixed-use development. This process will likely take years to complete.
They also hope to purchase about 700 acres of land to connect their two current parcels, which are separated by less than a mile connected by a roadway, Scott said.
Purchasing undeveloped land in an unfamiliar county is a huge risk, and a few people were immediately against joining the collective when they first pitched the idea to friends back in 2020, Scott said. But some were immediately on board, including Kevin James.
James, a Trinidadian immigrant who lives in Marietta, said he had been looking for a “close-knit community” when Scott approached him with the initial plans for Freedom. The two had been friends for years and had envisioned creating a similar community on a smaller scale in metro Atlanta. They dreamed about pooling their money to buy land and share a whole cul-de-sac with friends.
A self-proclaimed “city boy,” James admits the idea of purchasing land in Wilkinson County took him out of his comfort zone. But, like Scott, he was encouraged to establish an environment that felt safer for him and other Black families following the police violence that received national attention in 2020.
James, who is single with no kids, joined the founders on the initial loan and plans to use Freedom as a second home. But he admits that he had a few heated discussions with people and even lost a friend over his decision. The friend worried that some would interpret the pro-Black community as a separatist mission, James said.
“He thought I was crazy for even engaging in something like this. His view on BIPOC here in America is ‘keep your head down …’” he said, using an acronym to refer to “Black, Indigenous and people of color.” “He was just baffled as to how I would be a part of something so public. And something called Freedom at that.”
A legacy of Black settlements
Freedom would become the latest in a long history of Black American settlements. In 2015, the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance was created by five communities — Grambling, Louisiana; Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Eatonville, Florida; Hobson City, Alabama; and Tuskegee Institute, Alabama (where the HBCU remains) — with the hopes of preserving that legacy. The group has since grown and now represents between 50 and 70 towns and settlements at any given time, according to spokesperson Tanya Debose.
Most of those towns and settlements were established post-Civil War, Debose said.
“People never think about where their ancestors [went] after being freed. One of the things we know now is there was a lot of racial terror going on after emancipation. They had to huddle in spaces where they felt safe.”
Some of those spaces became actual communities and ultimately were incorporated, she added.
The residents “were able to not just be a settlement of formerly enslaved people — they actually incorporated,” Debose said. “They wanted to own their own sovereignty and create their own community and identity.”
Debose believes anyone hoping to establish a new Black settlement today could benefit from knowing what made previous places succeed or fail. As a fifth-generation descendant of the people who created Independence Heights in Texas, that history is personal to her. According to Debose, about 600 residents decided to create their own municipal city after struggling to obtain running water and paved streets from the city of Houston. She says after the stock market crash in the 1920s the city was unable to repay a loan to Houston. The city of Independence Heights folded as a result. Today, it’s a community within Houston.
Some universities and organizations have started to create databases of historically Black towns to preserve their stories, and the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance hopes to create its own interactive map and database soon, too.
Hurdles to Freedom
Walters, Scott, and Riley-Cooper admit they have more work to do to ensure Freedom can become real and thrive. For one, there are questions about how a town that was founded as a safe haven for Black people will handle policing when beliefs on crime and safety vary widely among Black Americans.
“While we don’t necessarily want to have [a] big policing [presence], we live in a county that already has a sheriff’s department that we [will] pay taxes toward. When something happens, we expect our sheriff’s department to come and lock somebody up and take them away,” Scott says. “At the same time, we expect our citizens to carry a gun and know how to protect themselves. We are very much advocates for our Second Amendment rights.”
James says accounting for varying opinions has been the biggest challenge, even among the initial group of 19 families.
“Working that out has been the biggest challenge but we are all under the same philosophy that everything is not mapped out to the ‘T,’” he said. “We’ll learn as we go along.”
While there are a lot of logistical plans still to be made, there’s also room for joy. James got lost the first time he drove to Freedom (“there’s a certain point on the way to Freedom where it’s like the point of no return,” he said), but he’s planning to head back to the settlement this month for the annual Juneteenth celebration.
Last year’s “campout” event for the holiday was attended by more than 150 people and included activities for kids, live performances, and a fireworks display.
The founders expect the same turnout this year, though Scott said they’re cutting back costs, focusing on local artists, and adding more Indigenous history to the event.
“It won’t just be singing, rappers, dancing, and barbecuing but have some more cultural depth,” she says. Freedom also hosts other events throughout the year, including a campout that allows attendees to participate in archery, fishing, and outdoor yoga.
The attendance of these events also helps show that Freedom can be an asset to Wilkinson County, Scott says.
“They are just excited that people are interested in little ol’ rural, two-hour-away-from-Atlanta Wilkinson County,” she said. “There’s benefits for them because most people don’t look that far south of Atlanta for opportunities.”
Jewel Wicker is the editor-at-large at Capital B Atlanta and a freelance reporter covering entertainment and culture. Her work has appeared in Billboard, GQ, Atlanta magazine, and the New York Times.