A largely unknown historical figure with influence on all facets of Huntsville industry in the 19th century will finally receive the recognition he deserves.
A Texas historical marker is set to be established in honor of George Washington Grant, who established Grant’s Colony in the mid-19th century, thanks to the under-told stories program of the Texas Historical Commission.
“We were awarded this marker because of the relatively unknown story of Grant,” Walker County Historical Commission vice president and marker chairman Donna Coffen said. “It is astonishing that his name is not up there with Sam Houston, considering the major impact he had on Huntsville and the lives of many in the region.”
Grant was born in Alabama in 1814 and moved with his brother Egbert to Texas in 1831, to operate a stagecoach line between Huntsville and Waxahachie. Shortly after arriving in Texas, Grant married Mary Jane Jergens and together they adopted a boy and a girl, as well as fostering many more.
“Mary Jane was very influential on Grant’s thinking, empathy and religious life,” Coffen added. “He would not have had such an impact as he did without her help.”
Grant would go on to try his hand in multiple industries, including lumber, agriculture and real estate. He would also purchase over 10,000 acres of land in eastern Walker County, and founded the town of Grant Springs, where he established a cotton gin and grist mill.
“Much of the land Grant purchased was timber forests, which he turned into different mills,” Sam Houston State University history professor Zachary Doleshal said. “He wanted to establish a model, bi-racial freedom village and agricultural society.”
While he was a slave owner, Grant became a deeply religious man because of his wife, and formed a relationship with the quakers. Following emancipation, Grant began to sell off tracts of land at reduced prices to freedmen. He decided to create a model farming community on his land, with the help of the Quakers and the Freedmen’s Bureau, establishing Harmony Settlement, also known as Grant’s Colony.
“Many of those who lived in the colony produced their own food and raised agriculture, which they would sell back to Grant so he could sell them in markets,” Doleshal added. “There were a handful of white residents of Grant Colony, but an integrated society was very much a progressive idea.”
The idea for Grant’s Colony was considered radical at a time when Jim Crow Laws and legal segregation was the lay of the land. However, Grant donated a large tract along Patrick’s Ferry Road between Huntsville and Dodge, where he built farmhouses, meeting houses, a cotton gin. He also gave land for Harmony Grove School for “freedmen and children regardless of race or color.” Grant’s Colony was established to be an integrated society, but was largely inhabited by African-Americans.
“The ideals of Grant’s Colony were largely around education, religion, politics and empowerment,” Doleshal said. “The quakers and Grant knew that literacy was crucial for the residents to read scripture and they were motivated by their religious interpretation that African-Americans were equal as humans, which was considered radical as many at the time considered black people to be subhuman. He was able to prove that that idea was absolutely untrue. He wanted to give them the opportunity to improve themselves intellectually and spiritually.”
Grant’s Colony had a proud history of increased literacy rates, political activism and economic independence for its African-American inhabitants during the Reconstruction Era. While establishing and running the colony, Grant founded the first Christian church in Walker County, served terms as Walker County judge, commissioner and as sheriff, which led him to establish the first library at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit. Grant was also instrumental in establishing a branch railroad, which largely kept Huntsville and Walker County on the map. Grant is also noted for his work in Austin to establish the Sam Houston Normal Institute, to bring education to Huntsville and encourage teaching.
“All of Grant’s accomplishments come down to two things – his faith and belief in education,” Doleshal added. “One of the most remarkable things about him was that he was able to attain such high levels in society, despite his very unpopular stances at the time.”
The colony began to decline in the early 1900s and was largely abandoned by 1936 when the Sam Houston National Forest was established. His efforts to empower his neighbors through education and land ownership portray him as one of the community’s most important and progressive citizens.
“Sally Mae Gibbs purchased the land which the colony sat on for 50 cents on the dollar, because he was in such extreme debt at his passing,” Doleshal said. “It is quite unfortunate because there is almost no trace in the forest of the vibrant community that was once there.”
The marker placement is set for Dec. 5 at 4 p.m. on the east side of Highway 19 and Old Colony Road in Huntsville.
Following the marker placement, an open house will be held and dedication will be held at at 5:30 p.m. at the Walker County Museum at the Gibbs-Powell Home. Attendees can expect exhibits, a short film about the colony’s benefactor George Washington Grant, engage in discussions, as well as voluntarily participate in interviews if they have a connection to the colony.
Both events are free and open to the public.