Coming home to freedom in East Liberty

East-Liberty-trip-Willie-Fred-McClelland-Willie-Ratcliff-051822-by-Glenn-Ratcliff, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Old friends and double first cousins East Liberty Mayor Willie Fred McClelland and Dr. Willie Ratcliff, 83 and 89, share old times and new on Dr. Ratcliff’s family’s tour of the little Black nation where he was born and raised. – Screenshot: Pastor Glenn Ratcliff

by Mary Ratcliff

When Dr. Willie Ratcliff and I met in 1976, he didn’t tell me anything about himself until he’d told me about East Liberty, Texas, the little Black nation where he was born and raised, the place that defined him. The people of East Liberty, he said, weren’t afraid of whites because they didn’t need whites for anything. They raised crops and cattle on land so fertile a stand of timber reaches marketable size in only seven years, and collard greens grow year ‘round.

They owned – and still own – about 5,000 contiguous acres, the size of 3,750 football fields, in Deep East Texas, the nearest city Shreveport just across the Louisiana line, an area best known for its racism. One of the most infamous lynching pictures comes from the Shelby County seat of Center, just up the road from East Liberty. “Yes, and they strung ‘em up on every tree in that courthouse square!” says Annie Mae Suell-Miller, Dr. Ratcliff’s cousin. Another of Dr. Ratcliff’s cousins is the mother of James Byrd, who was dragged to his death in Jasper, a white town just down the road from East Liberty.

But in East Liberty, Black power reigned. The only white person allowed on their land was the mailman. He brought the daily Shreveport Times, which Dr. Ratcliff’s father would comb every day looking for government programs that could benefit the people of East Liberty. He’d apply, be refused because he was Black, then sue in Center and lose, then appeal in Beaumont and win. East Liberty enjoyed all the New Deal and GI Bill programs that Blacks across the country were denied.

East-Liberty-trip-Nancy-Willie-Ratcliff-Sr.s-homesite-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
The home of Dr. Ratcliff’s parents is gone now and the forest is taking back over. Imagine the freedom of growing up on thousands of acres of land that belong to your community, freely roaming the woods, fields and pastures. Dr. Ratcliff learned to drive the tractor at the age of 7. – Photo: Mea Ratcliff

The men of East Liberty met monthly but never needed to defend their territory because whites were afraid of their power. The sheriff said, “You mess with them ni..ers, you’ll come back in a pine box.” In Texas, placing “No Trespassing” signs on your property gave you the right to shoot to kill, so nobody white (except the mailman) set foot in East Liberty, which was surrounded by those signs.

College educated, the people of East Liberty, when refused a county school, built their own, where what’s now called Critical Race Theory lay at the heart of the curriculum. When Dr. Ratcliff was a student during the 1930s and ‘40s, the principal had a Ph.D. and had traveled the world. The children learned about Africa, from the Great Civilizations to the struggles for independence, about the slave rebellions in the US and Juneteenth, which they celebrated, about Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, who inspired them to live their lives as fearless heroes too. 

The sheriff said, “You mess with them ni..ers, you’ll come back in a pine box.”

Dr. Ratcliff, turning 90 in September, wants to follow a family tradition and turn his land in East Liberty over to his children while he’s still living. In preparation, he wants to show them this extraordinary place and teach them its history and traditions. An unexpected opportunity arose May 17-20, and three children – Linda Pasters, Glenn Ratcliff and Janet Ratcliff – plus daughter-in-law Mary “Liz” Ratcliff, granddaughter Mea Ratcliff and her 7-year-old son, Asher, plus cousins Leotis and Vincent Ratcliff were able to accompany him. We hope he can take another trip soon with the rest of the children – Kim Grissom, Stanley, Stacey and Kenya Ratcliff – and the children of the two who have passed, Anthony and Lafone Ratcliff. Tragically, Lafone died of a heart attack in mid-May.

How did this outpost of Black power come to be?

In the 1840s, a vigilante war was raging in a strip of East Texas land, Shelby and adjacent counties, that were unclaimed by any nation around the time of the formation of the Texas Republic. Two vigilante groups, pledged initially to ending rampant land fraud and cattle rustling, began fighting each other. 

East-Liberty-trip-Lorenes-house-051822-by-Linda-Pasters, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Dr. Ratcliff’s sister Lorene’s house is a refuge for her grandchildren, who visit often. It is “next door” (the next house down the road) to Willie Sr. and Nancy Ratcliff’s homesite. Lorene kept a big kitchen garden out front, where collards grew year ‘round. –  Photo: Linda Pasters

Meanwhile, the brave souls who would found East Liberty had freed themselves – probably from a plantation in Mississippi, according to the story passed down to Dr. Ratcliff – and set out to find land where they could live free and thrive. They heard about the vigilante war and saw an opportunity.

Arriving in East Texas, they told the warring factions that they would join whichever one would promise to make the land “free” and not “slave,” and they would win. And they did. For their new home in freedom, they chose the land that appeared most fertile and called it East Liberty, living in peace with the Native Americans of the area, who were later forced onto a reservation nearby once the land became part of the United States.

Initially, the founders of East Liberty didn’t need to buy their land. Texas was annexed to the US in 1845, so US laws soon applied, and they insisted on using the homestead laws that excluded Blacks in the rest of the US. Then, as the years and decades passed, they bought more and more acreage, as their families and East Liberty grew.

Grandpa Sip tended a fire where all the children came by after school to eat the sweet potatoes roasting on the coals and listen to his stories.

Henry Ratcliff, Dr. Ratcliff’s paternal grandfather, was a majestic figure – college educated, the largest landholder in East Liberty, a coal black man riding a white stallion raising a healthy herd of cattle, hundreds of acres of crops and five sons he sent to college. Dr. Ratcliff’s father, Willie Ratcliff Sr., went to Texas’ premiere Black college, Prairie View A&M, and majored in agriculture.

Sip Sharp, the father of Dr. Ratcliff’s mother, Nancy Ratcliff, was legendary throughout the region. He too owned a farm in East Liberty, but he specialized in raising children. He supported at least three families totaling some 40 children and raised them all to be proud Africans like himself. At planting and harvesting time, his older children formed work crews for all the farms in East Liberty. 

Grandpa Sip tended a fire where all the children came by after school to eat the sweet potatoes roasting on the coals and listen to his stories. That fire served also, in effect, as the seat of government in East Liberty, where the elders would gather to discuss and resolve community issues and disputes. Never was there a need to “call the police.”

East Liberty today

In about 20 years, the little Black nation of East Liberty will turn 200 years old! Right now, the population is at a low point. Since its founding, the people have followed a fundamental rule: Don’t sell your land outside the community. Eventually, during Dr. Ratcliff’s generation, nearly everyone in the community was related. Dr. Ratcliff takes pride in having many double first cousins, the children of his father’s sister and his mother’s brother or his father’s brother and his mother’s sister. 

East-Liberty-Baptist-Church-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
East Liberty Baptist Church, organized in 1888, was rebuilt when Dr. Ratcliff was young with materials donated by his father, Willie Ratcliff Sr., who also worked on the construction. That inspired Dr. Ratcliff to learn construction and become a contractor. He named his company Liberty Builders after his birthplace. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff

Finding no one to marry in East Liberty, Dr. Ratcliff’s generation moved to the cities. The East Liberty “diaspora” is strong in Houston and Dallas and, in our branch of the family, in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, in Atlanta and most of all in Anchorage, Alaska, where four of Dr. Ratcliff’s children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren live. For those who are far away, visits to East Liberty are rare. When your inheritance comes in the form of rural land, it’s hard to grasp its value when you’ve never or rarely been there.

East-Liberty-Baptist-Church-cornerstone-dedication-051822-by-Glenn-Ratcliff, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Head Deacon Alvie White, Dr. Ratcliff’s uncle, “didn’t take no mess.” One day in Center, the banker didn’t look at him right, so Uncle Alvie knocked him out. No disrespect was tolerated by the people of East Liberty. –  Photo: Vincent Ratcliff

So the brief journey to Houston and East Liberty on May 17-20, 2022, was especially precious – and heartily enjoyed by all. “Extremely interesting – we could have talked for hours more,” exclaimed Gladys Cartwright, wife of George Cartwright, Dr. Ratcliff’s cousin and one of his closest friends. They visited in Houston on the first and last days of the trip. 

The middle day, Wednesday, May 18, all the travelers met in East Liberty: Coming from Houston were Dr. Ratcliff and his children, Linda, Glenn and Janet; from Dallas came second cousins Leotis and Vincent; and from New Orleans and Baton Rouge came Liz, Mea and little Asher. Everyone met at the East Liberty home of Earl Duffield, another first cousin, son of Dr. Ratcliff’s Aunt Rosie, and his wife, Susie. They are some of the people who grew up in East Liberty, had to leave to pursue a profession and raise a family and are now returning. Another is Annie Mae Suell-Miller, the daughter of Dr. Ratcliff’s Aunt Annie T. Suell he calls Aunt Tee, who’s also returned and who met the travelers at Earl and Susie’s home.

“That was the most fun time of my life!” Earl declared. He fed them and led them all on a tour of East Liberty, to where Dr. Ratcliff grew up – the big yard already reforesting itself – the beautiful church, where annual homecomings used to be held on the third Sunday in August, the two main cemeteries and the home of Willie Fred McClelland, who never left and looks after the church and the cemeteries and his own handsome brick home. 

East-Liberty-Cemetery-includes-graves-from-1800s-051822-by-Liz-Ratcliff, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
East Liberty Cemetery is the resting place for people who died as long ago as the 1800s. One gravestone reads 1840. –  Photo: Liz Ratcliff

When the group arrived, Willie Fred, one of Dr. Ratcliff’s double first cousins, was out back on his tractor – at the age of 83! Mea says his wife pointed out the fig, pear, plum and pecan trees around their yard as cattle grazed in the pasture beside the house. 

Willie-Ratcliff-at-parents-graves-in-East-Liberty-Cemetery-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Dr. Willie Ratcliff stands in deep contemplation at the graves of his parents, Willie and Nancy Ratcliff, in East Liberty Cemetery. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff

The five-hour tour would have included more visits, but they had trouble tearing themselves away from the graveyards that hold more than a century and a half of history. One of the gravestones dates back to 1840. Janet wrote down names and dates on a pad of paper.

Returning to the Duffields’, everyone sat on the patio talking about the tour and enjoying cajun fried chicken that Mea called “spectacular.” “We were having a great time,” she wrote, “but it was getting dark. There are no street lights in East Liberty.”

Grave-of-Nancy-Ratcliff-in-East-Liberty-Cemetery-051822-by-Linda-Pasters-1400x749, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Dr. Ratcliff’s mother Nancy mothered eight children and all of East Liberty. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, his father was proud to be able to afford the $25,000 it took to cure her at MD Anderson in Houston, still the top cancer hospital in the country. –  Photo: Linda Pasters

Back in Houston the next day, they were all hosted for dinner by Sandra Kay White-Thompson and her husband, Bobby. Sandra is Linda, Glenn and Janet’s second cousin on their mother’s side of the family. Like Glenn, who pastors a church he built himself in Anchorage, Alaska, the Calgary Community Church of God in Christ, Bobby too is a pastor, so they had much to discuss.

Grave-of-Willie-Ratcliff-Sr.-in-East-Liberty-Cemetery-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
In the long East Liberty tradition of demanding access to government benefits normally denied to Blacks, the headstones for Willie Ratcliff Sr. and his brother, Dr. Leo Ratcliff, are government issued – the “price”: their military service in World War I. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff

After most of the day flying, Dr. Ratcliff came home to Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco Friday evening, having traveled back in time and mind almost 200 years to the founding of East Liberty, feeling the strength and courage of the founders that is in his blood and the blood of his 10 children and their children, who will soon be the stewards of his land there.

Grave-of-Uncle-Leo-Ratcliff-in-East-Liberty-Cemetery-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Dr. Ratcliff’s Uncle Leo Ratcliff was a brain surgeon! He had five clinics in Texas and Oklahoma and treated all who needed health care even if all they could pay was a chicken. He was the first one in the family with a car, and Dr. Ratcliff took it out for a spin when he was 9. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff

To solve the puzzle of how to make the land productive when the owners don’t live on it, a growing group of East Liberty landowners began meeting monthly by Zoom in February. Dr. Ratcliff’s second cousins, Lee, Leotis and Vincent Ratcliff, have a jumpstart and are showing the rest of us how to sign up with Texas A&M to learn forestry management. Timber as a crop doesn’t need much tending, and the income from its sale will easily fund the taxes as well as trips to East Liberty to keep the ties and traditions alive and unbreakable.

The founders of East Liberty believed so deeply in freedom that they freed themselves from slavery and envisioned and created a place of pure freedom for their descendants, who had the good sense to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. May East Liberty forever inspire us to bring pride, peace and prosperity to wherever we live.

East Liberty inspirations

Linda Ratcliff Pasters, Dr. Ratclff’s first born, wrote her impressions of the trip on Facebook and added these wise words: “I truly think that if more of our young people knew their rich bloodlines and legacy that they came from, they would not be so quick to kill one another.” 

East-Liberty-trip-Asher-at-Mama-Nancys-homesite-051822-by-Mea, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Mea’s son Asher relishes the beautiful forest that is regrowing on the homesite where Dr. Ratcliff, his great-grandfather, grew up. If a way can be found for people to make a living in East Liberty, a new generation of children will grow up in this powerful place. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff
East-Liberty-trip-Willimea-and-Willie-Ratcliff-051822-by-Mea-1400x1050, Coming home to freedom in East Liberty, Culture Currents News & Views
Dr. Willie Ratcliff and his granddaughter Willimea, or Mea, have always had a special bond. She is a highly trained nurse in New Orleans and the mother of 7-year-old Asher, the youngest person on the East Liberty tour. –  Photo: Mea Ratcliff

Willimea “Mea” Ratcliff, the daughter of Dr. Ratcliff’s son, Willie Michael, who was buried the day Mea was born, also wrote about the journey, saying: “My grandfather, Willie Ratcliff, has spoken to me many times about his childhood home, East Liberty, Texas, beaming with pride as he told stories of growing up on land that has been passed down from generation to generation. Black owned and cultivated for centuries, East Liberty is a Black stronghold in the Jim Crow Deep South that White Americans did not control. They could not step foot on this land for they were not allowed, obeying unwritten laws for fear of the consequences. That is my grandfather’s heritage. His childhood years molded him into an incredible person with strong convictions, always fighting for justice and equality. Never settling for less.”

Mary Ratcliff and her husband, Dr. Willie Ratcliff, have published the San Francisco Bay View since 1991. They can be reached at 415-671-0789 or