There is color in the countryGenerally, when urban African Americans think of the backcountry, what comes to mind are poor farmers chewing on straws of wheat, or the kinds of people in J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy. Or, the made-for-TV kind of country folk who, when not plowing fields or milking cows, are lounging around on bales of hay, basically being real bored … and being real white. But get this: There is color in the country, pun intended. Rural America does comprise an overwhelming majority of whites, but according to the 2012 report Race & Ethnicity in Rural America, based on data from the 2010 Census, Hispanics (at 9 percent of the rural population in America) only recently surpassed African Americans (at 8 percent) as the largest minority group in rural areas and small towns.
Littig is one of the oldest black communities in the state.A small, unincorporated township in eastern Travis County, Littig is one of the oldest black communities in the state. It’s what remains of what was once a thriving freedman’s town established in 1883 on land donated by former slave Jackson Morrow. According to the Texas State Historical Association, in its prime, Littig had three churches, a school system, a post office on the rail line, a general store, two cotton gins, and about 170 residents, the majority of which were African American. Littig is much smaller now with likely less than 50 residents. And there’s a growing population of Hispanics moving into the community. But, the black people who live in Littig proudly reserve a sort of ownership of what they see as sacred land.
A SLAVE TOWN“This is a slave town,” says Scott Manson, one of those people you have to experience to believe. Manson grew up in Austin but lives in Littig. He’s a black cowboy with the requisite boots, hat, and blue neckerchief, and he brandishes a voice that drips thick and slow like dark molasses from a wide mouth Mason jar. When he inflates his big, expansive grin, he exhibits three of the goldest gold teeth this side of the great smoky mountains of Tennessee. “This is a town where all the slave-owners kept their hands.” Manson talks while standing next to his foster horse, a scrappy cream-colored beauty he calls Whiskey. Manson says he was born and raised a cowboy, and will die a cowboy.
I wouldn’t trade the country for nothing in the world“There’s lots of black cowboys in these areas. We go from spot to spot, and we all get together and ride 10 miles and have a barbecue. That’s what we do down here in the country. Who would want to live in the city? I wouldn’t trade the country for nothing in the world.” A few feet away from Manson’s place lives May McClendon and Erma Shackles in their respective homes. Both women are right at 90 years of and have lived in Littig most of their lives. “I was born and raised out here, so quite naturally, I like it; it’s all I know,” says Ms. McClendon. She’s delicate, but mobile — an unassuming cigarette smoker who flashes a brilliant smile that devours any modesty she may have about her missing teeth. She lives in an old, sturdy, white house next door to her sister. Life for Ms. McClendon is simple and predictable; she goes to the “holiness” church down the street, she goes shopping every two weeks for groceries, and she chats with her sister on the phone. “But mostly,” she says, “I just work in the yard.”
Used to be all the people would come here over the weekendMs. Shackles — known affectionately by family and neighbors as “Ms. Kitt” — is the self-appointed sheriff of Littig. The mother of 17 lives in a trailer which, by at least one account, looks more novelty emporium than abode. Ms. Kitt is small and stout with pursed lips, a guttural voice, and a chuckle that makes her whole body bounce. And, when she’s telling you any one of her lengthy life stories — which will always veer off into multiple wildly incredible ‘what had happened was’ sub-stories — she’s going to drop an “old dirty bastard” or “N”-word or two. She remembers Littig in what she might call its heyday. “Used to be all the people would come here over the weekend; this place would be full of people,” she says, pointing around. “We had a store up there where that raggedy house is. That big tin barn there had a dancing hall upstairs, and the café next to it where that pink house is …” (her voice trails off as she remembers…) “We had good times. This is a fun place to be.” One of Ms. Kitt’s daughters, a granddaughter, and a slew of great grand-children live right next door. “I like my horses and being able to do outside stuff,” says granddaughter Sherita Bruton. “I don’t like being in apartments or cooped in. Here, you can raise a family. It’s quiet. You ain’t gotta worry about a lot of traffic, you can celebrate holidays and birthdays, and you ain’t gotta worry about noise.” Ms. Kitt’s daughter, Bettie Swisher, has lived in Littig her entire life, about 57 years. Swisher finds solace in knowing she’s a link in a chain of generations of Littig women, passing down history, land, and a peaceful way of life to future black families who will also choose the country to call home. “I love this community,” she says. “We all look after one another. Everybody’s very close. We call this community a big family.”