What would become a decades-long relationship between photographer Richard Orton and the Upshaw family began with five simple words: “I don’t see why not.”
Thirty years ago, a friend told Orton about a black community called County Line, just twenty miles from Orton’s family home in Nacogdoches. Though he was a fifth-generation Texan, he’d never heard of the town or of the Upshaw family, who had called it home since the 1870s.
When Orton drove out to see the place in November of 1988, he didn’t have a plan. He parked under the old red oak tree in Monel and Leota Upshaw’s front lawn and asked if he could take photos of their family and learn more about the community. Without much hesitation, Monel said those fateful words: “I don’t see why not.”
Thousands of photos and countless rolls of film later, Orton has compiled his years with the family into a photo book The Upshaws of County Line: An American Family and a touring exhibit by the same name, which recently opened at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine and is on display through March 24.
“When I went out there originally, it’s because I was overwhelmed with curiosity,” Orton said. “It was a brand new world to me, and I was interested in documenting it. But 25 years into it, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing with this?’ I felt like I had an obligation to the family to do more.”
According to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, County Line is one of more than five hundred “freedom colonies,” or settlements, founded by former slaves throughout the state and home to their descendants for generations. During a period of extreme violence against African Americans at the end of the Civil War, many former slaves moved away from rural Texas or were forced into labor contracts with former slavers. Others, like brothers Felix, Guss, and Jim Upshaw, built their homes from the ground up to create local havens for their families.
It went against everything Orton thought he knew about Texas history. From elementary through high school, he saw the civil rights movement play out on television. It wasn’t until he enrolled in college at the University of North Texas that he even met a black student. So when he began photographing the Upshaw family, he knew he had a chance to tell a story someone like him had never heard before.
Orton’s photos of the Upshaws are simple but intimate snapshots of their daily lives over the course of several years. They tell the story of a tight-knit family who have held firm to their roots despite death, change, and the push and pulls that lead people to move away or come back home. His photographs show the perspective not of an outsider but of someone immersed in their lives: joined in song at the piano, seated by the casket at a funeral, or with hands clasped mid-prayer in church.
“I just wanted to capture people in their own environment,” Orton said. “That’s a challenge for the photographer because I had to spend a lot of time building relationships not even as a photographer but as a person they could talk to.”
That level of trust took years to build. Though Monel and Leota had welcomed Orton on his first visit, family members who had bad experiences with other white visitors had to be won over time. “I had something to prove,” said Orton.
So he started coming by regularly—not just to big family events but during slower afternoons when he would make small talk and take photos of the siblings and their children as they came and went. He went to church with them and was invited to their homecoming celebrations, a three-day family event each August that’s part barbecue and part reunion, culminating in a church service on Sunday.
During Orton’s third homecoming, Leota proudly proclaimed in front of God and everyone in church that Richard was her foster son. Not everyone in the family was pleased at the time, but in the ensuing years, he’s become known to all of them as Uncle Richard.
One of his “nieces,” Elia Ali, was first photographed by Orton while her mother was pregnant with her. Ali is now 26 and has never known a life before Orton and his camera.
Growing up, she didn’t often question his project or her own family history. Those queries came to her in pieces over time as she realized that her family’s story was different from those of her peers at school.
“By the time I got to junior high, I realized County Line was pretty special,” Ali said. “It’s what most people think the American dream is all about—people scraping together a life to make something better for the people who came after them.”
Ali often travels with her mother, Beatrice, to Orton’s exhibits, sometimes participating in talks with museum visitors who are curious to know more. Getting used to strangers staring at her family photos up on the walls took a while, and she sometimes found it painful to see the photos of people who had since passed away. What was especially strange was realizing how few people knew families like hers existed at all.
“I was always wondering why the exhibit was so important because I had spent my whole life around these people,” Ali said. “But the older I get, the more I see it is important. Not just for East Texas history but Texas history as a whole.”
Ali is part of a growing population of freedom colony descendants grappling with the realities of preservation. Oftentimes, the settlements are unincorporated and, without proper knowledge of the resources and laws available to them, their history can be lost to time as people move farther and farther into the city.
As founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project at Texas A&M, Andrea Roberts works to identify historic black settlements throughout the state, preserve their history, and help their communities navigate different preservation tactics. Her team has identified 558 freedom colonies to date, each with different attitudes toward preservation. Projects like Orton’s contribute to the awareness of these settlements and their role in history, but Roberts said local and state resources are also critical to their survival.
“We don’t know where these places are or we’re not forced to face them,” Roberts said. “We need to make them visible by helping African Americans who are still attached to these places continue their traditions and keep them connected to their history and keep control of their land.”
In the years since Orton’s first visit to County Line, much has changed, but much has stayed the same. Monel and Leota have passed away, but the family still gets together each August for homecoming or to celebrate Leota’s birthday.
When Orton first began photographing the Upshaws, he says, most of them didn’t see County Line as anything other than home. But as the years have gone by, they’ve all come to realize just how special it is.
“These people created a sense of independence for their families and provided a safe place to raise children,” Orton said. “That was no small feat and no guarantee for black folks back then. That’s huge, and it’s not something that we learn in school.”
After moving away to Austin for college, Ali has returned to Nacogdoches. She’s sure County Line is where she’ll raise a family.
“I’ve done the city thing,” Ali said. “But when it comes to kids, I want peace and quiet. I know everyone there would love them, and no one would ever go hungry. It’s just a nice place where they can run free.”