Most families start with a love story, but not many start like Lareatha Clay’s. Two centuries ago, in Kentucky and Tennessee, her great-great-great-grandparents, Jim and Winnie, were born into slavery. They ended up on a Mississippi plantation and fell in love. When a Texas farmer bought Winnie and the two were separated, Jim ran away to find her, trekking 400 miles under cover of night. After weeks of searching, he found her at a spring gathering water. Winnie convinced her owner to buy Jim, and after Emancipation Jim and Winnie Shankle became prominent landowners in the Newton County freedman’s town of Shankleville.
Lareatha Clay, now a Dallas-based business consultant, grew up hearing that story at Homecoming, the Shankleville reunion held each summer since 1941. Clay and others formed the Shankleville Historical Society in 1988 to rekindle the freedman town’s heritage. The group reached a milestone last year when it placed a National Register of Historic Places plaque on the 1922 homestead of Addie L. and A.T. Odom, Clay’s grandparents. The Craftsman house and outbuildings sit on a hill above the spring where Jim and Winnie were reunited. Lareatha Clay aims to make the backwoods site a destination for African-American history.
She has practice at aiming high. As a member of the Texas Historical Commission, she helped start a history internship program for under-rep-resented ethnic youth. In 2003, she and her mother and sister became the first black members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
“Some folks think historic preservation is only for the mansions of famous people,” Clay explains, “but everyone’s history is worth preserving. Even a modest house and a modest story are worth remembering.”
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