At a SXSW EDU panel on March 7, Houston-based dance studio Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective showcased “The Fairytale Project.” The performance tells the historically inspired story of Jim and Winnie Shankle, who founded the Texas Freedom Colony of Shankleville in East Texas.
Jim and Winnie’s story: Jim and Winnie Shankle were both born into slavery in 1811 and 1814, respectively. In the mid-1800s, the couple was separated when Winnie was sold to a slave owner in East Texas. Jim escaped his Mississippi enslaver—and instead of fleeing to freedom up North, he embarked on a treacherous journey to find Winnie. He risked being captured and tortured, swam across the Mississippi River and traveled nearly 400 miles to reunite with his lover—thus, returning to slavery. Jim and Winnie were emancipated on Juneteenth and are known today as the first Black people in Newton County to buy land and become local leaders.
Blending pedagogy and performance: Dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director Stacey Allen began working on “The Fairytale Project” with Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in 2017. She was inspired to create a dance theater performance for children after learning about her husband's family history, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Shankles.
“I really was just so drawn to the love that anchored Jim into finding his wife—it's a beautiful story of love, legacy and resilience,” Allen said. “As a Black woman, a lot of the stigmas attached to us are that we don't experience pain, or that things don’t affect us on a physical or emotional level. I was enthralled with the idea that he did all of that to reconnect with his wife.”
The performance’s central theme of love combined with fictional and Afrofuturistic components make it an educational fairytale. Allen said creating “The Fairytale Project” for young children was personally important to her.
“I wanted to create an environment where families could enjoy art together,” she said. “I take pride in taking my children to as many cultural arts programming events that are appropriate as possible.”
Guided by Allen’s mission to use the arts as a space for Black students and artists to own the narrative, impact and legacy of Black people in Texas, the studio debuted “The Fairytale Project” in June 2022. The overarching organization, Stacey Allen CDE, provides quality cultural arts experiences for families, educators and students, and encourages fine arts as a meaningful pathway to professional development, according to the website.
What are Texas Freedom Colonies? Freedom colonies, or freedmen’s towns, are historical communities that were founded by emancipated African Americans across the South. According to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, 557 of these settlements were established between 1865 and 1930. In Central and East Texas, there are hundreds of Freedom Colonies that hold innumerable stories of Black families and legacies.
About Shankleville: Shankleville is a freedom colony in East Texas founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle after their emancipation. The Shankleville Historical Society seeks to preserve the heritage, document the history and propagate the legacy of the Shankleville Community, according to the website. The remarkable story of Winne and Jim is a testament to the heroic stories of Black courage that largely go untold.
What’s next? Through “The Fairytale Project,” Allen plans to bring the Shankle family’s story to small towns across Texas, offering families a fresh way to engage in education, history and performance art. Her goal is to elevate and amplify more Black voices and encourage different approaches to telling the stories of Black people in the South.
“I want families to see themselves, see their legacies and be proud of their heritage,” she said.
Upcoming performances of “The Fairytale Project” include:
- March 30 in Nacogdoches, Texas: at Stephen F Austin University. The visit will also include a dance masterclass as well as a lecture.
- June in Kyle, Texas: The group will perform the live theater show.
- June 24 in Shankleville, Texas: The group will be performing inside a history church as part of the Purple Hull Pea Festival.