A woman in a bright orange blazer holds a handful of brightly-colored sports tickets
After her day job as a teacher’s aide, SyTanna Freeman sells tickets for the local high school athletic games.

Athens, named after Athens, Greece, was founded in 1850 in East Texas. It became the seat of Henderson County that same year and, nearly a decade later, served as a Civil War headquarters for Confederate military and supply training. Today, the town is known for boating and fishing at nearby Lake Athens, about 5 miles east of town. In 1996, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opened the $18 million Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, which features a largemouth bass hatchery, a dive tank aquarium, and other indoor and outdoor aquatic experiences. The center will offer free fishing on June 3 at its Fish Tag Friendzy to launch National Fishing and Boating Week.

Athens also touts itself as the original home of the hamburger, a point of pride which was celebrated with the return of the Uncle Fletch Hamburger Festival last year. Athens City Councilmember SyTanna Freeman moved to town when she was 3 years old and is immersed in community life. Freeman was the third African American elected to City Council and is currently serving her second term. Freeman says she sees public service as her calling. In April, she celebrated her 20th anniversary working for the Athens Independent School District as a teacher’s aide.

Name Game

“I was born under the authority of a midwife in Hillsboro, near Waco, and there was a discrepancy between the way my mother spelled my name—Sytonia—and the midwife’s spelling, SyTanna. The spelling became an issue when I ran for office. I decided to go with the midwife’s way, then I changed my legal documents to reflect S-y-T-a-n-n-a.”

School Spirit

“Currently, I work as a teacher’s aide with students in the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program housed at Athens High School. These are students who got in trouble at school and need extra support from a disciplinarian. On Tuesdays and Fridays, I move my car from one side of campus to the other after school to take the money at our Hornets’ basketball, football, and volleyball games. There’s an old saying, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ I haven’t worked in over 20 years because I love what I do.”

 

Hatchery Treasures

“At the annual event [Halloween at the Hatchery] in 2022 at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, my daughter, Tabitha Page, and my three grandbabies were in their Halloween costumes. I spotted Dr. Charles Mettetal, who delivered Tabitha more than 30 years ago. I introduced them to each other for the first time [since], which was exciting and could only happen in a small town like Athens.”

 

Black Rodeo

“When I attend the Henderson County Black Rodeo Association’s annual Juneteenth Rodeo and Celebration in Athens, I always enjoy the ladies’ barrel racing event. It is exciting because they are not afraid of those horses.”

 

Burger Fest

“I agreed to be blindfolded to judge the hamburgers in the Uncle Fletch Hamburger Festival in 2022. The burgers were made by different local restaurants, and they were all winners. I enjoyed the laughter and applause from the crowd and would love to be asked again this year.”

 

Fiesta

“El San Luis Mexican Café is one of my favorite restaurants. It’s family-owned and some of my current and former students work there. I usually order the No. 6—two beef enchiladas and an Arnold Palmer. This restaurant is where different campuses have their end-of-the-school-year awards [programs] for having a safe and productive year.”

 

Serving Athens

“I ended up running for office by attending City Council meetings out of a need to get involved. I realized very few Black people were attending. I am the only Black person on the council among the five of us. I have to make decisions that are best for the entire city. Sometimes my decisions are unpopular, but at the end of the day, I must be comfortable with my choices.”

Town Trivia:

Population:
12,890

Number of Stoplights:
19

Year founded:
1850

Nearest City:
Tyler, 35 miles east

Events:
Fish Tag Friendzy, June 3 at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center

Map it:

Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, 5550 FM 2495

From the May 2023 issue
The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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