HOUSTON-Immediately west of downtown Houston lies the city’s oldest Black community. This community is commonly known as Fourth Ward, but its original name is Freedmen’s Town, given by freed slaves who settled it.
Saving and preserving that rich Black heritage has been no easy task as the city of Houston is embarked on its own quest to tear down, rip up and destroy what is left of this once great and proud community of Black people and Black History.
The latest assault on our past deals with the breaking apart and the unraveling of the African Crossroads – brick streets set in very artistic patterns that told an African tale and paved the way to freedom and served as a reminder of the dark past of slavery and racism in Houston.
Bricks on two streets, historic West Dallas Street and Heiner Streets, have already been taken up and plans are to remove the bricks from Andrews Street and Wilson Street.
“Where are our historic bricks,” said Gladys House, of the Freedmen’s Town Association. “Blacks are being disrespected here in 4th Ward. Our history is being dismantled and stolen one brick at a time.”
The significance of the bricks is that many of the Black families who settled in Freemen’s Town paid for the bricks and pavement without the city compensating or providing any funds to build the streets.
According to Gladys House, the bricks are being ripped up and without concern for their historical significance are being taken up by the city public works department and taken. Some are missing, others are broken, some stored, and others lost to pilfering.
Houston City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen issued a statement about the bricks.
“The historic bricks in District C’s 4th Ward/Freedmen’s Town are an important part of Houston’s heritage,” Cohen said. “In order to safeguard them from the crumbling infrastructure on which they currently rest, the City plans to carefully remove, number, clean, and replace them atop a new and reinforced foundation. In this way, the significant symbolism they hold for our residents will be preserved for generations to come.”
However, Historian Catherine Roberts, who serves on the Board of Directors of The Rutherford B H Yates Museum, Inc said the city’s statements and plans are misleading and intentions are less than genuine. She has been fighting to preserve history since the project to rehabilitate and change facades since 1995.
“They are not telling the truth and the result of their untruths are more destruction of valuable historical resource in the Black community,” she said. “They are suppose to protect this treasure, not damage it.”
Freedmen’s Town is a nationally registered historical site, and the largest intact freed slave settlement left in the entire nation, its official designation protects only 40 of the 80 blocks or more of the remaining Freedmen’s Town area.
Initially located where Allen Parkway Village now stands, Freedmen’s Town was established immediately after the Civil War when many farmers gave or sold their truck farms and property to freed slaves. Freedmen’s Town prospered during the turn of the century. Economic, community, and social development were at a peak until local government became threatened by the Black area’s prosperity. Black businesses, homes, and churches soon became displaced in order to make way for “progress.” Government buildings, such as City Hall, the Albert Thomas Convention Center, and the Music Hall and Coliseum have replaced that portion of Freedmen’s Town whose boundaries extended east to Travis Street; west to Taft Street; north to Allen Parkway, and south to Sutton Street.
Wards were established in Houston in 1841. Although the “ward” system was officially discontinued in 1906, Houstonians continued to identify the city’s various communities by those political subdivisions. By 1920, Freedmen’s Town had grown to represent one-third of Houston’s population.
In the 1920’s , Freedmen’s Town was Houston’s “Harlem.”
The area was filled with many restaurants, jazz spots, and night clubs. These establishments were frequently visited by Houston’s white citizens as well. West Dallas was the community’s main commercial strip.
Since its designation at a national registered site, only 150 of the 568 historic structures are left, with houses and churches being demolished almost monthly.
According to Roberts, local policies were created for the purpose of ‘taking of properties’ , to demolish structures, to allow damage brick streets, and for circumventing of the Federal and State Laws for the purpose of destroying the National District’s cultural resources and erasing Black history.
“It is archaeologically unsound to upset and remove these bricks,” she said. “Taking them, tampering with them and even breaking and damaging them violated national guidelines and could cause the site to lose its national registry qualifications.”
However, House said the greatest loss is the original historical value to the Black community.
The various quilted designs tell many different stories about Black history and African heritage.
“Where is the justice because a lot has been lost to gentrification,” House said. “It is time for some accountability for these bricks and for Black historic preservation. Our elected officials, state and federal agencies are not hearing us and we are getting no action or answers.”