Pleading The Fifth: Ward Battling Out of Control Land Grab/ Gentrification

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De Luxe Theater rehabilitation and exhibition participants ~ The de Menil Collection

Houston – The battle to preserve historic Freedman’s Town/Fourth Ward bricks has shed light on one of the many struggles to preserve African American history in Houston.

Fifth Ward too has battled those same city gremlins wanting to tear down and demolish and reduce and erase Black history to piles of rubble and ash.

However, the hope lies in a remnant of Blacks fighting for those lost voices of the past who built great things and lived during a time when being a living example of pride, community and family bonded Black Houstonians together.

“There is a urban push out going on where our history is being discarded,” said  Kathy Blueford Daniels, president of Greater 5th Ward SuperNeighborhood #55. “The climate is changing because of development and the new people who come here who do not know our history and do not care about preserving it or maintaining what’s left.”

According to Daniels, the Fifth Ward is under attack and is in as much danger as Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town, Acres Homes, Kashmere and other areas near or surrounding downtown.

“We are concerned that city council is overlooking things,” she said. “They are disconnected from the people and only seem to get involved when it is time to put out fires.”

Development in those areas is the latest “wildfire” threatening Fifth Ward communities and driving the flames are increases in property taxes. This taxing game is taking its toll on the African-American elderly and those trying to remain in the area to preserve key components of Black history.

“What is happening here is equivalent to what is happening in Fourth Ward,” she said. “People that have families and property here need to do what it takes to protect that property because the move towards gentrification is happening and it appears we are powerless to stop it unless the people step up and do something.”

She said there is an urgent need to educate people on the history and the real issues facing 5th Ward and the superNeighborhood group has been active in promoting the the need to bring more jobs and better infrastructure and affordable housing to the community.

Daniels said what Blacks must remember is the contribution of the Fifth Ward to the past Black culture and heritage and how that history shaped a people.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Fifth Ward, is a musically rich neighborhood located east of downtown Houston, is bounded by Buffalo Bayou on the south, Lockwood Drive on the east, Liberty Road on the north, and Jensen Drive on the west.

The site was sparsely inhabited before the Civil War.  It was subsequently settled by freedmen and became known as the Fifth Ward in 1866, when an alderman was elected to represent the community in the Houston city government. At the time half the population was Black and half White. By 1870 the population of the ward comprised 561 White and 578 Black residents.

Two schools, one Black and one White, corresponded to the roughly equal segments of the ward’s population in 1876. Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, founded in 1865 by former slave Rev. Toby Gregg, is the oldest institution in the ward.

Five other churches are over 100 years old: Pleasant Grove Baptist, Mount Pleasant Baptist, Sloan Memorial United Methodist, Payne Chapel Methodist, and First Shiloh Baptist.

The Fifth Ward was also the site of a saloon named for Carry Nation, which, after considerable damage resulting from a dispute with the owner over the name, was subsequently known as the “Carnation.”

In the 1880s the ward enjoyed a boom following the construction of repair shops for the newly-built Southern Pacific Railroad. Growth was interrupted by a fire in 1891 at the Phoenix Lumber Mill and another in 1912 that burned 119 houses, 116 boxcars, nine oil tanks, thirteen plants, and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and school.

Eventually, the Fifth Ward population became predominantly Black. At Frenchtown, a four-square-block neighborhood in the ward, 500 Blacks of French and Spanish descent from Louisiana organized a community in 1922.

Black history is the ward boomed during its heyday when there were Black-owned businesses, including a pharmacy, a dentist’s office, an undertaking parlor, a theater, and several barbershops, operated after 1900 on Lyons Avenue and numbered forty by 1925.

Working-class Blacks were primarily employed within walking distance of the ward; many worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad or at the Houston Ship Channel. Others commuted across town to work as domestics and servants for wealthy Houstonians.

By 1927 Phillis Wheatley High School in the ward, with 2,600 students and sixty teachers, was one of the largest Black high schools in America.

Other new businesses developed in the 1930s, including printing plants, photography studios, and the Club Matinee, which came to be known as the Cotton Club of the South. Local businessman Grand Duke Crawford organized the Fifth Ward Civic Club.Early community activists included Lonnie Smith and Lilly Portley.

Peacock Records, a recording company founded by music entrepreneur Don Robey and named after his popular Bronze Peacock Club, started in the ward, as did C. F. Smith Electric Company, one of the state’s early licensed electrical-contracting companies. Finnigan Park, the second public park for Blacks in Houston, opened in the community in the postwar years, and the Julia C. Hester House, a Black community center, began service.

Nat Q. Henderson, long-time principal of Bruce Elementary School, was the mayor of the Fifth Ward and became known for his leadership. Fifth Ward has also been the home of the likes of the Houston House, owned by two Black sisters who were descendents of  Sam Houston and still in the home of the first Black owned Hotel/Motel and transportation company, Daniels added.

With passage of integration laws in the 1960s, many residents left the community and sought wider opportunities. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Fifth Ward fell into decline, with rundown abandoned buildings, and developed a reputation as a crime-ridden area.

“This rich history is being discarded and the transformation is taking place right before our eyes,” she said. “It is time for us to stop and do what it takes to revitalize our own community.”

She said the new residents are being attracted by the development near downtown that is making Houston look like New York, Chicago and other major cities.

However, the boost in property values and taxes are hurting the elderly.

Daniels said there is a need to reclaim the lost and disappearing property, culture and history by making the call for Blacks to return to the ward and take ownership of the history and culture in the community.

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