Preserving African American History is vital in America because our history was distorted, not valued, nor protected for so long. Creating a space for archiving our past is essential to telling and preserving African American history, stories, and memories in the Houston community, our nation, and the world. The Houston community is blessed with the African American Library at the Gregory School to archive the history of African American Houstonians. It is a branch of the Houston Public Library (HPL) in the Fourth Ward.
The African American Library at the Gregory School is the city’s first library to focus on African American history and culture. The library features galleries, an oral history recording, and reading rooms. There was $11 million given from the federal community development block grants and construction funds from HPL, and the City of Houston financed the renovation of the Gregory facility. The building was initially used as the Edgar M. Gregory School, a K-8 school of the Houston Independent School District.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual announcement on Juneteenth, creating a safe and productive community for formerly enslaved people was vital. The priority of Jack Yates, other ministers, and the Christian Missionaries were celebrating our newfound freedom, rebuilding our culture, and ensuring our survival. They were committed to the success of the African American community in Houston. The Freedmen’s Bureau opened schools for children in the area after the establishment of Freedmen’s Town. In 1870, the Texas Legislature authorized the creation of public schools for Freedmen’s Town, and by 1872, bureau schools were closing, so most of the student’s and teachers’ only option was to attend and work at the state-managed Gregory Institute. It was named after Edgar M. Gregory, an officer in the Union army in the U.S. Civil War and the assistant commissioner of the Texas area’s Freedmen’s Bureau.
In 1872, The Gregory School was the first school for freed people in Houston. Mike Snyder of the Houston Chronicle said it was “perhaps” the first school for freed people in the State of Texas. By 1876, the Gregory School became a part of the Houston public school system. A document quoted in a U.S. Congressional report stated that The Gregory School was the first established on land that was a donation from African Americans. So, everyone believed that “Gregory Elementary had a special link to black life in the neighborhood.” The number one priority of Rev. Jack Yates, Rev. Ned Pullum of Pullum’s Brick, and Rev. Jeremiah of Freedmen’s Town was to establish the African American Culture, education, business development, and spiritual progress in the Houston community.
In 1970, Gladys House–El graduated from the Gregory School sixth grade class. She reflected on her experience stating, “The teachers took a vested interest in you. They would see things in you that no one else saw.” She further stated, “Our teachers had me MCing programs because they saw talent in me that I didn’t see in myself.” They molded us and groomed us to be leaders.” House-El also recalled an event from back then and said, “The May Festival was an excellent opportunity to showcase the students’ various talents. The teachers truly made a difference in our lives.”
The African American Library at the Gregory School is integral to preserving Houston History. Having a place that celebrates and affirms our existence on this earth is a necessity. According to Sheena Wilson, the Processing Archivist at The African American Library at the Gregory school, “The community-centered and community-focused archive is dedicated to preserving the history of African Americans in Houston and the surrounding region. We are open to preserving the history of all persons, not just those of prominence, those in leadership or political positions. We focus on family history in the history of social and professional organizations. We believe it is important for people to see themselves or their families within the historical record. The archive is important because we preserve the history that is not being told, which helps the community control the narrative.”
Ms. Wilson also believes it is essential that everyone visiting the library knows the fantastic services offered by the African American Library at the Gregory School. “The research center offers visitors a variety of services and experiences onsite. We feature three permanent exhibits which tell the story of the Blacks who established Freedmen’s Town through community building, entrepreneurship, and creating places of worship. Our exhibits highlight the social, cultural, economic, political, religious, and entrepreneurial contributions the African American community made to Houston, Texas and the nation. We also have a special exhibitions gallery, which features a new exhibit twice a year. The Current exhibit, Fourth Wad Mother Ward: Photographs of Elbert Howze, is open from July 30- October 8, 2022. The exhibit documents the people and spaces of Fourth Ward. Concerning research, our reading room includes a reference collection of books on local, state, and national topics across the Black Diaspora, a microfilm collection of early Black newspapers, oral histories, and archival photographs and documents. All these resources are free and open for exploration.”
Ms. Wilson was excited to share her favorite items in the archives. “I have many favorite items in the archive, and usually, it’s something from the current collection I am working with. Although there are no images of it, one of the things I like is a Ledger from the late 1800s to the 1960s, which documented the students who graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and where they attended college. I also love photos that depict the evolution of technology, architecture, and fashion through the early twentieth century. For instance, this image of members of the Taylor family boating during the 1930s.”
The African American Library at the Gregory School is a best-kept secret in the Houston Public Library system. It is the cheapest field trip and family outing for African Americans that you can get, but it is priceless when you experience the natural high from seeing the accomplishments, style, culture, and family ties that have stood the test of time in H-Town. We are Houston Strong and Houston Proud in every household, but documenting your story is validation that you came, survived, and thrived. I hope you will take your family, friends, and students to experience the beauty of Houston’s African American community through the centuries.