By Amanda Hart
Photos by Amanda Hart
Just west of Downtown Houston, hidden by towering townhomes and midtown eateries, lies what once was affectionately referred to as “The Mother Ward.” The section of town that we now call “Midtown” is actually a mecca of cultural history that the city, for decades, has been trying to erase. The community that developed and nurtured it into being rightfully named it Freedmen’s Town. To understand the struggle that is going on in Freedmen’s Town today, one must first know and appreciate the rich history that developed within this section of Houston over the last century.
In the late 1800s, after the Civil War had come to an end and the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, recently freed slaves found their way to Houston. They began to settle a stretch of land west of the city’s center, on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. As the city’s first independent black neighborhood formed, “Freedmen’s Town” became its given name. One of its founders, a Baptist minister named Jack Yates, understood and stressed to the developing community the importance of education and owning land. Yates and his congregation began the process of purchasing land for homes and schools and in 1885 founded a school for the children of Freedmen’s Town called Houston Academy. In 1869 the Harris County Republican Club was formed in the pews of Antioch Baptist Church and subsequently began a community campaign for a permanent park for Houston’s black community. By 1872, the congregation purchased land at the corner of Dowling and Elgin and created Emancipation Park, where Houston still holds its annual Juneteenth celebration.
Freedmen’s Town became a source of opportunity and advancement for the African American community. Besides the first black prominent religious and political organizations, the town also established educational institutions such as the Gregory Institute, Carnegie Library and Booker T. Washington High School. By 1915, over 400 African-American-owned businesses were booming in Freedmen’s Town. The area located along West Dallas was known for blues and jazz clubs, restaurants and other businesses. Legendary artists such as B.B. King, Arnett Cobb, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins frequented the clubs in Freedmen’s Town over the years. It was through this growth and expansion that Freedmen’s Town earned the title “Little Harlem.”
The demise of Freedmen’s Town is a long sordid affair full of racist public policy, seemingly unavoidable gentrification and shady city business deals. In 1986, when Freedmen’s Town was added to the National Register of Historic Places, 530 historical structures were still standing. A mere 26 years later, less than 60 of those structures have managed to survive the invasive gentrification occurring in 4th Ward. Over the years, the city and private contractors have leveled nearly all of Freedmen’s Town. Handmade brick-laid streets that once stretched from Smith Street all the way to Taft can still be seen in small doses when wandering through Freedmen’s Town. Many of the bricks were removed over the years, and relocated to make “antique” style sidewalks and driveways in Montrose. The sidewalk in front of the apartment complex, Richmont Square, is paved with bricks that were handmade and originally laid by the community in Freedmen’s Town, after the city refused to pave the roads. And just like these bricks that were ripped from the ground and relocated elsewhere in the city, city officials are attempting to do the same with the remaining few structures and community members still residing in Freedmen’s Town.
At one point Freedmen’s Town extended deep into downtown, but in the late ‘50s the city used eminent domain to displace roughly 40,000 community members from their homes and businesses. Once the city began construction of I-45, a large portion of Freedmen’s Town was erased from Houston. The ground beneath where the Allen Center and the hotel district stand today is saturated with the remains of what once was a cultural hub for the black community. A thriving culture was pushed out to make way for skyscrapers and hotel chains. The only remaining structure east of I-45 that made it through the demolition is the church where Jack Yates first began his cultivation over a century ago. Antioch Baptist Church is the lone survivor still standing in downtown Houston and is one of the only buildings in the area that has any sort of character or sincere beauty attached to it. The building remains a testament to what Houston could have been if we valued where we came from instead of where we are headed.
This history is not just important to Houston or the African American community. It’s more than that. It is American history. Freedmen’s Town is the last remaining intact freed slave town in the entire country. When you consider how much of it has already been demolished, the importance of preserving what is left becomes undeniable.
Over the last several years, a battle between the city and the residents of Freedmen’s Town has been waged over the last full block of row houses located on Victor Street. The homes reflect the time in which they were built. The long narrow structure of the homes is due to the tax system that was in place a century ago in which owners were responsible for paying for the amount of sidewalk and street that the homes took up. Lenwood Johnson, a local Houston treasure and Freedmen’s Town activist, has been advocating the preservation of the shotgun-style homes since the tenants were evicted by the city in 2007. Johnson says that all attempts to regain occupancy permits by the owner, Thuong Thi Tran, have been denied by the city. Even though many of the homes have been completely remodeled and restored on the inside, the city appears to be banking on forcing Tran to sell to contractors by denying the proper city permits. Tran stands strong in her commitment to preserve the last remaining block of row houses. She is so committed that she and her family spend approximately $15,000 dollars a year in taxes on the homes, even though not a single drop of revenue has eased that burden since the last resident was forcefully removed from the home. The final tenant was 83-year-old Pearl Franklin, who, according to Johnson, was taken to an insane asylum by the city after she refused to move. The more one digs into the history of how Freedmen’s Town was slowly dismantled, the more one finds themselves in a land littered with blatant human rights violations.
But the city and private developers were not prepared for the fighting spirit within Freedmen’s Town. This might explain how a part of the community has managed to remain intact while other cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta and even New Orleans, stood and watched as developers and city officials completely erased their oldest black neighborhoods. Community leaders were unique and creative in the ways they went about taking on Houston’s rich and powerful. According to Johnson, one such pivotal victory was their ability to save Allen Parkway Village, a public housing project that originally consisted of 1,000 units and sat on 37 acres of land. In the end, the entire property was saved and a little over half of the units remained intact. The commitment and perseverance of the community is what has kept Freedmen’s Town alive and well, an unprecedented success in saving such land so close to a city’s center.
Tran, Johnson and others like them would like to see the homes on Victor Street rented to, or purchased by, a community-based nonprofit committed to preserving the homes. Some have attempted to secure funds to turn the homes into community housing for returning Iraq war veterans. Others would like to see the homes modeled after Project Row House, an artist collective in Third Ward that saved two blocks of row houses from demolition and turned them into affordable housing for local artists. Johnson and others feel that the actual use of the homes, while important, is not the pressing issue at hand. Before any decisions can be made about what use should be made of the homes that would best benefit the community, the homes have to be pulled from the city’s death grip.
The property that the historic homes reside on is valued at approximately half-a-million dollars, while the homes themselves, according to Harris County Appraisal District, are worth less than $750 all together. But as Johnson has pointed out, “This is American history and a testament to the contribution of men and women who went from living in bondage slavery, to creating a fully functioning civilized and free society, without any help from the city or state. People need to be able to visit these historic homes and structures to fully understand the contributions of this community.” Johnson has been advocating for the preservation of Freedmen’s Town since the early ‘80s and even though he has watched with disbelief as brick by brick the community has been dismantled and the history and culture seemingly forgotten, he and many others refuse to give up. Even after fighting for more than 30 years, Johnson does not seem shaken in his determination to save his community. Just like the century-old homes on Victor Street represent the history and longevity of Freedmen’s Town, Lenwood Johnson is a testament to the character and unshakable soul that resides there as well.
Anyone interested in becoming involved in the fight to save Houston’s history can contact Lenwood Johnson at 281-709-3001, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org