Houston History: Freedmen's Town
In 1866, the first freed slaves left the cotton plantations along the Brazos and began to make their way to Houston. West of Downtown, on the southern edge of the meandering Buffalo Bayou, 1,000 former slaves settled, creating an area known as Freedmen's Town. In honor of Black History Month, we look at the history of that neighborhood, the center of Houston's African-American community throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The land on the southern edge of the bayou was ideal for one reason: It was cheap. The swampy area was prone to flooding. Receiving almost no help from the city, Freedmen's Town residents paved the streets with bricks they made by hand. Residents also provided their own services such as blacksmiths, doctors and schools.
The area commonly known as Freedmen's Town is in Houston's Fourth Ward. By 1906, when the ward system officially ended, Freedmen's Town housed one-third of Houston's population and was becoming prosperous. It was growing into Houston's version of Harlem, featuring jazz clubs, restaurants and West End Park, Houston's largest baseball venue.
But that came with a dark side. The area was nearly six times as dense as the city's average. Crowded conditions and rising rents fueled tension, culminating in a riot in 1917 that took the lives of four soldiers and 16 civilians.
Things got worse in 1929. A survey orchestrated by the National Urban League found Houston's black residents were being routinely denied services. The survey also revealed a pattern of segregation preventing the area's residents from moving up. In the same year, the City Of Houston Planning Commission pushed for strict segregation of blacks into the Second, Fourth and Fifth wards. The plan was officially denied but was implemented on a de facto basis through deed and housing restrictions. The combination pushed many residents toward Texas Southern University and areas such as South Park and Acres Homes.
The 1930s were not much better for the community. Against the wishes of residents, development paved through the historic neighborhood. New eminent domain laws went into effect in 1937, exacerbating the problem. In 1939, eight black families lost their land to make way for the San Felipe Courts development, the largest public housing project in Houston, and one that excluded blacks. They took their case to the Supreme Court and lost. The community was later renamed Allen Parkway Village when race restrictions were removed.
Development continued — in the '50s the Gulf Freeway was completed, nearly bisecting the community. The eastern portion became the Allen Center business and hotel complex. Cut off from Downtown, black homeowners began to leave the Fourth Ward even faster after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, leading to further decline.
In the 1980s and '90s, the area's status as a black community came under attack when plans to demolish Allen Parkway Village were drawn up. Opposition from residents to the proposed high income residencies and office buildings delayed planning. On Jan. 17, 1985, Freedmen's Town was added to the National Register of Historic Places list, meaning federal funds could no longer be used to demolish its structures. The fight over Allen Parkway Village continued until then-HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros agreed to destroy 677 of the 963 units as long as they were replaced by more low-income housing.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s gentrification took off in the area. The iconic shotgun shacks were torn down and replaced by townhomes. Low-income renters, unable to afford the rising property taxes, were forced to move out. Mid-rise apartments, restaurants and other developments poured out of Midtown into the Fourth Ward.
These days, hardly anyone calls the area the Fourth Ward, and even fewer call it Freedmen's Town — most refer to it as Midtown. The history of the area has been washed away by new construction. Garnet Coleman, a Texas state representative of the Third Ward, said in 2009 that the Fourth Ward cannot recapture the sense of community that it used to have.
The fight to preserve the area lives on though. The historic handmade bricks laid by freed slaves are the latest front in the war for preservation. On numerous occasions the city has suggested moving the bricks. Last year, the bricks were damaged when crews began work on subterranean infrastructure.
Today, Freedmen's Town is the largest intact freed slave settlement left in the nation, yet its official designation protects only 40 of the 80 blocks or more of the remaining neighborhood. This Black History Month, take a moment to remember Freedmen's Town, as redevelopment may turn even more of it into memory.