Heights - River Oaks - Montrose Edition | February 2020


Former location


SOURCE: HOUSTON PUBLIC LIBRARYCOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER Established in 1866, Freedmen’s Town was home to former slaves who built a community of shotgun homes, brick streets and several churches. Community members work to preserve the remaining historic properties.




The African American Library at Gregory School Bibleway Baptist Church Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church Rose of Sharon Baptist Church Rutherford B. Yates Museum




I appreciate what my ancestors did, and for me to do nothing to preserve what remains would be totally insulting. GLADYS HOUSE, MEMBER OF THE FREEDMEN’S TOWN PRESERVATION COALITION

Antioch Missionary Baptist Church


architecture. They are designated as historic districts by the city of Hous- ton, a process that must be supported by homeowners. In Freedmen’s Town, the notion of creating a historic district has never gained enough momentum to prevail over real estate development interests, Wilson said. “The people who actually lived in the community, were by the commu- nity and for the community, didn’t have that stakeholding aspect as a homeowner,” she said. In December, local developer Neal Dikeman purchased one of the last remaining rows of shotgun homes in the neighborhood and plans to rent them out. Prior to him purchasing the properties, Dikeman said they were at risk of being torn down because they had long been left vacant and in disre- pair by owners who no longer rented them out. Dikeman said he plans to restore the homes following strict historic standards despite not being required to do so, making him an out- lier among those redeveloping proper- ties in the area. “Folks that ght against restric- tions on historic demolitions don’t even want a National Register Marker because they know it’s traditionally been a pathway to get those city pro- tections down the road even though it doesn’t bring protections on its own,” he said.

The Rutherford B. H. Yates museum owns the home of freed-slave-turned-attorney J. Vance Lewis.

Founded in 1910, the church is located on one of the original brick streets.


“Social ills were coming in; land ownership was changing, and all of that adds up in a way that historic neighborhoods like the Heights never really had,” Wilson said. As Houston grew, the real estate surrounding downtown became more appealing, enticing developers to buy up property and landlords to cash out. Over time, a narrative that Freed- men’s Town was “lost” prevailed as developers continued to buy up land. Remaining residents resist both that characterization and the contin- ued destruction of the community’s history. “I appreciate what my ancestors did, and for me to do nothing to preserve what remains would be totally insult- ing,” said Gladys House, a longtime res- ident and member of the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition. House ran for the District C City Council posi- tion in 2019 in hopes of raising aware- ness for the neighborhood’s persistent needs. Ongoing eorts In the Heights or Old Sixth Ward, visual reminders of Houston’s history are seen through the neighborhood’s



cut o from the rest of the city, includ- ing its public utilities and roadways. “They moved into swamp land that nobody wanted and built their homes from the bottom up. This is an incredi- ble story of persistence,” said Catherine Roberts, the co-founder of the Ruther- ford B. H. Yates Museum, dedicated to Freedmen’s Town’s history. While theneighborhoodwas system- atically excluded from city services, its founders established a vibrant com- munity with sections of shotgun-style homes, several churches, local busi- nesses and a school, Roberts said. By the 1960s, with the construction of I-45 splitting the community and the civil rights movement granting more opportunities to live elsewhere, the neighborhood began to face new chal- lenges, said Danielle Wilson, curator and manager at the African American Library at the Gregory School, a Hous- ton Public Library branch housed in an historic Freedmen’s Town school building. As the population shifted to more renters than homeowners, residents had even less political inuence.

vacated while awaiting funds for ren- ovations. It was later demolished by city crews in 2008. Williams and mem- bers of the congregation launched a fundraiser Jan. 4 to pay o the lien—a debt owed to the city for the cost of the demolition—that has grown to over $70,000 since 2008. Over decades of redevelopment, lifelong residents have led grassroots eorts to preserve what remains of its history. Within the last year, momen- tum has built at the national level and even international level with a United Nations historic designation, but com- munity-led projects such as the church fundraiser still face funding hurdles, Williams said. “Some people have referred to the area as being depleted or not up to par,” Williams said. “But we take great pride in it. Sure it needs work, but a lot of people have been derelict in their duties.” ‘An incredible story of persistence’ Established on frequently ooded land, Freedmen’s Town was originally

Meanwhile, the Yates museum is in the process of renovating multiple buildings to serve as visitors centers and establish a walking tour, Roberts said. To do so, however, she said the museum needs roughly $600,000 for COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM



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