Students in Fifth Ward celebrating black history in the midst of gentrification

HOUSTON – Every year students in sixth-12th grade at the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program prepare for a competition of historic proportion.

The game is not played on a field or a basketball court, but in the community center’s auditorium. The shirts they wear are not jerseys, but the colors are matching. Every competitor has on a black shirt with the words “believe, achieve, and succeed” highlighted in red, yellow and green. Representatives from three different middle schools within the Fifth Ward area take a stand behind three separate podiums for the annual "Jeopardy!"-style Heritage Bowl. The middle schoolers test their knowledge of black history through categories such as quotes, famous faces, trailblazers, athletes and inventors. As the moderator gives the answer, the fastest contestant to reach the buzzer provides the question.

“I love the trivia part of it,” said 12-year-old Anthony Battle. “It’s really cool to learn about my heritage. ‘Trial Blazers’ was my favorite category. I learned about Harriet Tubman, Arthur Ashe, Thurgood Marshall, Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens,” he said.

The young men are learning about black history and the history of their Fifth Ward community. They studied about some of the great minds and leaders that have come out of the same neighborhood that they are growing up in. Leaders such as Congresswoman Barbra Jordan, Congressman and activists Mikey Leland, and Olympian and heavyweight champion George Foreman.

“They need to know their legacy,” said Charles Savage, who is the director of the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program. “They need to make a relationship and recognition and say, ‘That’s who I am.' Or, 'That’s who I can be,’ or 'Wow, they come from the same place I come from.’ This community is one of the most historically rich communities in Houston."

Fifth Ward will celebrate 150 years of being a community. The district sits 2 miles northeast of downtown and is bordered by Jensen Drive, Liberty Road and Lockwood Drive. Lyons Avenue at one point was coined the Broadway of the south. Dozens of businesses owned by African-Americans lined the streets. The community was known for its jazz and blues musicians, as well as their schools. Phillis Wheatley High School was famed throughout the south and a center of great pride for the residents and students. During segregation the area was self-sustaining.

“Fifth Ward was one of the first areas black people could settle in and buy land and by homes,” said community advocate Youletta McCullough. “My family has been living here for generations. We fought to get paved streets and street lights. This area is important to us, and when people came here there was a sense of pride. There were professionals, blue-collar workers, you had a sense of community and everybody looked out for one another,” she said.

After several shifts within the political and social climate, including the move to integrate schools and neighborhoods, the community splintered. Younger generations moved away, and the city of Houston ignored the community’s lack of resources and employment opportunities. The Houston Housing Authority operates two housing projects in Fifth Ward -- Kelly Village and Kennedy Place.

“Fifth Ward is probably one of the history richest greatest neighborhoods in the state of Texas, yet because it has fallen on hard times, we are facing poverty levels at tremendously low rates, high dropout levels, and the contingency of high levels of aids and HIV. We tell our boys, 'It's up to you to bring this community out of that.' Fifth Ward sits close to downtown, and we are near the Medical Center. I mean we are surrounded by modern-day wonders, yet we’re still one of the most economically depressed areas in not only Harris County but the state of Texas,” said Savage.

Within the last decade, there has been considerable amount of interest from developers to investors taking interest in Fifth Ward. The city of Houston has labeled parts of Fifth Ward to undergo the process of gentrification. Many of the residents believe the revitalization process is pushing them out to make room for wealthier homeowners.

“The neighborhood is changing. It's almost like people are coming into a community you have lived in your entire life and taking over and not caring what you have to say. We don’t mind having upward mobility, but we have the right to say what we would like to have. We would also like the right stay within our community. We would also like to be a part of the decision-making process. We have no problem having new neighbors come in, because we’re a neighborly community, but we don’t want to get put out because new people are coming in. Now they are renaming parts of Fifth Ward, and the lines of demarcation are changing. We are getting smaller and smaller,” said McCollough.

Houston, being the fourth largest city in the nation, with a population that is rapidly growing real estate within urban areas is in high demand. Fourth Ward felt the impact of gentrification after the city began to remove the red bricks that lined the streets of Freedmen’s Town. Third Ward has seen a drastic change in development with the demolition of family homes and businesses, replaced by high-priced townhouses and apartments.

“This is where we come from, and where we come from is important. This is not just about homes, streets, schools ... this is about history. If you change the surface of a community without maintaining the integrity of what that community was built upon, you lose the history. If you don’t know your history, who are you? You have lost your identity. We don’t want that to happen,” said McCollough.

Some of the residents view gentrification as an inevitable force, but would like to see the families and younger generations benefit from the changes being made in their community.

“There’s not a city intros country that has not gone through this. Let’s produce a type of continuum in spirit of gentrification, in spite of developers coming in. Let's produce an area where our people can stay and still prosper and hold on to their legacy and history. We need to train our children to be the managers of this new development, to be the architects and financial managers, the teachers, legislators, doctors and judges. We need to get them prepared, but it starts with knowing who they are,” said Savage.

The Fifth Ward Enrichment Program trains students in sixth-12th grade in the areas of life skills, leadership development, entrepreneurial skills, community service and school tutorials. The students attend classes on photography, graphic design and robotics. If you would like to learn more about the program and how to donate visit