Major efforts underway to restore, preserve Houston’s oldest Black community

Several community leaders are working to help preserve the history of Freedman's Town

HOUSTON – Freedmen’s Town at one time had more than 500 homes, today there are only about 40 left.

Gladys House-El has roots that run deep in that area of the 4th Ward, which was developed by freed slaves beginning circa 1865. Today, she lives in the home her family business operated out of decades ago.

“I’m the fifth generation of the planners and developers of Freedmen’s Town,” House-El said. “My family sold blocks of ice on the back of a horse-drawn buggy.”

Right down the street from House-El’s home is the former home of master printer Rutherford Yates, which is now the Yates Museum showcasing the area’s history.

“They had 13 blacksmiths living here. They had 34 brick makers and installers living here. They had every trade,” said museum city-founder, Catherine Roberts.

Just walking the streets it’s obvious the community is steeped in pride and tradition, but there’s been a struggle to preserve it.

“Eminent domain has been used to wipe out our heritage as well, you know, the railroads running through the community or freeways,” House-El said.

Gentrification has led to developers buying out properties from owners. Many historic homes have been destroyed or replaced with newer more expensive properties.

It’s why Mayor Sylvester Turner says the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy was created with the support of the city planning office.

Zion Escobar is the executive director of the conservancy.

“The Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy was created in 2018, formally as a nonprofit, but before then it was a mayoral task force to figure out what solutions would be needed (and) what’s practical,” Escobar said.

Escobar said that right now there are no legal protections preventing owners and developers from destroying historic homes, so they’re trying to create the city’s first Heritage District in Freedman’s Town.

“A covenant that says you have to meet the certificate of appropriateness, you’re going to have to go before city council in order to demolish. You can’t just silently in the night tear a house down because someone said so,” Escobar said.

Once the Heritage District is created under the city, Escobar said they’ll try to have Freedman’s Town designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, which would bring funding, ensuring the community is restored and maintained for generations to come.

We’re told that right now the proposal to create the Heritage District is being finalized. The goal is to have it in place by the end of the summer.

About the Author: