Charonda Johnson has given countless tours through her native Freedmen’s Town, the Houston Fourth Ward community known for its signature brick roads laid by the hands of 1,000 formerly enslaved people in 1865.
But one of those trips changed the trajectory of Johnson’s beloved neighborhood roughly three years ago, when renowned Chicago artist Theaster Gates and Hesse McGraw, the executive director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, showed up unannounced for a tour.
Johnson initially had no idea who the men were, but McGraw quickly saw their Freedmen’s Town guide as the missing piece and local face of a project to honor the historic neighborhood.
Their relationship would ultimately lead to “Rebirth in Action: Telling the Story of Freedom,” a novel initiative that aims to preserve the culture and history of Freedmen’s Town, once the epicenter of prosperous Black life in Houston. Local leaders are hopeful the latest undertaking will serve as an authentic monument to the neighborhood – the antithesis of much-maligned projects from decades past that left nearly all the neighborhood’s historic buildings vulnerable to demolition.
The initial plans for “Rebirth in Action” call for public art installations from local artists, an exhibition produced by Gates, construction of a visitor tour center and preservation of the neighborhood’s treasured brick streets, among other features. Project chiefs also plan to develop more ideas after consulting with the Freedmen’s Town community.
“It’s an opportunity, finally, for your voice to be heard,” said Johnson, the vice president of the Freedmen’s Town Association and a fifth-generation resident of the neighborhood. “Because this is not the first multimillion-dollar project that has come to the Freedmen’s Town community, and it won’t be the last. But this one actually has centered in (the) community.”
Backed by a $1.25 million donation from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the multiyear effort aims to help reverse decades of neglect, false promises and gentrification that befell Freedmen’s Town.
The project is a collaboration between the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, the city of Houston and Gates.
The initiative’s funding followed a Houston City Council vote in mid-2021, days before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, designating the community as its first Heritage District. With the designation permits, nonprofits can raise money for restoring historically significant features and to develop cultural landmarks.
The city designation spoke to the historical significance and present needs in Freedmen’s Town, a signature point of the 51-mile Emancipation Trail. The path follows the journey of enslaved Black people from Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth, toward freedom in Houston after the Civil War.
In its early years, many of the city’s trailblazing Black leaders settled in Freedmen’s Town, including the visionary civil rights leader and neighborhood pioneer Rev. Jack Yates. The neighborhood also gave birth to the city’s first wave of Black upper middle-class professionals, who built churches, businesses and schools just west of downtown Houston.
The area also became known for its brick streets laid in crossroad patterns that originated with West African tribes, symbolizing Black residents’ spiritual connection to their ancestors.
The community thrived through the early 1900s but began to falter by the middle of the century, in part due to desegregation taking shape in Houston and new infrastructure projects cutting through the neighborhood.
Local leaders later struggled to preserve the neighborhood’s history, frustrating longtime residents. Most notably, a group of civic leaders submitted only 40 of the area’s 500-plus historical structures on an application to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, an oversight that led to developers knocking down buildings on prime real estate just south of Buffalo Bayou.
By the mid-1990s, a local nonprofit known as the Houston Renaissance emerged with plans to redevelop the neighborhood using city funds approved during then-mayor Bob Lanier’s administration. But Freedmen’s Town residents never saw the benefits. Instead, the group contributed to the demolition of many of the area’s historic elements, such as the Allen Parkway Village, a public housing complex for lower-income residents that exemplified the area’s early brick architectural design.
Local residents lost even more faith in the city in 2016, when a contractor mistakenly dug up historic bricks along Andrews and Wilson streets while working on an adjacent infrastructure project.
The fiascos led to skepticism when the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, a nonprofit launched by Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration, arrived on the scene several years ago.
But Johnson said her distrust subsided when conservancy and Contemporary Arts Museum leaders “stepped out of their box” by making their entire staff tour Freedmen’s Town and embracing her as a cornerstone of the project.
“This is a moment of unity unlike any other,” said Zion Escobar, the executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. “It has to be community-led. There was no other path.”
A ‘new normal’ for museums
For museum officials, the collaboration came about at a time of uncertainty during the pandemic, when the museum was closed and not hosting exhibitions.
“The way that people have been visiting and experiencing museums in the past is not the same as what it’s going to look like now in the future,” said Seba Suber, deputy director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. “It has to be more inclusive. You can’t just be artifacts on the walls.”
Suber said she was drawn to the Fourth Ward project, in part, because “there’s so much history that is unknown even (among) most Houstonians.”
“At the end of the day, Freedmen’s Town is the ‘mother ward,’ and I feel like it deserves that honor to hear the full story and understand the significance of Fourth Ward, how it’s really contributed to the full landscape of Black Houston,” Suber said.
The first part of the initiative’s community-led contribution kicked off Tuesday night at a town hall at Carnegie Vanguard High School, where project leaders surveyed residents about their views on various restoration proposals and announced the selection of a lead research fellow and five local artists for the project’s art residency program. The artists will help tell the story of Freedmen’s Town through various mediums, including documentary film, fine art, mixed media and photography.
Roughly 50 residents, church leaders, artists and preservation advocates gathered at the school’s gymnasium, eager to learn about the project and make their voices heard.
“I am happy about what’s going on in our community,” said Pastor Elmo Johnson, who leads the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church in Fourth Ward. “We’ve been fighting for a long time for Freedmen’s Town, trying to keep it pushing and keep some sentiments of our history. History is very important. If you don’t review history, you’ll repeat history.”
Other clergy in attendance, including Pastor Lou McElroy of the historic Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, where Yates served as the first full-time pastor, celebrated the project while urging project leaders to include the neighborhood’s churches. Antioch, the first Black Baptist church in Houston organized after the abolition of slavery, is the only remaining piece of the original Fourth Ward east of Interstate 45.
Town hall organizers, meanwhile, solicited votes to gauge what residents wanted to see in their community. Some ideas drew majority support, such as bringing back a local market and replacing buried water, sewer and storm drain systems that are uprooting the brick streets. Other ideas, however, drew mixed responses, including whether to revive an entertainment theater.
The project is developing while city officials are considering a conservation district ordinance that would make it easier for residents to regulate new construction in their neighborhoods. If it passes, the ordinance could help preserve areas with architectural or cultural importance, including Freedmen’s Town.
“These communities are being gentrified. They’re being wiped out,” Turner said in February. “So unless we take definitive steps to protect or preserve these underrepresented, disenfranchised communities, they will be no more.”
As city officials debate the conservation ordinance, the Freedmen’s Town initiative will continue to develop in the coming years. Project leaders are confident that the community and city will reach an agreement on infrastructure and brick preservation later this year, with work starting in 2024. Meanwhile, the “Rebirth in Action” team plans to continue gathering community feedback on project proposals, tallying the responses to see where the majority lies.
“We need things that make us a community,” Johnson told town hall attendees this week, citing features like a health clinic, stores and transportation. “This project will help start that, and it will actually highlight the work that has always been done.”