The Bayou City, and more specifically, the community of Freedmen’s Town, is fortunate that Zion Escobar, a true renaissance woman, has chosen to adopt Houston as her home.
This civil engineer, entrepreneur, and equity advocate serves as the executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy and has an unapologetically bold vision for moving this historic community forward.
And don’t let the smooth taste fool you. This internationally-traveled former model has the intelligence, professional acumen, spiritual/ancestral heart, and fire to fight for all the accolades and resources Freedmen’s Town and its residents, for far too long, have been denied. Or as Escobar says, she’s not interested in easy, low-hanging fruit when Freedmen’s Town residents deserve the whole tree.
The Defender recently spoke with Escobar about her life journey, and how it led her to this work.
DEFENDER: What’s your personal relationship with Freedmen’s Town, and what drew you the Conservancy?
ESCOBAR: So, I’ll be honest with you, this is not something I’ve talked about very publicly. And so, you are quite literally one of the first to hear this story. And the reason why I haven’t talked about it is because I’m about receipts. When you start talking about ancestry and history and relationship and proximity to truth, you have to be really be impeccable with your word, and you need to have your receipts. I don’t talk about it because until I’ve had my full genealogy done and verified and published, all this is still just in research form. So, I’ll put that disclaimer out there. My personal relationship is, and this is very personal <laughs>, I currently reside in the same footprint that the founding families of Freedmen’s Town operated their businesses in downtown Houston on Market Square.
That’s a Black history that folks don’t really talk about and they’re not aware of, but there was a Black district of businesses in downtown Houston. Two. I’ll just name two. We have Freedmen’s Town. And if you know about Andrews and Wilson Street in Freedmen’s Town, there’s these historic bricks and historic structures that are adjacent to it on each corner. Then, there’s the J. Vance Lewis House. J. Vance Lewis lived in Freedmen’s Town. His law practice and his business was on Milam Street, right across from Market Square. Ned Pullum, who owned a brickyard, a pharmacy, was part of the original creation of Union Hospital, owned a shoe repair store. One of those two pharmacies was The People’s Pharmacy located near downtown on Milam Street.
So, I live where they made their success and they brought that success back to the community of Freedmen’s Town. So, this story is quite personal to me. Because specifically, Ned Pullum, if you take the journey and you go to look at his marker and take a tour in Freedmen’s Town—which is something obviously part of why we’re trying to offer this story, is people need to become educated so this isn’t not an anomaly. No one’s hearing about this for the first time. Hopefully, five years from now, it’s part of Houston culture and history, and everyone kind of understands it as a matter of fact—Ned Pullum was a pastor in Beaumont, Texas at Antioch [Baptist Church]. My family and my ancestors were the founding family of Antioch Beaumont. I’m from Beaumont, Texas.
There was a transfer of many people, including Ned Pullum as pastor from Antioch Beaumont, who came and became the pastor of Bethel [Baptist Church] after Jack Yates passed. And he built that house in Freedmen’s Town. So, my ancestors’ records are showing up in the archival material of Antioch Houston. There was a transfer of lots of families between these two spaces, not just the pastor. You know, pastor didn’t just come by himself. And one of Ned Pullum’s businesses that was established in downtown Houston, The People’s Pharmacy. My ancestors, in figuring out where they are on that ancestry tree, is what I’m trying to clarify, which is why, again, I’m not out here saying all the things. But, that’s the connection. So, my personal geology, my personal life story and answers to my question about my ancestry, as I am adopted, and I’m trying through find answers, is tied up in this.
I didn’t even know that when I started, by the way. I left a very profitable career as a civil engineer and owning my own consulting firm, and I delved into the nonprofit world. The spirit was leading me. The ancestors were leading me and they still are. And they’re guiding every single thing that I’m doing. I don’t talk about it because, you know, people don’t like the “woo woo.” But when you know you’re being led, you just go up and do the work and you don’t ask questions because the answers will be revealed to you. So that’s what I’m operating off of right now. Do what I am told from on high <laughs>.
DEFENDER: When did you actually start with the Conservancy?
ESCOBAR: Technically, we were established as an official 501(c)3 in 2018. I more formally started in 2019, but at the time I was still running my own business and leading the Houston headquarters of another engineering office. So, to be honest with you, I didn’t start in earnest until closing out 2019, to where I was focused more intently on Freedmen’s Town, and having had a chance to kind of wind down my other engagements and close out projects to be able to make this transition to the nonprofit industry from what I was doing before. And then the pandemic happened in 2020. So, you never know <laughs>.
DEFENDER: I’m really curious, what was that calling like for you to leave engineering formally and move into the non-profit space?
ESCOBAR: It was something that just happened because of I-45, initially. I was asked, as an engineer, to come and give comment from an equity perspective as it relates to infrastructure and flooding, because that’s, my specialty in engineering, sustainable infrastructure, resiliency, flooding and how communities of color are always impacted negatively and are the last to get help. And somebody needs to be batting for them. My role was to do that.
I’ll be honest with you. I struggled introspectively with how effective I could be, because the powers that be were struggling with whether or not they wanted to have equity. It’s a matter of this situation has to be right for that to be realized, and you realize that I’m going to have to work on this one from a different side of things <laughs>.
By the time it gets to an engineer’s desk, the plans have already been made, the process is already underway, and any engagement you do is kind of after the fact. I want to get in at ground zero and build the direction, as opposed to being on the back end, implementing someone else’s vision that is absent of inclusivity. I want to build the inclusivity, and then do the project, and then manage it, and then spread it, and then build everyone in to be accountable in maintaining it, and build those systems of sustainability for Black communities, as opposed to trying to add in sustainability into a Black community.
So that was kind of the emotional transition I went through, in saying, “I’m tired of being on the back end, fighting to get things changed. Let’s just do it right from the beginning to be part of the master planning process.” How do you do that? Where do you start?
Someone invited me to a “Make I-45 Better” meeting when all that friction was happening, and I was calling out TxDOT, and I was like, “I’m sorry, these numbers don’t add up. You’re going to cause flooding and impacts on Black communities. You’re going to have all of these different things. This is 2.0 of urban renewal. And y’all need to get it right.” And as I’ve been saying lately, I was saying in city council last night, “Make it make sense, please <laughs>. I’m a numbers person. And I’m all about what makes sense. And right now, your logic is faltering. I don’t see how you’re saying, you have the authority to do this, and you are just going to dismiss your accountability for the flooding damage that you would potentially do, among the other million things.” But I can only speak confidently, as I was invited to speak, on the flooding issue.
In that environment, I met a couple people who were like, “Hey, we have this thing going on over here. We need someone who was sent, who could come and help out Freedmen’s Town, [and] get itself into that next journey. I was invited to put my name in the hat. I didn’t think I had a chance. And after about a year of interviewing, I finally got the opportunity to take this mantle.
DEFENDER: You said you were brought on to help take Freedmen’s Town into the next episode of its journey. What does that journey look like?
ESCOBAR: To be honest with you, there was not one specific, clear thing other than stop erasures, halt the demolitions, protect what’s left, infuse new life, new energy, make it right. Make it right in the sense of, bring in the equity, bring in the strategy, bring in the partners who are going to now be accountable with this new sense of awakening we have in our country, to looking at this with a different lens of a problem that you don’t need to solve or have a solve, but you’re excited to help do your part to rectify wrongs that predated most people who are in all the positions they’re in now, across the board.
My duty, as far as the new direction, the rebirth, is to bring it back to itself. To make sure that we create opportunities for Black people to repatriate and see themselves through a different light in a way that they don’t see themselves in Houston. To know that Black excellence started here, to know how prolific we were and how many important people and important things came through here, came from here, so that we anchor ourselves in something other than just pop culture.
And we realize that we have a whole pipeline of opportunities for ourselves here in Houston. And, there’s more than one lane in Black excellence in Houston. Just like there’s more than oil and gas. There’s more than medical. There’s history. There’s preservation, even though you don’t know that that’s a thing in Houston. We’re going to make it clear through art, through culture, through interpretation, through memory, through protecting homes, through forming community land trusts to help with the affordability crisis in Freedmen’s Town and everywhere else in Houston and America.
It’s really about preservation. It’s about heritage tourism so that the story can never be erased because it’s too many eyes and ears now. Everyone will know too much to just be apathetic and let it get demolished. Because now we’re all going to be accountable and saying, “Oh no, I know the story of freedom. I know what this means. We have a whole federal holiday dedicated to people who are the children of that story. How can we let that just get erased?” It’s to bring accountability in so that all Houstonians, not just Black Houstonians, recognize this is Houston’s history. This is American history. This is of international consequence. So, we’re just trying to elevate the profile of this community so that it’s not mired in the dramas that have taken place over the years, but it is seen for what it’s birthright really is, and just to restore that into the Houstonian conscience, into the American conscience.
We’re out here celebrating Tulsa and looking at Tulsa, and it’s like, “Ooh, if y’all knew all the stories that Freedmen’s Town could tell,” people would see this as an economic opportunity, as a cultural opportunity, as a lesson on how CRT, you can tell people they can’t talk about certain things, but you can’t erase history. The Allen brothers who founded Houston, and who also settled on and helped make Market Square a robust center of commerce, where our old city hall used to be, they are buried in Freedmen’s Town. We should have questions Houstonians. Why don’t you come on here and get this history <laughs>. I’m going to need you to come and get this tour, get some context, get this history, and we’re going to unfold more and more and more as the years go on. That’s what I’m here to do.
DEFENDER: What schools did you attend? What major? I’m assuming engineering.
ESCOBAR: I was born in Beaumont, Texas, and lived in kind of the South Park, Pear Orchard [community]. I went to Odom Middle School. I went to Bingham Elementary. I lived in the projects in Beaumont at one point: Cardinal Park Apartment, for people who were looking for references. I mentioned [these places] because myself and one of the community leaders in Freedmen’s Town, I actually took her with me to a baby shower we had about a year ago before my aunt passed. And, she had a chance to see my folks. And she was like, “Oh, this is Freedmen’s Town. This is just like Freedmen’s Town. This is copy and pasted. These folks, these houses, everything looks like a microcosms of that same Freedmen’s Town history, that same legacy.”
[I did] some high school there in Beaumont. I went to Westbrook High School, got adopted, and then moved out of the state. Came back to Texas to go to UT Austin, where I got my civil engineering degree with a focus on water resources, and lived in Austin for quite some time doing things there. I’m a retired model. I was one of Austin’s most beautiful women, like a decade-plus ago. So, I did modeling and engineering there, and a little bit of acting and commercial things. Shifted around California, France. Went to some school in France. Lived in New Mexico. Lived in New York for quite some time as a youth. And, I’m here in Houston after returning from the San Francisco Bay area about 10, 11 years ago.
DEFENDER: So, now that you’re here in Houston, what’s your favorite thing about the city?
ESCOBAR: It’s just so rich. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area and Houston surprises me more than I expected. My favorite thing about Houston is it’s so big, you don’t even know how awesome it is. And Freedmen’s Town is a perfect example of that. I did not know about Freedmen’s Town until I was 30. And I’ve been learning ever since. So, that’s my favorite thing.
And Houston, apparently is driving my whole story and my life. So, my favorite thing about Houston is it’s connecting me back to myself; taking me back to my roots. It is forcing me to reconcile with the truth that like every other Black person in America or every other Black person in Houston, you can really go only as far back as your grandma and you stop trying. This is forcing me to say, “I need to go further. I will go further and I’m going to encourage everyone else to go down this path as well.” So, I’m thankful to Houston for forcing me to reconcile with a past that I could have very easily moved on from and been traveling around the world, doing all kinds of wonderful things. And I chose to do this, and it’s forcing me to live my best life.
DEFENDER: Favorite eatery.
ESCOBAR: I eat strange. I try to eat healthy. So, what do I eat frequently? I’m going to have to give you a big old goose egg on that one.
DEFENDER: Music. Favorite genre. Favorite artists.
ESCOBAR: Ooh, let me tell you who I’m digging right now. I love conscious music. I love transformational music. I love music that helps you vibrate at a higher frequency. Londrelle. Have you heard of Londrelle? Google “Vibrate Higher.” And that is kind of my charge right now, period, and where I want our people to be thinking about: how do we start to vibrate higher? We need to really reboot ourselves spiritually, emotionally and consciously coming out of this pandemic to say, “What is most important in life? What do I value? Whose dollar am I chasing? Whose life am I trying to live? What is the example?” And get off the dang-gone (Insta)gram <laughs>, and start creating in real life and not just be a creator online. I want to vibrate higher. I want us as a people to vibrate higher and that kind of music is affirmation music. So, my favorite genre is affirmation music.
DEFENDER: What are you reading these days?
ESCOBAR: I’m actually taking a bit of a detour backwards right now. One, I’m reading is “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative” by Florence Williams. [It’s about] the power of being outdoors in nature. I’m listening to it on audible. That’s how I read books these days. The other is “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed. She published her book a while back, but I saw her at HPL at the Julia Ideson Library recently.
And after hearing her speak, I felt like I needed to go back and read her book about Juneteenth to actually understand it, because it’s actually a personal story. And with the personal journey that I’m on right now, I feel like a book is in my future. And I’ve been told that I supposed to be writing a book, because it’s interesting road. So, I’m rereading that from a different context now as kind of an autobiography of her journey in proximity to the Juneteenth story.