Freedmen’s Town is not only Houston Black history, it’s national history; hence, its official designation as a national historic site. Still, far too many Houstonians, young and old, native-born and transplants, know far too little about this gem of “our story.”
Or, all they know is a story of generational economic and political neglect.
However, Freedmen’s Town advocates are working to change the narrative of the community to one that portrays it more accurately, as Houston hallowed ground, and a potential case study in how to resurrect historically under-resourced Black communities nationally.
Though Sade Perkins is a former Freedmen’s Town resident, she still owns a business in the community for which her “passion runs deep.”
“As soon as I moved here, I got involved with anything community-oriented: school supply drives, walking tours and creating the Freedmen’s Town Farmers Market,” said Perkins.
“I’m glad to be able to contribute to the legacy with my weekly farmers market. Our goal is to help eliminate the food desert in Freedmen’s Town while providing our neighbors with fresh, healthy foods every Saturday,” said Perkins, about her market that’s viewed by many as one of Freedmen’s Town’s current gems. But according to Perkins, it’s far from the only one.
“I truly appreciate all the unpaid work community activists have done to keep this area known as Freedmen’s Town” and not Midtown: Doris Ellis, Gladys House, Priscilla Graham and Charonda Johnson, just to name a few.”
Perkins believes Freedmen’s Town is a hidden gem with a rich history worthy of national attention that should not be overlooked, describing it in its heyday as the “Harlem of the south.”
“Many famous musicians, authors, intellectuals and entertainers, have graced the beautiful brick streets of Freedmen’s Town. Yet, many born and raised Houstonians don’t even know this corner of the city exists. It wasn’t mentioned in my ‘Texas History’ text books, so discovering this place has been a real treasure.
And she is far from alone.
“My journey in Freedmen’s Town began in 2004 at the Gregory Lincoln Education Center and Allen Parkway Village, with the Downtown YMCA at 1600 Louisiana Street,” said Priscilla T. Graham, of Cultural Experience Tours. “The YMCA taught me that if you believe in your mission, then you will give your time, use your talents and invest your treasures to accomplish that mission.”
Nationally-acclaimed artist Reginald Adams, whose murals appear in cities across the country and world, has lent his talents to Freedmen’s Town.
“In 2014, I built my very first labyrinth in Freedmen’s Town with a team of Houston-area high school students at the intersection of Ruthven @ Valentine,” shared Adams. “Mt. Caramel Missionary Baptist Church once stood on the grounds of the current labyrinth project. This project was the impetus of my labyrinth career and helped me see how we could transform a vacant lot or ordinary place into a sacred space.”
Adams said that project spawned a four-year consecutive series of educational international labyrinth builds with those same students.
“I’m proud to say the Historic Freedmen’s Town labyrinth is still there and it’s being well maintained by the community. For that, I will always love the people, history and heritage of Freedmen’s Town.”
Perata Bradley, an activist, historian and “storyteller of the Freedmen’s Town community,” was born and raised in Fourth Ward. She contends there is something distinctly special about the people of the historic community.
“The one thing that makes Freedmen’s Town so special is the spirit of the people, particularly the ones still here today in the community; the true fighters, the ones who survived and did not move, like myself who will die for this community,” stated Bradley.
Bradley contends what makes Freedmen’s Town residents has less to do with history than it does with who they are at their essence.
“The real beauty about the people is it doesn’t matter where we go, where we are or how many generations of us multiply, we can spot real Freedmen’s Town Fourth Ward descendants. It’s a special connection that only those born here can recognize.”
Regarding Freedmen’s Town’s present and past, longtime activist Gladys House-El stated, “Respect and honor must be achieved to prevent the unlawful taking of dedicated work.”
Enter Zion Escobar, the executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, who doesn’t mince words about how she sees Freedmen’s Town.
“We’ve all heard the story of Juneteenth. We have the Emancipation Proclamation and then we have actual freedom coming in Texas years later. We have a federal holiday, Juneteenth. What happened to the people who were freed? Where did they go? What life did they build? What did they do next with their freedom? Freedmen’s Town is quite literally the child of Juneteenth. It’s what happened the days following that emancipation in Texas,” said Escobar, whose own personal history is tied to the community.
Though from Beaumont, several members of Escobar’s family relocated to Freedmen’s Town when Ned Pullum, pastor of the church they helped found (Antioch Baptist Church, Beaumont), was named pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Houston, after the death of Reverend John “Jack” Yates. Moreover, Escobar currently lives in the shadow of Market Square, the Black business district where Pullum and another Freedmen’s Town founding father, J. Vance Lewis, ran businesses.
Escobar knew none of this before being named the conservancy’s executive director. However, the knowledge of this connection further confirmed her of the voracity of the “ancestral call” that moved her to leave her profitable career as an engineer and entrepreneur to lead a non-profit.
Escobar acknowledges that Freedmen’s Town was not the only settlement of Blacks newly freed from enslavement, but says the 4th Ward community is still distinct.
“This was the most organized, most sophisticated, most robust and the largest migration that left all those plantations of a thousand or more folks who settled along originally the banks of Buffalo Bayou, and what became Freedmen’s Town. And a lot of the incredible things you’re hearing about today kind of really started on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Freedmen’s Town, near the Allen Parkway area where Allen Parkway Village lies today,” said Escobar.
Escobar verbalizes a bold vision for Freedmen’s Town, starting with, but not limited to stopping the erasure of its history, halting demolitions of its institutions and protecting what still stands.
“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.”
Escobar is determined to let the world know that there’s “more than one lane to Black excellence.”
“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,” shared Escobar.
Bradley looks at Freedmen’s Town’s historic significance from a different perspective; one that acknowledges the past, but focuses more on the history being made today.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse by restating the most obvious of the answers, that Freedmen’s Town Fourth Ward is the first settlement for freed men and women of color… Black folks. Freedmen’s Town is even more important today because of individuals like Lenwood Johnson and Gladys House-El who fought the city and big developers from destroying what is present today in Fourth Ward Freedmen’s Town—Allen Parkway Village, Victory Place Apartments, and the restoration of the historical homes that line Andrews, Gilette and Ruthven St.
“Freedmen’s Town’s historic significance doesn’t just stop there, but the unknown history, the good, bad, and ugly, and how things will play out for the future will be just as historic since now it’s under spiritual attack.”
And Bradley is not shy about laying out what she sees as the current “spiritual attack” (challenges) upon Freedmen’s Town.
“The current challenge is that we have these nonprofit organizations and individuals posing as advocates and friends of this community but are more like carpetbaggers. They are more invested in the money that history is bringing to their organization and less concerned with really helping residents and former residents,” asserts Bradley.
What Bradley sees as one of Freedmen’s Town’s main challenges, she believes is a challenge for many historic Black communities.
“Exploitation by Black faces is the future of Black communities, and what’s more disappointing is these agencies and organizations will do anything to keep the people in these communities ill-informed about how a nonprofit can benefit them as a community. The future is becoming government-selected individuals and former employees passing as social workers in nonprofit spaces. Imagine fighting the city for four decades only to have to fight them again inside your own community. That’s what we are facing in Freedmen’s Town.”
Bradley believes another Freedmen’s Town challenge is the competition between organizations for resources designated to uplift the community.
“There are hundreds of thousands in grants for cultural arts and historical representation for communities of color that longtime grassroot organizations that really did save Fourth Ward Freedmen’s Town that could benefit the people, but other nonprofits with city sponsorship are soaking up all the glory and recognition making it a competition. These nonprofits pose as masters and guardians of our communities and no one saw them coming.”
Like Bradley and others, Escobar recognizes Freedmen’s Town’s challenges must be met head-on.
These include increasing awareness in Houstonians of the historic jewel Freedmen’s Town is so residents won’t stand by while history is disrespected and demolished, and establishing the trust of residents who have, like Bradley mentioned, been consistently burned in the past.
“When you’ve been mistreated and traumatized, and developments and promises and money and political figures have been the culprits of negative change in your community, it is darn near impossible to pretend like we can just move forward and it’s all going to be okay because the George Floyd [awakening] happened,” said Escobar, who counts the decades of divestment in Freedmen’s Town and the hefty reinvestment needed for a revival as another hurdle.
Perkins adds another.
“Gentrification and displacement of residents is a huge issue in this area. What once was a 4th Ward ghetto in the shadows of downtown is now prime real estate in a sprawling metropolitan area.”
As a community-rooted business owner, Perkins hopes she and others can grow and help grow Freedmen’s Town back to prominence, as does Graham.
“The Freedmen’s Town community has suffered debilitating economic underdevelopment for over 50 years, a reality that community members have fought to reverse, with few tangible results. Therefore, my quest to help preserve the rich history and legacy of an urban community, Freedmen’s Town, established by free men and women after the end of slavery, is imperative for future generations,” stated Graham, who like Escobar, wants to deepen the general public’s awareness of the community’s legacy.
“Oftentimes, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates is the only community member most hear about, but there are so many others. That is why telling the full story of Freedmen’s Town is so important,” added Graham.
For her part, Graham gives tours of the community, writes books about its history and takes pictures of its structures and residents in an effort to preserve what she described as the remaining remnants of the community.
“Also, the Freedmen’s Town Farmers Market is great,” said Graham.
Bradley summed up the frustration of many of her neighbors when she said, “I wish people would stop the exploitation of my community, especially these so-called supporters turned organizers. Y’all don’t care nothing about the state of people from Freedmen’s Town; only what money, fame or name it brings you.”
Taking these frustrations to heart, Escobar is on a mission not only to preserve Freedmen’s Town’s historic legacy, but place it in Houston’s and the nation’s current consciousness as an opportunity for future prosperity.
“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?”
Escobar believes it’s critical to elevate the community’s profile “so that it’s not mired in the dramas that have taken place over the years, but it is seen for what its birthright really is.”
“We’re out here celebrating Tulsa (Black Wall Street), 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,” shared Escobar.
“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.”
And through the unfolding of Freedmen’s Town’s story, Escobar asserts that all Houstonians, Black, Latinx and white, will (re)discover their own generational roots in the community, and see it even more clearly as worthy of recognition and investment, especially because of the potential impact on the Bayou City and beyond.
“This is unmatched richness, period. You are not going to find this anywhere. There’s not 20 Beyonces running around. There’s not 20 Freedmen’s Towns running around. There is one. That is the opportunity, period. If we’re going to figure out how to get it right, how to solve these problems, that urban renewal and all of these failed and fraught policies that produce these results; all of the culture wars that have existed before the ones that we’re seeing brewing; all the things that have happened before us… when you have unmatched history and you are as rare as you are, that’s an opportunity for people to say, “If we fix this one right, this is a good test run for how to get it right all throughout Houston, all throughout Texas, all throughout America.”