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Freedmen's Town Historic District

Fourth Ward is one of the historic six wards of Houston, Texas, United States. The Fourth Ward is located inside the 610 Loop directly west of and adjacent to Downtown Houston. The Fourth Ward is the site of Freedmen's Town, which was a post-U.S. Civil War community of African-Americans.


Early history

The former Edgar M. Gregory School, now the African American Library at the Gregory School

The Fourth Ward was established as one of four wards by the City of Houston in 1839. By 1906 it included much of what is, as of 2008, Downtown and Neartown; at that point the city stopped using the ward system.

The area was the site of Freedman's Town, composed of recently freed slaves. The first freed slaves departed the Brazos River cotton plantations in 1866 and entered Houston via San Felipe Road (now named West Dallas in the portion from Downtown Houston to Shepherd Drive). The slaves settled on the Buffalo Bayou's southern edge, constructing small shanties as houses. Brush arbors along the bayou and borrowed churches were used as houses of worship. Several more ex-slaves leaving plantations arrived in Freedmen's Town. One brush arbor ultimately became the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the church where Jack Yates served as pastor. Yates and his son, Rutherford Yates, became major community leaders in the early days of the Fourth Ward. The neighborhood became the center of Houston's African-American community in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The "Fourth Ward Cottage" - A cottage dating back to at least 1866 that is now in Sam Houston Park in Downtown Houston

The 1,000 freed slaves who settled the community selected the site along the southern edge of the Buffalo Bayou since the land was inexpensive and because White Americans did not want to settle on the land, which was swampy and prone to flooding. The settlers of Freedmen's Town paved the streets with bricks that they hand-made themselves. An oral tradition said that in the early 20th century, members of the congregation of the Reverend Jeremiah Smith paved Andrew Street with the first bricks after the City of Houston refused to pave it. Yates, Smith, and Ned P. Pullum were three of the major Fourth Ward area ministers. The residents provided their own services and utilities. Residents included blacksmiths, brickmakers, doctors, haberdashers, lawyers, and teachers.

From 1905 through the 1940s, the Freedman's Town area included what was Houston's largest baseball venue through 1927, West End Park. It was home to the city's Minor League baseball team, the Houston Buffaloes, and it was the city's first venue for Negro Major League games.; At the turn of the century, black ministers established businesses and churches and remained as community leaders.

Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, now in Downtown Houston

Italian Americans moved into the Fourth Ward, including Freedmen's Town, at the turn of the century. The Italian Americans opened small businesses and, over a period of time, acquired more and more Fourth Ward property. Many had extended mercantile credit to customers, and seized property from the customers after they failed to pay off their debts. Their descendants, as of the year 2000, continued to be the owners of many residences in the Fourth Ward.

As more and more families moved in, the neighborhood increasingly became crowded. A narrative that accompanied the 1984 application of the Fourth Ward to become listed in the National Register of Historic Places, based on various historical documents and deed records, said that the crowded conditions and high rent prices may have led to a riot in 1917 when African-American soldiers stationed in the area attacked White people. By the 1920s and 1930s the population density of Freedmen's Town was almost six times that of the average of the entire City of Houston.

In the 1920s the Third Ward surpassed the Fourth Ward as the center of Houston's African-American community.


The Fourth Ward lost prominence due to its inability to expand geographically, as other developments hemmed in the area. Mike Snyder of the Houston Chronicle said that local historians traced the earliest signs of decline to 1940, and that it was influenced by many factors, including the opening of Interstate 45 and the construction of Allen Parkway Village. The Allen Parkway Village public housing complex opened in the 1940s. Located on the north side of the Fourth Ward, it originally was an all-White development, and it initially had the name San Felipe Courts.

The opening of Interstate 45 in the 1950s separated an eastern portion of the Fourth Ward area from the community; that portion became the Allen Center business and hotel complex and is now considered to be a part of Downtown Houston. The freeway also severed the community's connection with Downtown itself. After the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, black homeowners began leaving the Fourth Ward, leading to further decline.

The freeway construction and urban renewal programs lead to the loss of portions of the community.

The Jack Yates House, originally in the Fourth Ward and now at Sam Houston Park


By the 1970s many of the original Fourth Ward residents left to go to other communities. Starting in the 1970s the City of Houston wanted to demolish Allen Parkway Village while residents fought to have the entire structure remain. Plans to replace the Fourth Ward with condominiums and a park date to that decade.

The Rutherford B. H. Yates House

On January 17, 1985, Freedmen's Town was added to the National Register of Historic Places list. Because it was placed on the register, federal redevelopment funds could no longer be used to demolish structures.

In the 1990s a former city planning commission member founded Houston Renaissance, a nonprofit private charity sustained by federal and municipal funds. The charity bought large portions of the community and announced plans to redevelop the parcels into affordable housing. Instead the charity defaulted and the Houston Housing Finance Corp. took control of the lands. The city divided the parcels to the east and the west. The city sold parcels closest to Downtown Houston to private developers. The city used the acquired funds to develop the remaining parcels into subsidized houses, with each priced around $110,000.

Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway Village

The Houston Housing Authority made a unanimous vote to demolish Allen Parkway Village. This caused residents to begin a campaign to rescue the complex. The legal campaign reached the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1996 Henry Cisneros, the head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, signed an agreement to allow the City of Houston to demolish 677 of the community's 963 units as long as the site was still used for low income housing. The remaining old units were placed on the National Register of Historic Places and were not demolished.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, the area has been undergoing gentrification, with many new mid-rise apartment complexes and upscale townhomes being built. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the shotgun shacks were torn down, with townhouses replacing them. Many long-time residents, mostly renters, have moved out, unable to afford the increasing rent due to rising property values. While low income renters moved out of the neighborhood, wealthy homeowners moved in. During the late 1990s the Fourth Ward Redevelopment Corporation was founded in order to preserve historical aspects of the community.

By 1999 remaining portions of Allen Parkway Village were renamed to The Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway and had around 500 residential units. Of the 500 units 280 were existing units and 220 were newly constructed with $30 million federal funding. The first new group of tenants consisted of 156 low income elderly individuals.

By 2004 portions of what was the Fourth Ward became a part of the Midtown community. Apartments, restaurants, and townhouses replaced many of the former Fourth Ward historical landmarks.

In 2007 the municipal government offered to remove the historic bricks from some streets so the city can improve subterranean infrastructure; the city wanted to place the bricks back in place. Some residents and preservationists opposed the measure. The staff of the Houston Chronicle argued that the temporary moving of the bricks was a reasonable measure. In a March 2010 town hall meeting, some residents accused police officers in the area of racial profiling.


The population of the Fourth Ward has also been steadily decreasing with each decade. According to the 2000 Census, the Fourth Ward was the smallest neighborhood in Houston with 590 households or a total population of 1,706.

While the area around Freedman's town is traditionally black, Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites have moved to the area in recent years.

Geography and cityscape

Newer houses in the Fourth Ward

The modern day area that is the Fourth Ward is west of Downtown Houston and extends roughly to Taft and Webster. The area consists of 40 city blocks. The modern day definition corresponds with U.S. Census tract 4101. The Downtown Houston skyline is less than 1 mile (1.6 km) from the Fourth Ward, and is the site of Houston's first city cemetery, which still stands today as Founders Memorial Cemetery. Allen Parkway Village occupies 37 acres (15 ha) of land. The former political district, when it was disestablished in 1906, extended south to Richmond Avenue and west to Montrose Boulevard, and included much of what is now Downtown today. Its boundaries included Congress Avenue to the north, Main Street to the East, and the Rice University area to the south.

In 1984 the community had 563 surveyed historic structures. The community had 530 historic buildings on 64 acres (26 ha) of land when it was designated a site of the National Register of Historic Places on January 17, 1985. In 2007, David Ellison of the Houston Chronicle said that, according to Fourth Ward community leaders, 40 historic buildings remained, and that they were located in an area roughly bounded by Arthur, Gennessee, West Dallas, and West Gray. Since 1984 over 500 of the surveyed historic buildings were demolished. These buildings included businesses, churches, and houses. By 2012, 30 of the surveyed historic structures remained. Of the 13 surveyed churches, six still existed in 2012. Debbi Head, a spokesperson for the Texas Historical Commission, said "What's distinct about Freedmen's Town is not just a given building but the concentration of these buildings in their original setting on the relatively narrow streets. That gives you an indication of what life was really like." In the Jim Crow era Taft Street was one of the dividing lines between Blacks and Whites; Black families lived east of Taft, while White families lived west of Taft.

Parks and recreation

The remains of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church

On Wednesday March 25, 2009 the City of Houston bought the remains of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which received damage in a fire in 2005. The city plans to convert the church into a park. The city purchased the church, one of the oldest in Houston, for $350,000 of special tax increment re-investment zone money. The city planned for the restoration project to take two years. Prior to the city's purchase of the church, area residents feared that the church ruins would be demolished to make room for more townhouses. Since the fire occurred, the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church congregation relocated to a new building. Pastor Robert Robertson, the leader of the church, supported the city's purchase and restoration of the church facility. The church was founded by Jack Yates.

Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum Inc. owns six houses on ten lots as part of the Educational and Cultural Corridor Park. All of them are National Register of Historic Places houses,three have State Historic Land Marks, four are designated by the City of Houston as protected landmarks, and all properties have State Archaeological Trinomial registrations. The houses include the Rutherford B.H. Yates Sr. House, the former home of the son of Jack Yates, and currently the Yates Community Archaeology Lab and Yates Printing Museum. Most of the houses were designed by Black Architects and built by black contractors who were the freedmen or descendents of slaves. The J. Vance Lewis homestead at Andrews and Wilson includes the 1907 J. Vance Lewis House, named "Van Court," and built the house 1218 Wilson. Lewis, born c. 1860 became an attorney, named the house after himself. The Pauline Gray-Lewis, was his wife, a teacher and worked as a librarian at the Carnegie Colored Library. A relative, Isabella Sims lived at 1216 Wilson on the same homestead. The organization plans to turn the Lewis house into a Museum of Legal Professions & Educators. 1319 Andrews St., a house built in 1898 on the south side of Andrews Street, across from the Lewis homestead, was the residence of the Reverend Ned P. Pullum and Emma, his wife. Rev. Pullum founded a brick yard that was producing 20,000 bricks a day, three pharmacies, a shoe business, and donated to the building of a church and the first hospital for Blacks, the Union Hospital. The organization plans to convert it into a Health and Business museum. Antonio Tomasino Jr., a grocer, owned two buildings, built by black contractors, including the shotgun at 1514 Wilson and the workman's cottage at 1404 Victor. 1514 Wilson will become the site of the Archaeological Field School Lab. 1404 Victor, a workman's cottage built around 1900, will become a Barber/Beauty Shop museum.

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