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Holding Onto History

Saving Freedmen's Town: Occupy Houston turns its sights on helping vanishing, historic Fourth Ward

Saving Freedmen's Town: Occupy Houston turns its sights on helping vanishing, historic Fourth Ward

Occupy Houston_Freedmen's Town Project
Shaun Crump, Vera Moody and Amanda Renee hold down the fort at the Freedmen's Town Project House.  Photo by Whitney Radley
Occupy Houston_Freedmen's Town Project
The row houses on Victor Street are also in the group's sights.  Photo by Whitney Radley
Occupy Houston_Freedmen's Town Project
Occupy Houston_Freedmen's Town Project

Freedmen's Town, an historical community in the Fourth Ward, is disappearing fast. 

As Carol McDavid warned in 2009, "When it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, [Freedmen's Town] included 530 historical structures, many of which were occupied at that point by the poor and elderly (although most had been built by professional-class black Houstonians in the late 19th to early 20th century).

"According to recent survey data, fewer than 30 of those original structures remain . . . What has happened in Freedmen's Town embodies the abuses of insensitive gentrification at its worst."

Walking through the area, one is struck by the contrasts: The streets paved with centuries-old, hand-cast bricks, butt up to the front door of brand new two-story townhouses. Just down the street, burnt-out buildings neighbor abandoned lots and historical shotgun houses.

A duplex on Gennessee, owned by Emily Nghiem, was one of the houses in the area in need of repair. On one side lives community activist Lenwood Johnson. On the other, members of Occupy Houston have taken up residence in what they call the Freedmen's Town Project House.

 Walking through the area, one is struck by the contrasts: The streets paved with centuries-old, hand-cast bricks, butt up to the front door of brand new townhouses. 

It's something of an experiment, and meant to be a model for the Occupy movement's capabilities. 

"We want to show the historical value of this area," occupier Shaun Crump told CultureMap, explaining that the people of the historical neighborhood have been repeatedly disenfranchised. 

Crump and others have taken up a partnership with Johnson, a lifelong proponent for and protector of Freedmen's Town, to "advocate for the preservation of the Fourth Ward, a neighborhood that has been ravaged by private contractors with little regard to the wishes of residents."

The experiment started in late November, when a group of workers began removing years worth of garbage from the Gennessee house, stripping layers and decades of paint from the walls, fixing ages-old plumbing and bringing the electrical wiring up to code. Occupiers have dry walled the ceilings, applied fresh coats of paint to the kitchen walls and cleared away clutter from the lot.

Though, from an outsider's perspective, the interior appears a long way from complete, occupier and organizer Amanda Renee said that the group has already accomplished a great deal.

Renee explained the group has plans for laying tile in the kitchen and building a rolling island made from a re-purposed museum packing box. Supporters have been generous with donating supplies and services, and project workers have found many materials and fixtures for free.  

The ultimate goal is to make the house, which was well built in the first place, as energy efficient as possible and as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.

A low-income family will eventually move into the space, but in the meantime, it will serve as an office space and a workhouse for Occupy Houston. 

Johnson and the occupiers also have plans for a nearby block of shotgun houses — the last row houses in Freedmen's Town — which have been approved for demolition, even though a recent article in the Houston Chronicle shows the interiors look completely habitable. A task force is also looking into foreclosed houses in the neighborhood in order to re-home families. 

"We are very much in the business of finding affordable housing," Renee said.

Freedmen's Town Project House will gladly accept donations for needed items. Email Taryn Nash for more information about how and where to donate.