10-28-2016  12:46 pm      •     

HOUSTON (AP) -- The day Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church dissolved into shards of bricks and a pile of rubble, tears filled the eyes of the people who had tried to save the historic structure.
But their grief was not just for this 68-year-old building in the heart of Houston's Fourth Ward. On this recent Friday, the solemn and stricken group was also crying for all the other now-vanished fragments of Freedmen's Town, the nation's only remaining post-Civil War historic district built by freed slaves.
They mourned for Bethel Baptist Church, a majestic century-old structure reduced to a scorched hull by a fire four years ago, and for the shotgun-style houses on Victor Street, where Houston's first African-American teachers, lawyers, and brick-masons once lived and which now seem abdicated to neglect.
They lamented the loss of dozens of historic homes and churches that have been demolished to make room for markers of a new Houston -- a modern metropolis of glass-walled skyscrapers, newly built urban lofts and chic cafes and restaurants.
The pattern has been repeated countless times in other cities, where gentrification and urban redevelopment have displaced residents and swallowed cultural landmarks in long-established African-American neighborhoods.
But in Houston, a city hungering for recognition as a place of glitz, power and progress, the tug-of-war between preservation of the old and celebration of the new is especially stark.
"One person's historical structure is another person's blight," said Houston Mayor Bill White.
In 1984, Freedmen's Town was designated a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places. At the time, 530 historic structures still stood in the 40-block area. Today, only 30 structures remain. Eight of its 19 churches are still standing.
"We're just trying to preserve what's left of Freedmen's Town. The Fourth Ward symbolizes our community," said Debra Blacklock-Sloan, the historian of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, which works to preserve the history of Freedmen's Town. "There's going to be development, but it needs to be harmonious between new development and old."
In place of African-American families who could trace their roots back to the original Freedmen's Town settlers, new residents are drawn in by the lure of an urban chic lifestyle, and financial incentives attracting a new, mostly White population.
In place of homes where families once communed on wraparound front porches, there are now clusters of ultra-modern condominium and townhouses units encased by iron gates and metal fences
"To see these houses disappear, hundreds of them, and people forced out of their homes and the whole history try to be erased from this area is just sickening," said Catherine Yates, also with the museum, housed in a 1911 Queen Anne-style cottage.
Freedmen's Town traces its beginnings back to 1866, when emancipated slaves first settled in tents and shanties on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, swampy land no one else wanted. Soon, the new settlers -- many of whom were skilled stone masons and carpenters -- had built homes, businesses and brick churches and paved the streets with bricks they forged themselves.
"Think of those people who struggled, who went through all they went through in bondage, then one day to be freed with nothing, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to start a new life," said Sally Wickers, executive director of the Freedmen's Town Coalition of Pastoral Leaders. "Blood, sweat and tears went into the formation of this community. It's not just important to African American history but important to American history."
For decades, Freedmen's Town was the epicenter of Houston's African-American community, a thriving enclave of professionals, educators and businessmen. But the Depression caused homeowners to lose their properties.
Many left Freedmen's Town for other Houston neighborhoods. Others stayed and watched as their community slid into disrepair. Over the years, antique scavengers poached architectural artifacts from occupied homes, yanking gingerbread trim, front porch columns, and carved railings off houses while residents were inside.
In the 1990s, after developers and city planners discovered the neighborhood just outside downtown, blocks of modern low-income housing, mid-income townhouses and upscale lofts began to push the old structures and residents.
And new residents, more interested in improving city services and infrastructure than in saving aging buildings, moved in.
John Obsta, president of the New Fourth Ward Homeowners Association, admits new residents are viewed with suspicion and sometimes, hostility.
"It is awkward for us. We do respect the older residents, but there are challenges our community faces that others don't," said Obsta, who moved to Freedmen's Town four years ago and represents about 250 other new homeowners. "I've come to love this area of town, and to know its history."
But, Obsta said, the older, often neglected, buildings draw drug dealers and transients, and some structures seem beyond repair, as Mount Carmel did.
Obsta says he is trying to ease the friction between the two sides, and points to a task force formed recently to bring old and new homeowners together. One of the first issues they tackled were the neighborhood's iconic brick streets.
New residents want the city to improve water and sewer lines, and the bricks would have to go to do that. But preservationists adamantly oppose any plan to disturb the bricks. The bricks, made by African-American brick masons, were laid with a cross pattern traced back to Africa.
Now the task force recommends that the city tunnel under the bricks to replace the lines.
But preservationists say they have been burned by promises before and the city has offered little support to preserve Freedmen's Town historic structures.
Take the fight to save Freedmen's Town churches. For years, neighborhood boosters have been seeking historic landmark status for the remaining churches, hoping to create a "sacred corridor" they liken to the preservation of historic missions of San Antonio.
Last month, they believed they'd won a small victory when St. James United Methodist Church and Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church both received landmark approval from the city's historical commission -- the first step towards securing the coveted status -- after more than a year of waiting.
But, last Friday, the church's roof buckled and a portion of an outside wall crumbled, sending a shower of bricks onto the sidewalk. A few hours later, the 68-year-old building was torn down.
If the city had moved faster to designate the building as a landmark, church leaders could have applied for grants to speed a planned restoration, said Sally Wickers. Instead, congregants were outside the rubble, gathering bricks from the demolished buildings, and vowing to rebuild.
"Yes, the city's done too little for too long. We can't right all those wrongs, but we do feel like we are making progress in key areas," said Frank Michel, White's spokesman. "We are doing more than has ever been done before to maintain a balance between new developments, new residents and the preservation of the heritage of the area."
Michel pointed to the brick streets plan, and the recent groundbreaking of a planned African American library and archives, which will be housed at the Edgar M. Gregory School, Houston's first public school for Black pupils.
As for Mount Carmel, Michel said city landmark status would not have saved the building, which he said had not been maintained for years.
"It hurts real bad. We had hoped things would go our way," said Rev. S. H. Smith Sr., pastor of nearby Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist Church. "But fate dealt us a blow and it's hurting. It's hurting."
Yet, even as Smith, church members and longtime Freedmen's Town residents stood in quiet sorrow, some new residents gathered nearby -- celebrating the church's demolition.
"I'm not the least bit against preservation, but it's an eyesore," said Linda Feldman, who has lived in the neighborhood five years. "It serves no purpose."
--The Associated Press

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