Arts & Culture

Houston’s Fourth Ward Remembered In Never-Before-Seen Photos

Houston’s Fourth Ward was a center of African-American cultural life for decades. With much of the neighborhood now gone due to rapid development, newly-revealed photos show who used to call the area home.

Elbert Howze, Motherward, Houston, Texas, 1985

Before its streets were lined with town homes, apartment complexes and trendy restaurants, the Fourth Ward was a cultural center of Houston’s African-American community. 

Now, newly-revealed photos capture some of the residents who once called the Fourth Ward home.

Taken in 1985 by the late photographer Elbert Howze, the photos hadn’t been released to the public until now, with a new exhibit currently showing at the Houston Center for Photography through July 7.

Elbert Howze, Motherward, Houston, Texas, 1985

Though Howze was born in Detroit, he came to Houston in the ’70s and received degrees in art, technology and photography from the University of Houston.

Later, when Howze photographed the Fourth Ward in the ’80s, he took thorough notes about the people he captured. 

Elbert Howze, Motherward, Houston, Texas, 1985

As Howze writes, the neighborhood was settled by freed slaves at the turn of the century and was once called Freedmen’s Town. 

In Freedmen’s Town, residents established businesses, organizations and churches, like the Antioch Baptist Church. Freedmen’s Town was also home to the first school for free African-American children, the Gregory School, a space now used to preserve the community’s history. 

After the exhibition of Howze’s work, the photos will be donated to the African American Library at the Gregory School, along with the notes that Howze took about his subjects.  

Elbert Howze, Motherward, Houston, Texas, 1985

The Gregory School’s community liaison Erika Thompson said the Fourth Ward was once a prominent cultural center for African Americans in Houston.

Though certain time periods of Freedmen’s Town have been preserved, Thompson said there is little documentation from the 1980s, before the area saw rapid development.

“To have someone to be so intent and focused on this particular period of 1985, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we want that’, because that’s right before everything kicked off with the community gentrifying,” said Thompson.

She said ever since, the Fourth Ward has been whittled away. 

“Freedmen’s Town and Fourth Ward originally extended all the way downtown and then, to my understanding, all the way to River Oaks. It was a huge swath of that portion of town,” said Thompson.  

Now the Fourth Ward’s boundaries are limited to West Gray, Taft, West Dallas and Bagby streets. 

Thompson said although the photos offer a window into what the now gentrified community once looked like, she thinks Howze’s work was focused on highlighting the vibrancy of a neighborhood that might have otherwise been overlooked.

“Whether he was aware that there would be town homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, I don’t know if that was in his sights, if he could have foreseen that, but I know that the downward turn of the community and maybe the assumption of people from outside looking in, was something that seemed to be at the forefront because he wanted to counter the existing narrative,” she said.  

You can read more from Thompson in her essay on Howze’s exhibition on the Houston Center for Photography’s online magazine, Spot

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