Houston Matters

Debate Surges Over How to Handle Brick Streets in Historic Freedmen’s Town

More than a century ago, freed slaves and their descendants laid bricks in the Fourth Ward community of Freedmen’s Town. That alone makes the bricks significant, but there’s more to it than that. The bricks are laid out in particular designs at some intersections – designs which in some cases pointed to safe houses for […]

Deandre Gafford, 18, rides over bricks that were put in over 100 years ago in historic Freedmen’s Town. (Image: Johnny Hanson, Houston Chronicle)

More than a century ago, freed slaves and their descendants laid bricks in the Fourth Ward community of Freedmen’s Town. That alone makes the bricks significant, but there’s more to it than that. The bricks are laid out in particular designs at some intersections – designs which in some cases pointed to safe houses for the black community, and some which reflect West African religious traditions. While much of this National Historic District has changed in recent decades, the bricks have remained.

Most agree these brick roads could stand some repair, but residents and preservationists are wary of any efforts that might permanently damage the bricks. But it’s not just about the roads themselves. The water and sewer pipes beneath them are old and in need of replacement. Next month, the City of Houston plans to remove some of the bricks in order to re-pipe portions of Andrews and Wilson Streets. The city repeatedly has stated a desire to try to return the bricks to their original locations, but last month, TxDOT architect Mario Sanchez told the Houston Chronicle that’s not feasible – and that there wouldn’t be enough salvageable bricks. Residents and preservationists are calling on the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them – a plan agreed to by former Mayor Bill White back in 2007. City officials say the streets are too narrow to tunnel and argue it could cost four times as much.

So, the project moves forward, for now, while those opposed to it argue it violates federal laws designed to protect National Historic Districts like Freedmen’s Town.

The debate came to a head at town hall meetings this month hosted by the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition, and then at a City Council public session Tuesday, where Mayor Annise Parker and Council Member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town, each defended the project.

We’ll talk with historical preservationist Catherine Roberts, a founding member of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and Keith Wade, a senior assistant to Mayor Parker, and chair of the city’s Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town task force.

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