Galveston to create heritage district to celebrate its Black history and culture

The Galveston City Council recently approved $50,000 to explore either a cultural arts or historic district designation from the state of Texas, with the aim of boosting tourism and economic development while highlighting the contributions of its African-American residents both past and present.

Jack Johnson Park
Visit Galveston
Jack Johnson Park in Galveston is named after the first Black heavyweight champion in boxing, who was born on the island.

Galveston is home to Texas' first high school for Black students and its first Black Baptist church, along with being the birthplace of the first Black man to be crowned as the world heavyweight champion in boxing.

Perhaps most notably, the coastal city south of Houston also is where Juneteenth – the Texas tradition that became a federal holiday in 2021 – originated. It celebrates June 19, 1865, when Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger visited the island and told enslaved African Americans they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation signed more than two years earlier by then-President Abraham Lincoln.

Now Galveston officials are working toward the creation of an African-American Cultural Heritage District, which would highlight and celebrate the city's rich Black history while also aiming to boost tourism and economic development. The Galveston City Council last month voted unanimously to allocate $50,000 toward the effort, which initially will include community outreach, website development and data collection, with the goal of applying later this year for either a cultural arts district or historic district designation from the state.

"It's something that's very needed and very powerful on the island to put that kind of district together," said city council member Sharon Lewis, a Black woman who was born in Galveston during the days of segregation. "Galveston was built on the backs of African Americans. The African-American community is a vibrant part of Galveston."

Hotel occupancy taxes are the source of the initial $50,000 in funding, and the vision is to use an additional $100,000 over the next two years as the initiative progresses and expands, according to Antoinette Lynch, Galveston's arts and culture coordinator who is leading the effort. She said the idea is for the heritage district to be bordered by Broadway Street on the north, Seawall Boulevard on the south, 35th Street on the west and 25th Street on the east.

Already within that area are about 40 historical markers, along with Jack Johnson Park (named after the aforementioned boxer), Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church (the aforementioned church that was founded in 1840 as the Colored Baptist Church) and the Old Central Cultural Center, which sits on the site of the former Central High School, which opened in 1885 as Texas' first Black high school. Lewis, who represents that part of town as part of District 1, said it also was home to restaurants and other businesses featured in the "green book," a travel guide for African Americans during the days of segregation.

The Old Central Cultural Center was designated as the recipient of the $50,000 authorized by the city council and is charged with curating photos and gathering other resources, according to Lynch, who said Vision Galveston will lead community outreach efforts. Lynch said the plan is to hold events such as roundtable discussions and solicit online input through a QR code that will be placed on utility flyers as well as the websites for the city and Vision Galveston.

Feedback from the public will determine the boundaries for the proposed heritage district and also whether the city will apply for a historic district designation through the Texas Historical Commission or a cultural arts district designation through the Texas Commission on the Arts. Lynch said the latter is likely the most feasible, with this year's deadline for cultural district applications approaching in June.

Either designation would open up the city to additional funding resources through federal and state grants, according to Lynch. Downtown Galveston became a cultural arts district in 2012, and that has since resulted in more than $1.38 million in funding to organizations within the district.

Another goal for creating an African-American Cultural Heritage District is to further solidify Galveston's status as a hub of Black history. Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday has put a "magnifying glass" on the island, Lynch said.

"How could we do better and have more?" she said. "This was kind of the city's way of focusing on our African-American heritage and what the possibilities are and what the community even wants."

The latter will be determined during the coming months as Galveston residents and stakeholders weigh in on the idea. In the meantime, city leaders such as Lewis, who said she grew up eating at Black-owned restaurants and shopping at Black-owned businesses, are excited about the prospect of further celebrating the island's past while also laying the foundation for a prosperous future.

"Once the district is established it will serve as the nucleus for future developments designed to showcase the importance of the African-American community's impact locally and nationally," Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said.