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Saving History in Freedmen’s Town

In the shadow of downtown sits a small neighborhood with a long history. Freedmen’s Town — also known as the fourth ward — is the oldest African American neighborhood in Houston, built by freed slaves after the Civil War. Many of its historic homes are being replaced by developments, but one landowner is saving ten little homes. From the KUHF NewsLab series, “Exploring Houston,” Melissa Galvez tells the story.


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“It was a community within a community. We had cleaners, and filling stations, and we had a movie theater…”

Jacqueline Beckham remembers Freedman’s Town of the 1950’s, when she was a new bride. The community — just west of downtown — had been a vibrant hub of African American cultural and economic life since the 1920’s. People sat out on their porches and looked after each others’ kids, she recalls, but it was also rough.

“There was this club right down the street here…they used to call that area right over there the bullying ditch. These were just people in the neighborhood who loved to drink, loved to dance, loved to have a good time, but they could get to be rough.”

Now, Freedmen’s Town’s feels like a sleepy hamlet-few stores, no night clubs, though residents complain about the wandering drug dealers and people who blast music at night.? What remains of the old town are the wood frame shot gun houses and brick laid streets. Many of those houses have been removed for new developments.? But on the edge of this community, just where you might expect towering townhomes, Thuong Thi Tran is digging her heels in.

“We do a little bit at a time, clean up the window, take window out, and painting…”

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Tran is standing inside a row house, one of 10 she owns on Victor Street. This room-where the living room should be is about the size of a kids’ bedroom.? Walk back through two more such rooms, and that’s it-a house that’s 420 square feet. The houses haven’t been lived in for over two years, so they’re boarded up, falling apart, grown over with weeds.? But Tran doesn’t want to sell the land.

“I hate to see the house tear down.? That house still good.”

Tran says she’s gotten offers from developers who want to buy this prime piece of real estate.? But she says she wanted to sell to Freedman’s Town activists, who would preserve the historic houses.? When the money didn’t appear, she decided to rebuild and re-rent on her own.

“And if the Freedmen Town want to hold up something for them culture, they can do that, so I just wait and give them the chance to do that. But I try to rebuild and hold on to the house, and in the future, they might got money to buy.”

Tran says it’s important to her to preserve African American history, even if it’s not her own.? She’s lived in the community for a long time.? But who would want to live in a house that’s barely bigger than a studio apartment?? Ramona Davis, Executive Director of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, says older houses are often made of higher quality materials and rowhouses command a high price in places like New Orleans.

“The space itself, while very small, is extremely livable and desirable for people. It’s manageable for people on a small budget, it’s still beautiful. There’s a huge market for single people.”

A Freedmen’s Town activist, Gladys House, would like to convert that space into housing for elderly veterans, with services to help them survive.? She’s still looking for funding.

“You see so many homeless people on the street and a majority of them is veterans. These are individuals — men and women — who’ve put their lives on the front line, and for them to be left out in the cold is really unjust.”

“The younger people…”

There’s no doubt that any new resident of Victor Street will have to contend with the drug dealers and the loud music.? But Lenwood Johnson, a long time Freedmen’s Town resident, is just glad that Tran is keeping the houses around.

“The critical thing is that these are the last rowhouses in the neighborhood. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”

From the KUHF Newslab, I’m Melissa Galvez.