Saturday, March 24, 2007

Another Reason Why They Don't Care About Black People...

Girls walk along Andrews Street, which is paved with red bricks and lined with restored shotgun houses, in Freedmen's Town in Houston in this March 16, 2007 file photo. One of the last surviving communities built by freed slaves after the U.S. Civil War is on the verge of disappearing, despite long efforts to save it. (Richard Carson/Reuters)
Texas District Built By Freed Slaves Fades Away
By Jeff Franks

One of the last surviving communities built by freed slaves after the U.S. Civil War is on the verge of disappearing, despite long efforts to save it.

The old buildings of Freedmen's Town in Houston are being bulldozed to make way for new homes in a transformation that preservationists say is wiping out an important piece of history.

The U.S. South was once scattered with such communities, but most have faded away or been swallowed up by suburban growth.

The loss of Freedmen's Town is particularly significant because historians believe it was the largest of the freed slave settlements that was still intact architecturally and to some degree culturally.

Its long rows of narrow wooden houses, interspersed every block or two by churches, stood as a monument to the will of its founders to thrive despite bitter racism that forced them into isolation.

Freedmen's Town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, with more than 530 buildings in a 40-block area in the shadow of downtown Houston.

Today, only about 30 of those buildings remain and their fate is uncertain.

A few groups are scrambling to save what is left because they say it is important that society not forget the dark era in U.S. history that produced the freed slave settlements.


"People need to know that even though slavery ended, there was still a long time of disenfranchisement. Just like the Holocaust museums, this can remind us of what should never happen again," said Catherine Roberts, founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, one of the remaining homes preserved in the neighborhood.

At the Civil War's end in 1865, southern blacks were freed from slavery, but not racism.

Driven away from white society by violence and persecution, they banded together to form their own towns and neighborhoods, some in remote rural locations, others at the edge of cities.

They had little money and no help from the government, but built flourishing communities apart from the white world that excluded them with segregationist "Jim Crow" laws.

"They had their own communities, they had their own schools and their own churches. At the time of segregation, it was really a parallel world," said historian Thad Sitton, author along with James H. Conrad of a University of Texas Press book called "Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow."

Freedmen's Town was built on swampland along the banks of Buffalo Bayou and soon became a vibrant place with tradesmen, teachers, businessmen, and shopkeepers.

At turn of the century, it hit full stride, said archaeologist Fred McGhee, who has studied the area for the local school district.

"That's when it was one of the most shining, glaring, beautiful black neighborhoods in the country. There were black businesses, shops, churches, civic organizations -- which was a remarkable thing given that at the time the city essentially ignored it," he said.


The Depression dealt a harsh blow to Freedmen's Town, and from then on it declined economically, becoming steadily poorer and less stable.

Politicians, with support from developers who coveted the prime location, began promoting the idea of urban renewal for the neighborhood in the 1970s.

Black leaders resisted for years, insisting that Freedmen's Town be preserved, but by the 1990s political and economic pressure to redevelop had won out.

What began as a trickle of change in the old quarter has become a flood the past few years.

Developers such as Bob Perry, better known nationally as the chief funder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, have torn wide swaths through the old housing stock and replaced it with condos and townhouses.

As the number of new homes has increased, Freedmen's Town, once all black, has become more affluent and racially mixed.

The pattern, said Sitton, is a familiar one for the old black communities.

"Those that were located around cities have generally been absorbed," he said. "They're so-called 'gentrified' and lose their identity, and taxes go up and people move away," he said.

"There's remorse and recognition we're losing something important, but the economics of it is that nobody can afford to be nostalgic."

Even though Freedmen's Town was on the National Register of Historic Places, weak local preservation statutes allowed the wholesale demolition of the old homes.

But in the end, said Lenwood Johnson, who grew up in Freedmen's Town and led a long fight to protect it, one thing did in his old neighborhood -- money.

The desire to make a buck by putting up new homes trumped the interest in preserving history.

"The people with money wanted it and got it. This system is so controlled by corporate dollars," Johnson said.

"Now a people's history and culture is being destroyed. If you destroy their culture, you eventually destroy the people."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The fact that I am writing the first comment lets me know there are many more people who are not aware of this problem or even worse do not care. Educating ourselves on what's happening in our backyard is so important to self preservation. We have to work together. YES WE CAN! YES WE DID!