The problem started in November 2016, when a backhoe mistakenly tore into a section of Andrews Street in Freedmen’s Town. The Fourth Ward neighborhood was one of Houston’s first black communities, where freed slaves and their adult sons paved the streets by hand roughly a century ago, after the city refused.
Longtime residents flew into a rage at the disturbance of these last vestiges of a fading history; the city apologized but insisted on the necessary infrastructure improvements. That’s when archeologist Catherine Jalbert was called in to stand referee and monitor workers as they pry the road up brick by brick using wooden stakes to ensure the repairs don’t compromise these artifacts—an ongoing process.
It isn’t glamorous work, Jalbert says, but there is something refreshing about residents being so invested in the material history of their neighborhood. “It’s easy to say I think this is valuable,” she explains, “but it’s more meaningful when it comes from the community.”
Jalbert’s employer, Moore Archeological Consulting, is in the business of cataloguing Houston’s cultural history. The firm has built a relative monopoly on Houston urban archeology projects like the Fourth Ward bricks, with fingerprints on nearly every major civil engineering feat of the past 30 years, including Minute Maid Park, the Hobby Center, the Toyota Center, Discovery Green, BBVA Compass Stadium, and more.
Turns out that even here, where teardown culture prevails, state and federal laws mandate developers take a close look at what cultural resources might be at risk before granting the backhoe free rein. Essentially, Jalbert and her colleagues are hired to excavate and catalogue artifacts of the region’s past as their clients build Houston’s future.
Roger Moore carved out the niche for Houston’s first archeological firm while pursuing a graduate degree at Rice, founding the business in 1982 to address the city’s burgeoning demand for archeological consultants after amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act added requirements for developers. Now the firm employs about half a dozen archeologists, who’ve uncovered grave sites in Sam Houston Park and refined our understanding of the Battle of San Jacinto, among other accomplishments.
That pedigree, says MAC Vice President August Costa, allows the company to mostly avoid “soul-crushing” pipeline surveys for oil and gas companies and take on more interesting, research-driven projects that can veer deep into our prehistory. A relative lack of academic interest and diffuse patterns of settlement make this region of Texas understudied, Costa explains, and the firm’s work has uncovered weapons and copper plates that suggest Greater Houston as an ancient corridor for long-distance trade across Texas and even out to the East Coast.
That whole “most diverse city” thing we hear about today? “We’re finding the same thing,” Costa says of prehistoric Texas, emphasizing the impact of these discoveries. “We kind of get to set the agenda for cultural history, all the way back to 13,000 years ago in Southeast Texas.”
The firm’s more recent projects are equally important. After all, whether something is old or really, really old, it’s all part of the long, unfolding story the company works to tell.
“A 100-year-old street is just as valuable as a 1,000-year-old tool—it just has different meaning to different communities,” says Jalbert. “The more we can show people what these things are, they’ll understand why they’re worth saving.”