Houston’s Third Ward has been and continues to be, a hub for the city’s rich history and culture. As the “cradle of the city's civil rights movement,” the district has served as ground zero for social and political movements like the fight for desegregation and voting rights. Third Ward is also home to prominent Black-owned institutions such as KCOH, the first radio stations geared to Black listeners, newspapers including the Defender and The Forward Times, and in banking with UNITY, the only black-owned bank in Texas. As Houston continues to diversify, this historically Black neighborhood’s history is endangered by gentrification. But one Houston native thought it was time to intervene.
In partnership with The Catastrophic Theatre and Nine30 Productions, ShaWanna Renee Rivon launched Historic Third Ward Virtual Tour—a digital platform dedicated to archiving and honoring the neighborhood’s heritage through a series of interviews, storytelling, and historical recounts by artists, activists, and community leaders.
The virtual tour kicks off with Jack Yates High School, named in honor of Reverend John (Jack) Henry Yates. In 1865, the formerly enslaved Baptist minister moved to Houston and helped establish Emancipation Park, the center of the district, alongside other safe spaces for Black people within the Third Ward.
It’s a timeline viewers can follow and listen to Houstonians retelling historic events in local Black culture. The events include Houston’s first lunch-counter sit-in led by Black students from Texas Southern University in 1960, the creation of the historic club venue the Eldorado Ballroom in 1939, and the founding of the community art institution, Project Row Houses. Also included are several personal interviews with notable figures in the community such as senior pastor of Riverside Methodist Church, Keith L. Somerville, visual artist Brian Ellison and members of People’s Party II, the Houston chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Several locations compose the virtual guide, touching many corners of the district and exposing viewers to its multi-layered impact on Houston. And while it focuses primarily on Black history, the fight for racial equality is only the beginning of understanding the Third Ward. “I credit Third Ward for being the heartbeat of culture for the city of Houston,” Ellison says during the documentary.
The Historic Third Ward Virtual Tour provides a poignant overview of the neighborhood’s cultural wealth. “Some of the work [gentrification] done here erases a painful past,” Rivon states in an interview with Ellison. It’s this erasure that the playwright fights against through the documentary, proving that preservation, many times, is more impactful than expansion.
Take some time to peruse through Third Ward’s timeline and become a history buff of Houston’s iconic cultural hub.
To embark on The Historic Third Ward Virtual Tour, visit here.