On a scorcher of a day in late April, Mayor Sylvester Turner stepped out from a black SUV and greeted a row of TV news cameras and a cluster of Fourth Ward residents. On the ground between the cameras and the mayor’s podium lay several rows of dusty red bricks piled up, and a strip of tarp covered with dirt. The group was assembled at the corner of Andrews and Genesee streets, across from the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, where children were squealing in the yard.
The small neighborhood intersection in the Fourth Ward was the site of a recent dustup that pitted Houston history, and in particular, the history of African Americans and their ancestors who called Houston home, against the wants and needs of an ever-changing city that has typically prized progress over preservation at every turn.
Last November, Mayor Turner was on a diplomatic trip to Mexico City when a group of city contractors doing needed work on the area’s drainage system tore up a “car-sized” swath of bricks thought to be laid in the 1800s by former slaves as they settled the area, which sits near modern-day Midtown and Montrose. The bricks are all that’s left of historic Freedmen’s Town, and are a beloved piece of history in the community that was once a thriving African American hub in segregated Houston. Many other sites of historic significance in the Fourth Ward have been torn down, and the neighborhood is now pockmarked with skinny townhomes, many inhabited by new residents who are looking for easy downtown access.
At the time, the mayor expressed his deep displeasure at the mishap, which the contractors said was an accident. The community itself was outraged. "There is a complete disrespect of the historical significance and — quite frankly, from a policy standpoint — the land is just too valuable for officials to take seriously the preservation of the street and its role in contributions blacks have made in Houston, often overlooked," Ben Hall, a lawyer for the Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition, told the Houston Chronicle at the time.
But now, Mayor Turner was making good on his promise to replace the bricks, and the head of the Public Works Department and a city archeologist were on hand to help. Dorris Ellis Robinson, the president of Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition, stepped up to the microphone first, and directed a local reverend in a ritual called Libations. While the reverend poured liquid from a glass at four points — north, south, east, west — area residents and others who were gathered there called out names of their ancestors in salute. Afterward, the crowd joined hands and prayed — first, an older gentleman and longtime resident led a prayer, and then Mayor Turner himself prayed, touching on the history of the neighborhood and its residents.
Afterward, residents and supporters were able to place individual bricks down in the places they’d be reinstalled later that day. For all the anger the situation had sparked, the ceremony seemed to bring the community together. “We all need to be vigilant that we don’t undue this history,” the mayor told the crowd. “We can have new, and we can also preserve the old.”