Emancipation Park opened in the Third Ward in 1872, on a plot of land purchased for $800 by a group of former slaves. The opening took place nine years after president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and seven years after slaves were formally freed in Texas.
The park became the first truly public park in Houston, and a vital community hub in the historically African-American neighborhood. But during the ’60s, it fell into disrepair, the result of the new I-59, which bifurcated the area, and a population that scattered following desegregation.
Fast-forward to 10 years ago. The community formed Friends of Emancipation Park—now Emancipation Park Conservancy Inc. To preserve the park’s legacy, they partnered with the Kinder Foundation, Houston Endowment and H-E-B, among other backers, as well as neighborhood and citywide leaders, and got to work.
Today, after a tremendous four-year, $33.6 million renovation led by renowned architect Phil Freelon, who designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Emancipation Park is back, and better than ever, with the conservancy overseeing community, recreational and educational programs, as well as upkeep.
The revitalized 10-acre facility boasts a state-of-the-art, LEED-certified recreation center with classrooms, a health center and a basketball court, plus a new pool and canopied plaza for community events, all designed by Freelon and the Perkins + Will architecture firm.
Though the park informally opened at the beginning of the year, on June 17 and 18, it will host Juneteenth Fest, its grand reopening celebration, complete with live music, family-friendly activities and a parade. And on Juneteenth itself—June 19, which commemorates Texas’s anniversary of the abolition of slavery—Mayor Sylvester Turner and other community leaders will speak at the park.
Ramon Manning—TSU grad, energy executive, longtime Third Ward resident, and board chairman of the conservancy since 2014—says that renovating the park took a village, and adds that he looks forward to its lasting impact on the community. “The park was founded by freed slaves and speaks to the foresight and mindset of today,” he says. “It’s thrilling to make the Third Ward a cultural destination.”
Juneteenth Festival at Emancipation Park, June 17–18. 3018 Dowling St. 713-284-1911.