Many Freedman’s Town residents are in an uproar and are looking for answers after a City of Houston contractor, showed up in Houston’s historic Fourth Ward this past Monday, November 21, and began to dig up and damage the sacred Freedmen’s Town Historical District bricks.
Back in July 2014, the Forward Times wrote an article entitled, “The Attack on Our Sacred Streets | Houston City Council Votes Unanimously to Uproot Streets Built by Former Slaves” and another article in January 2015 entitled, “Modern Day Reparations? | Does the City of Houston Owe Descendants of Freedman’s Town for the Land and Brick Streets?” where many concerned community activists and long term residents expressed their various issues surrounding the response by city of Houston leaders about the preservation of the rich history of Freemen’s Town in Houston’s historic Fourth Ward, which has been a major hot topic for years.
For over twenty years, several local Freedmen’s Town organizations have worked tirelessly to preserve Freedmen’s Town, and while the bricks had avoided being fully tampered with in the past, this violation has stunned and angered many in the community. To the surprise of many residents and community activists, and without notice, a contractor came on the scene with a backhoe and completely destroyed nearly 40 feet worth of the historic bricks and according to the city they allegedly knew nothing about it.
Rodney Jones, a neighborhood resident of Freedman’s Town, witnessed the assault taking place on the historic bricks in the 1600 block of Andrews Street, east of the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center campus, and immediately contacted a community representative with the CDC of Freedmen’s Town (CDCFT), who then rushed out to site and stopped the bulldozer’s deliberate assault and surprise attack on the community.
Longtime community activist and CDCFT representative Gladys House-El, contacted other residents and concerned citizens, who eventually arrived, along with media, to find out what was occurring. Those individuals stood with House-El, in order to prevent further damage to the historic bricks.
According to a statement released by the City of Houston’s Office of Public Works & Engineering, the contractor, BRH-Garver Construction, L.P., was working on an ongoing drainage improvement project along Genesee in the Fourth Ward, and they excavated a portion of the intersection at Andrews Street beyond the authorized limits of the project.
They continued by saying that the contractor “was preparing the area for a new foundation for the reinstallation of historic bricks. The contractor encountered a previously unknown concrete slab. When he attempted to remove the slab with a backhoe, he apparently did not realize that the slab extended beyond the authorized limit of the project. When the slab was moved, an area of bricks approximately six feet long by ten feet wide was inadvertently disturbed on Andrews St. An observant neighbor brought this to the attention of the backhoe operator, this unauthorized work was stopped and the contractor’s superintendent notified the city staff. The contractor began hand stacking the bricks to preserve them in the same manner used approximately nine months ago when the historic bricks were initially removed, cleaned, categorized and stored in crates in a secure facility. Bricks removed this morning will be processed and handled in the same way. We recognize the important place these bricks hold in the history of our city, and we will continue to work with the community to preserve the historical setting of the area. When the intersection is complete, these historic bricks will be reinstalled with improved infrastructure. The intersection and the disturbed area will be restored with bricks within the next three months. The relocated bricks will be placed on a solid foundation to halt the current rate of aging of this section of the street. This area is not within the boundaries of the Andrews St. project which was the subject of a temporary restraining order.”
At the time of the incident, Mayor Sylvester Turner was out of the country in Mexico at a Houston Texans game, and according to House-El, Mayor Pro Tem and Council Member for Freedman’s Town (District C), Ellen Cohen, never returned House-El’s call to get information as to how this horrible act could have occurred.
Upset about the actions taken by the contractor, House-El tells the Forward Times that she finds it extremely hard to believe that city officials, including the mayor, had no idea this was going to happen. She also believes that it is important to send a strong message to the city.
“Personally, I want to sue for damages, because it is timeout for allowing the city of Houston to disrespect our history year after year,” said Freedman’s Town advocate Gladys House-El. “When I was made aware of what was happening, I could not leave the site and needed help from other residents of Freedman’s Town, who showed up and helped stop this assault.”
According to House-El, the CDCFT has documented proof that the mayor, Public Works Director, Mayor Pro Tem, and others, were well aware of the need to monitor this situation concerning the Freedman’s Town Historical District bricks carefully.
Mayor Turner, who was in Mexico at the time of the incident, issued a statement via Twitter, saying, “The work on Andrew St in Freedman’s Town was not authorized and should not have occurred. I will address it when I return. The contractor should preserve any and all bricks removed from Andrew St. No one should have touched Andrew St w/o my specific authorization.”
Questions have arisen as to how this contractor was allowed to damage the bricks and who authorized the work to begin without regard to the historic bricks.
In a letter sent to Mayor Turner from Mike Garver, General Partner of BRH-Garver Construction, he says:
“As I am sure you are aware our company made a serious mistake yesterday in removing brick paver’s installed by original residents of Freedman’s Town without the proper historical control. We had at the beginning of the project properly removed the bricks that were needed to be removed to install the 30 foot deep storm sewer. After the pipe was installed our paving crew failed to notify the archeologist to remove the additional paving bricks to accommodate the new paving. My understanding is that the paving bricks that were improperly removed have been recovered and will ultimately be reinstalled with proper architectural control. This was a serious oversight on our part. I ask that you and the citizens of Houston accept our apology for this serious mistake.”
A citywide press conference and libation was held in historic Freedman’s Town on Friday, November 25, in the 1600 block of historic Andrews and Genessee streets, where the act occurred. Persons representing communities from around Houston attended. Many individuals believe the response of the city and the contractor doesn’t pass the smell test, like longtime community activist and historian Deloyd Parker of the S.H.A.P.E. Community Center.
“Somebody knows something more than we are getting,” said Parker. “I find it extremely ironic that this type of action would take place, the moment that the mayor of this city heads out of town. The kids at Gregory Lincoln School are right across the street from these bricks and while they are supposed to be learning about our great history, a contractor is directly across the street from them destroying a major part of their history. It’s totally not right and we need some immediate answers, and more importantly, somebody needs to be held accountable.”
This is extremely peculiar and raises major questions, particularly after these very streets were under attack by city leadership back in 2014, when in a sweeping unanimous decision, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the entire Houston City Council voted to remove these historic bricks from Andrews and Wilson streets in Freedmen’s Town. This has seemingly been on the radar of city leadership for some time and once again raises many red flags as to how something like this could happen without the mayor, city council members and city staff knowing about it. A contractor does not carry out work unless they have orders to do so, so the questions become, who gave the order and who all knew about it.
Fourth Ward is the site of Freedmen’s Town, which was a post-U.S. Civil War area, composed primarily of recently freed slaves. Settled on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, in 1865, freedmen descended upon Houston from plantations throughout Texas to make a community for themselves as freedmen and women. They chose the banks of the Buffalo Bayou because the land was inexpensive and because Whites did not want to settle on that land. The land was so unattractive to Whites because it was swampy and prone to flooding. Being tired of walking and slopping around in Houston swamp’s mud and after appealing to the city for support for street improvements in which they did not get, leaders of Freedmen’s Town worked and galvanized the residents to pay for their bricks and to make their own improvements with bricks made at the Pullman Brick Company, a Black-owned business. Rev. Jack Yates, Rev. Jeremiah Smith, and Ned P. Pullum were three of the major Fourth Ward area ministers and were instrumental in helping build Freedmen’s Town. It has been said that in the early 20th century, members of the congregation of the Rev. Smith paved Andrew Street with the first bricks after the City of Houston refused to pave it.
The Forward Times will continue to monitor the situation and keep its readers up-to-date on the latest surrounding the Freedmen’s Town brick streets.