Emancipation Park: An Upgraded “Jewel” in Houston’s Third Ward

It’s not Midtown or the Museum District…it’s still Third Ward; and residents of Houston’s Third Ward have something to be excited about, as they have a new crown “jewel” that they, along with the former slaves who paid the price to acquire the land where it now sits, can be proud of.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

When African Americans heard this unexpected news that they had legally been set free, coming from the lips of General Granger on June 19, 1865 – or as we now refer to it as Juneteenth – their reactions ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation.

Rev. Jack Yates with group in Emancipation Park from HPL-Houston Metropolitan Research Center

Many of these “newly-freed” and former African American slaves began to wonder what the relationship between them and their former slave masters would now look like.

One of those freedmen, John Henry “Jack” Yates, who was born a slave and learned to read, write and acquire the skills of carpentry, moved his family to Houston and ended up leading a major effort to raise money towards the purchase of a piece of land where African Americans could celebrate Juneteenth, and their newfound freedom from slavery for years to come.

In 1872, Yates and other Freedman’s town residents – Elias Dibble, Richard Allen and Richard Brock – purchased the 10 acres of land at the corner of Dowling Avenue (now Emancipation Avenue) and Elgin, and named it Emancipation Park, in honor of their newly received freedom, and as a place to organize and celebrate Juneteenth with their families for generations to come.

Fast forward 145 years later, Emancipation Park is recognized as the oldest park site in the City of Houston, and we see that the land that these former slaves purchased still remains, and although the land has been cultivated and a new facility has been erected, the spirit of those individuals who originally purchased that 10-acre parcel of land in 1872 for $800 will be celebrated this upcoming Saturday, June 17th and Monday, June 19th on those hallowed grounds.

“This rededication ceremony has been a long time coming and we can’t be more thrilled to finally be making this historic park and green space destination available for all to enjoy,” said Emancipation Park Conservancy Chairman of the Board Ramon Manning. “As the stewards of this community treasure, we, the Conservancy appreciates the commitment of our funding partners and the patience the community has demonstrated with this worthwhile initiative. Our unwavering desire is for Emancipation Park to serve as a vibrant community showpiece equipped with competent staffing and robust programming activities for the many constituencies we serve.”

A symbol of effective public/private partnerships, the new construction and renovations, as well as programming at Emancipation Park were financially supported by a committed group of well-known and highly respected public and private partners including the City of Houston, OST/Almeda Redevelopment CorridorsTax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 7 (TIRZ#7), Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Houston Endowment, Brown Foundation, Kinder Foundation, Timken Foundation, Coca-Cola Foundation and HEB.

“As we dedicate this historic site, we celebrate the idea of freedom that inspired the founders to preserve the original 10 acres of land that we now call Emancipation Park,” said City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Their foresight shows us all that mighty ideas can shape the future. We could only hope to follow in their path and do good works that will live beyond our lifetimes.”

Houston Parks and Recreation Department Interim Director Lisa Johnson stated, “We welcome everyone to the celebration and hope that the words (CREATIVITY, OPPORTUNITY, LIBERATION and RELEASE) inscribed on the gateway bring meaning to all that use the park. We thank all the partners who have made this project possible and look forward to the many events that will shape the future of this historic park.”

Emancipation Park – now an 11.7 acre “jewel” located in Third Ward – between Houston’s thriving central business district and the world renowned Texas Medical Center – is pressing forward after $33.6 million in new construction and renovations led by acclaimed African American architect Phil Freelon, who was responsible for leading the design teams for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

Emancipation Park’s master plan now includes a state-of-the-art community and aquatics center; a new recreation center; off-site parking; multi-purpose space to accommodate gatherings of up to 3,000; enhancements to the outdoor experiences including picnic areas, a baseball field, tennis court, basketball court, play area and event, exhibition and performance space. The new Emancipation Park is certain to take its place among the nation’s most respected parks and green space destinations. Emancipation Park will serve as ground-zero for a variety of programs and activities serving all ages in the areas of education, health & wellness, history & culture, economic empowerment, environmental stewardship and families & communities. Emancipation Park will also host seminars, town hall meetings, conferences, concerts, plays, exhibitions and festivals for all to come and enjoy.

On Saturday, June 17th, there will be an Emancipation Park Rededication Celebration from 10 am to 5 pm, with a Rededication Ceremony taking place at 11 am. On Monday, June 19th, there will be a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony For Emancipation Avenue at 8:30 am, and a Juneteenth Emancipation Celebration from 10 am to 5 pm, all taking place at Emancipation Park, located at 3018 Emancipation Avenue – at the corner of Elgin and Emancipation Avenue (formerly Dowling Avenue).

For more information about the Emancipation Park, the Rededication Ceremony and the Juneteenth Celebration, please contact Estella Espinosa with Houston Parks and Recreation Department at 832-395-7022 or Estella.Espinosa@houstontx.gov.