THE FOURTH WARD
Places in Houston’s Freedmen’s Town Historic District like the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, Bethel Park, and the African American Library at the Gregory School provide visitors a unique opportunity to learn how this neighborhood is working to keep its history and culture intact in the face of intense urban redevelopment.
The Emancipation Proclamation, the war measure put in place by President Lincoln in 1863 instructing all remaining rebellious states to recognize their slaves as free individuals, enabled newly-freed African Americans to begin creating their own communities across the country, many of them known as “Freedmen Town”. Lincoln also authorized the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau, including the Freedmen’s Bank, to assist African Americans in financing education and opening businesses during this dramatic transition. However, President Andrew Johnson vetoed funding for the Bureau once he took office, essentially eliminating the agency and, thus the assistance, during Reconstruction.
Despite the setback, many Freedmen’s towns flourished including Houston’s Fourth Ward. Large numbers of African Americans left the east Texas plantations and arrived in Houston in 1866, settling along Buffalo Bayou’s southern banks where land was swampy and flood-prone but free of Anglo oppression. The community thrived, designated the “Fourth Ward” during a period in which Houston divided the city into political districts. Fourth Ward citizens paved the streets with bricks they made by hand and built a neighborhood, both physical and culturally, by utilizing their skills as carpenters, blacksmiths, preachers and teachers. Growth and development greeted much of the early decades of the 20th century in the Fourth Ward, only to deteriorate and decline as an increase in poverty and the surrounding Anglo communities worked against the neighborhood, isolating Houston’s Freedman Town and undermining its unique American culture. However, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 stopped the use of federal funds to finance destruction. Private funding of demolition, however, continued. Despite community efforts, the neighborhood witnessed a dramatic transformation at the turn of the 20th century as gentrification, familiar to similar neighborhoods across the country, sought to change downtown urban centers. Today, the Fourth Ward is within a mile of Houston’s city center, bound on all sides by a progression of high-rise condos and office towers. Less than 30 historic structures out of hundreds remain but the spirit of Freedmen’s Town, the freedom that the Emancipation Proclamation wrought, survives.
Watch the following video to learn more about Freedmen's Communities in Texas. This video was produced for inclusion in the African Americans in Texas mobile tour found in our Texas Time Travel Tours mobile app. For more information about the mobile tour and African American cultural heritage in Texas, visit the African American Heritage theme page at the following link: http://texastimetravel.com/travel-themes/main-african-american-heritage