On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday—a date that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Texans at the port of Galveston on June 19, 1865—making the statewide jubilee a national one. But what happened to formerly enslaved Black Texans after emancipation? That answer can be found in Houston, Texas, in the city’s Fourth Ward, where the majority of formerly enslaved Texans made their way—to Freedmen’s Town.
“You were suddenly free,” says Zion Escobar, executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, a nonprofit organization established in 2018 to protect the Fourth Ward. “But where could you go? What could you do? There is no safe space for you. Freedmen’s Town is the answer to what happened the day after Juneteenth. It’s the Mother Ward. It’s where all of Houston’s early Black leaders emanated from.”
In the early days of Houston, the city did not have neighborhoods—rather, Houston was divided into six wards by the city-planning brother duo John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen in the 1840s. At the time, the land in the Fourth Ward was seen as hopelessly undesirable—it was swampy and prone to flooding thanks to its close proximity to a bayou. Now known as Freedmen’s Town, the Fourth Ward primarily became home to formerly enslaved Black people who found they were unwelcome in other areas of the city.
Because many freedmen were also not allowed to purchase from the same services and stores as white Texans, they founded their own businesses. Soon, Freedmen’s Town became a thriving neighborhood full of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen; it was the source of the city’s early Black leadership, ultimately producing over 400 Black-owned businesses. Reverend Ned Pullum, one of the community leaders of Freedmen’s Town, made his fortune from Pullum Standard Brick Work—visitors can still see similarly handmade red bricks lining the streets of the Fourth Ward. After Freedmen’s Town became too crowded, many Black Americans chose to move to the nearby Fifth and Third Wards (where Beyoncé, DJ Screw, and George Floyd all hail from).
“Freedmen’s Town is what it looked like when people started living out their freedom,” Escobar says.
Today, the Fourth Ward is a quiet neighborhood that’s peppered with modern homes and apartment buildings between historic homes. Many of the historic houses in the area are in need of repair or are under renovation (projects which the Conservancy, the R.B.H. Yates Museum, and other community organizations aim to amplify) but can still be visited by travelers and locals alike interested in learning about Houston’s Black history. A grand total of seven sites within Freedmen’s Town Heritage District, a first-of-its-kind recognition for Houston, have been designated as part of UNESCO’s “Routes of Enslaved Peoples: Resistance, Liberty and Heritage” Project. Some points of interest within the neighborhood include the stately former home of Reverend Jack Yates, a freedmen who served as the minister for Antioch Baptist Church and founded Bethel Baptist Church, Revered Ned Pullum’s home, and the African American Library at the Gregory School, the first public school for free Black children established in the Houston area. The library is also home to an exhibit about the history of Freedmen’s Town, which visitors are welcome to peruse.
Although the Fourth Ward’s land was once unwanted by city developers, that’s not the case nowadays. Because it sits adjacent to downtown Houston, the neighborhood is irresistibly appealing to developers who aren’t as concerned about preserving historic buildings as they are with constructing mixed-use high-rise developments. Many old buildings have already been demolished to make way for new businesses: The place where the Rainbow Theater, a historic Black theater, once stood on what was the main strip of Freedmen’s Town recently became a Best Western. Escobar sees national and global recognition, such as through UNESCO, as a way to not only protect the Fourth Ward but to also preserve the history of Black Texans for future generations.
“Freedmen’s Town is going to be a teacher to Houston and a teacher to America,” Escobar says. “These jewels are rare and so much knowledge and cultural economic capital can be realized by not just the city of Houston, but Texas and the nation as a whole, by honoring, respecting, and celebrating Black history in full. We are a poster child for why Black history is important and for why its erasure is criminal.”
For Escobar, her work at the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy is personal. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in civil engineering, Escobar spent about 15 years specializing in water resource management and even started her own firm. She was invited to help consult on Houston’s I-45 expansion project, a controversial endeavor that saw the state sinking billions of dollars into one of the city’s major corridors and displacing residents living within the new proposed route. During her work on the project, Escobar realized she wanted to focus on work that could directly benefit her community—she’s been at the Conservancy since the end of 2019.
Ultimately through her work, Escobar hopes to preserve the legacy of Houston’s Black forefathers because Freedmen’s Town is an integral part of the story of the city—sometimes literally. The place where Houston City Hall now stands was once a part of Freedmen’s Town, home to several families, and was seized during the 1930s. In a rapidly growing and changing Houston, Escobar wants to make sure that this living testament to the life of freedmen isn’t erased.
“I want people to come here and see the humanity of this story of freedom and to be inspired, and to go support it in whatever way they have the capacity to,” Escobar says.
Mae Hamilton Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.