When you drive down Andrews Street in the historical Fourth Ward Freedmen’s Town you see an interesting looking street. On the right hand side you see red brick and then on the left hand side you see cement, pot holes and the remnants of what use to be a trolley train track.
The street seems unimpressive to the uneducated eye except for the killer view of Downtown as a back drop for the closely fit narrow houses and emerging condos. Yet, those dusty red, hundred year old bricks that line Wilson and Andrews Street for 7/10 a mile has become the next big fight for the people of Freedmen’s Town.
On June 11, 2014 City Council unanimously passed Item 51, an ordinance that awarded a $5,600,000.00 contract to CONRAD CONSTRUCTION CO., LTD. for the Freedman’s Town Brick Streets Restoration Project.
“The project will replace water and sanitary sewer lines, restoration of the brick streets and local street drainage on Andrews Street from Heiner Street to Wilson Street and on Wilson from Andrews to West Dallas Street in the Freedman’s Town Area. Contract duration for this project is 365 calendar days,” according to Request for Council Action document.
The intention of the City is welcomed. Who doesn’t want improved traffic circulation, mobility drainage and roadway upgrades? But then the realization sets in that by completing such a construction project in the manner the City has decided to go with it is a disruption of history and a legacy. This has prompted determined preservationist in Freedmen’s Town to fight harder to not let this project happen as is.
“This is our history,” said Lue Williams of the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition. “The City didn’t even try to hear our side. We have been fighting to save our historical structures in Fourth Ward for years and they just don’t care.”
Williams along with long time activist and preservationist for Freedmen’s Town, Catherine Roberts gathered as many supporters together to try and protest the decision rendered by Council in June. The project is slated to begin in August, so these ladies knew their time is limited. They enlisted the help of Dorris Ellis, President, Friends of Emancipation Park and asked her for her knowledge on how to preserve a historical area.
Immediately the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum and supporters began working to try and stop the removal of the bricks. Freedmen’s Town is under the National Historical Preservation and has a marker outside the Yates Museum. The area is a known historical setting which further troubles the FTPC.
The brick that pave Wilson and Andrews Street once lined several streets in the 80 blocks that use to be Fourth Ward Freedmen’s Town. Free men of African ancestry settled there following Emancipation, floating in on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Those families faced racism even when it came to paving the streets.
According to Catherine Roberts of the RBHY Museum, after asking the City of Houston for six years for paved streets and being denied the residents paid for their own bricks and had them made in their own community and laid it themselves.
Those bricks have lasted a hundred years. Over time many bricks have crumbled under the pressure of modern vehicles and climate, while others have been covered by cement for the purpose of patching or what the City plans to do again which is update utilities under the streets.
Justification for the project is, “Replace a street that has been deteriorated beyond economical repair,” according to the Request Report by the City of Houston.
The Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition (FTPC) launched a SAVE OUR STREETS (S.O.S.) Campaign all over social media while holding town hall meetings, visiting City Hall during the public session to speak to Mayor Parker and Councilmembers about the historical bricks that make up Andrews and Wilson Street, classroom information sessions at Texas Southern University held by engineering consultant Craig Champ out of California to teach about the other options presented such as the underground micro tunneling that could be ran under the sidewalks.
In 2007, under Bill White’s Administration, the brick streets were spared from removal. With the work of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Gladys House and the RBHY Museum they were able to link up with an Engineering Consultant, Eric Skonberg who too believes micro tunneling under the sidewalks can be a surefire preservation method.
Communication between the City and the FTPC is scarce and un-resolving. Mayor Parker is adamant about the restoration of the streets.
“I have driven down Andrews Street and the potholes and humps and bumps. I want to be able to drive down those bricks in a smoothly,” said Mayor Parker. “We are going to put the bricks back.”
The argument over restoration and preservation is a view point type of rhetoric. Mayor Parker called herself a preservationist.
As of now the construction project is still underway, and the Council has until August to find a way to hear the cries of their constituents. Many invitations have been extended to Councilmembers and Mayor Parker to attend town hall gatherings and the engineering teach in, their presence and representation lacked, according to the FTPC.
The FTPC backed by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee will continue to push for the alternative of restoration which is preservation through the use of micro tunneling underneath the sidewalks.