Hitting the Bricks
Flanked by shaggy lawns and empty malt liquor cans, Catherine Roberts stands in the center of the last surviving brick street in Freedmen's Town, closes her eyes and raises her arms to the sky in prayer. In much the same way, she says, early residents of Houston's first African-American neighborhood may have positioned themselves on the street's inlaid brick patterns and used them as tools for spiritual practices inherited from Africa.
A board member of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the historic yet decaying Fourth Ward district, Roberts has for years offered to restore Andrews Street's neglected brick designs and investigate their potentially unique links with African culture. Yet she says the city isn't interested and instead plans to rip out at least some of the bricks as early as October, eventually relocating them under a commemorative plaque at a local school.
"It would be just a token of what was once there," she says. "It's really terrible, an insult."
The brick designs are still visible on three intersections where Andrews hasn't been overlaid by paved cross streets. Each varies slightly, but all three consist of lines of bricks running diagonally across the street and coming together in a cross pattern near the center.
Local archaeologists and authorities on African and early African-American designs say other cross symbols on African-American objects -- ranging from quilts to pottery -- indicate the role of the designs on the street is worth investigating. "It suggests the idea to me that before we tear the streets up, we understand the patterns that are there while we can," says Carol McDavid, an archaeologist who works in Freedmen's Town and teaches at the University of Houston.
McDavid and other archaeologists want to conduct more oral histories on the community's use of the street and compare the brick patterns with those across the country.
City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, whose district includes Freedmen's Town, says she had heard of the plan to move some of the bricks to an exhibit at the relocated School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which HISD plans to build on two vacant lots along both sides of Andrews where it dead-ends at Taft Street. She says the school's plans for those blocks would influence the city's decision whether to restore or pave the rest of Andrews, which runs for nearly a mile.
"That's about all I know," she says. "We are probably going to regroup with HISD again. We just had an initial agreement that we would work together on the brick issue."
A public information officer for HISD did not return a phone call.
Yet Catherine Roberts says even a plan to "restore" Andrews Street could be a disaster under one scenario that apparently has been favored by the city. That would involve removing all the bricks, paving the underlying road and then laying them back down along with new bricks to fill in the gaps.
"Then it totally destroys it as an archaeological site," she says. "It is no longer an important historical element, because it has been removed...It is better not to touch it than to ruin it."
A casual visitor to Andrews Street might easily conclude it already is damaged beyond repair. Over many years, developers have torn into the bricks in search of connections to the antiquated underground utility lines, Roberts says, and then crudely paved over the holes with asphalt or cement.
Walking down the middle of the street, Roberts points to a hole where several bricks have become completely dislodged and sit loose in a pile of sand. "The developers don't care," she says. "They don't put them back, and they are disappearing."
The problem rapidly accelerated after the street became ground zero for a near-downtown housing boom. Postmodern corrugated-metal lofts and low-income housing units continue to pop up in a virtually interminable flurry of construction. Roberts estimates 10 percent of the street has been lost in the past year. "It is causing kind of a de facto demolition," she says.
Wes Johnson, spokesperson for the city's public works and engineering department, says developers who alter the street are required to restore it to its original condition. "They can't dig into the street without a city permit," he says, "...and if it has some historical value, then they will not be able to do that unless of course it's under supervision of the Historical Society, and they put everything back as it was."
Larry Davis, owner of Urban Lofts Townhomes, a major builder on Andrews, says he's unsure if his workers have dug into the street, but insisted any work would have been done with a city permit. He blamed the city for the poor condition of the bricks.
Representatives from Larus Builders, Inc., which also allegedly cut into Andrews, did not return a call.
Given the digging on Andrews and the modern onslaught of SUVs, the street has survived remarkably well. It is believed to be the only public brick street in Houston built without any help from the city.
Years after former slaves founded Freedmen's Town in the late 19th century, city officials still refused to provide services to the district, Roberts says. Andrews remained a muddy breeding ground for yellow fever until residents eventually donated dollar bills to a local African-American minister, now remembered only as Jeremiah, and built the street themselves.
Local African-American masons fired the bricks on-site, most likely with mud from Buffalo Bayou, Roberts says. Blacksmiths who lived in the district also forged rails for a mule-drawn trolley line that once ran down Andrews, across the current path of I-45 and into downtown as far as Antioch Missionary Baptist Church at 500 Clay.
The construction of the street and the trolley illustrates what Roberts considers an overlooked part of early African-American heritage. "Sure, you can see slave quarters," she says, "but that is not their only history. What we are finding is this positive history with their ability to create a new life for themselves."
And one of the most intriguing parts of life in Freedmen's Town centers on the brick designs.
Anthropologists say cross patterns were often laid onto streets in chalk by followers of the BaKongo religion of West Central Africa as a means to invoke spirits to protect local villages. Archaeologist McDavid says more study would be needed to link the patterns on Andrews to such traditions. She points out that up to one-third of Africans enslaved in the southern United States came from this region, and more than 100 who lived near Houston in the 1870s had been born in Africa.
Even if the workers who built Andrews laid the designs for purely aesthetic reasons, it's important to investigate whether the surrounding community adopted them for such religious purposes, notes Christopher Fennell, an assistant professor of anthropology and an expert on African-American culture at the University of Illinois. "Then it becomes a found pattern," he says, "and it becomes just as significant."
There are some indications that locals used the intersections for spiritual purposes. Roberts says older people in the community remember their grandparents going out to the center of the intersections to pray.
"That would be consistent with the beliefs derived from the BaKongo religion," Fennell says. "The significant part for them was the intersection. That is different from Christians. The cross line itself was an invocation point."
"You want to invoke the ancestors to come from the spirit world and come to the world of the living," he says, "and the cross point was what enabled that."
Despite the evidence of Andrews Street's value, Roberts says the City of Houston has worked at crosscurrents with her restoration efforts for years.
In 1997 Roberts proposed to raise private funds for a two-year project in which students working with archaeologists would restore the street. Once completed, it would be converted into a pedestrian walkway and cultural exhibit.
City officials balked at her plans, arguing she couldn't raise the money.
Yet Roberts, who is married to an executive of an international oil company, has already raised millions to acquire properties in the Fourth Ward and says she could easily raise more.
Councilmember Gordon Quan says Roberts's plan didn't get anywhere in part because then-mayor Lee Brown thought she wanted to restore the street to make a profit.
"He said, 'She's got an angle,' " Quan said. "I said, 'What?' I thought, 'What do we lose? What's the gamble here?' "
Quan still is perplexed as to why the city hasn't adopted Roberts's plan. "I think she is telling the truth," he said, "but nobody wants to listen."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.