For Dorris Ellis Robinson, president of the Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition, approaching the ripped-up historic bricks Saturday felt like approaching a burial.
"It was like there was a death," she said. "I said, 'Okay, Lord, I've got to get myself together so I will be able to discuss this.'"
It was the second time in a little over a month that a construction crew had damaged or outright destroyed the Freedmen's Town bricks, hand-laid more than 100 years ago by freed slaves and their descendants. This time it was a plumbing crew on Andrews Street near Valentine, according to the Department of Public Works, and last time it was a drainage crew at the other end of Andrews. Each time, the contractor did not have permission to dig into the bricks. And each time, Dorris Ellis Robinson found herself running to city officials, ready to discuss what went wrong — and why city contractors can't seem to respect the rich history embedded in the streets of one of the oldest African-American communities in the country.
"Until the people decide that it is of value, it's going to continue to be a struggle," she said.
"Mayor [Sylvester] Turner has spoken to the issue strongly, but I still think the people have to come to recognize that this piece of land is of importance and it should not be destroyed."
Ellis and the Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition have been petitioning City Council to recognize the importance and value of the Freedmen's Town history since 2014 — the year Ellis literally lay down in a pile of bricks — a hole, rather — to stop another construction crew from destroying yet more history. The coalition took the contractors and the city to court, after City Council under former Mayor Annise Parker's administration voted to continue a sewage project despite the outcry from the preservationists. The group won a temporary injunction blocking further construction, yet the injunction expired in August after a judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Since then, however, Ellis says, Mayor Turner has shown an unmatched commitment to ensuring the survival of Freedmen's Town historic sites and the bricks compared to past administrations.
In December, shortly after a drainage crew disturbed roughly 200 bricks on Andrews Street at Genesee, Turner held a press conference at the site of the rubble and laid out a plan to restore the bricks, even hiring archaeologists and other supervisors to oversee the restoration project. The removed bricks — salvaged by residents who ran out of their homes to stop the construction workers from digging any further — had been cataloged and cleaned in the meantime.
Turner also pledged to gather a group of stakeholders who will work with the city to create a cultural district in Freedmen's Town similar to those in places such as Savannah, Georgia, and Wilmington, Delaware, where historic cobblestone streets are a cornerstone of the neighborhood.
"Though there have been many changes in this area, there is no reason in the midst of the new why we cannot preserve the old, the history, and, even in our own way, bring it back to life," Turner said then. "Many of the bricks were damaged, but the soul of the people who live here, that spirit has not been damaged."
Pastor Pervis Hall, who leads Fellowship Church in Freedmen's Town, said that the mayor has so far stuck to his promise — but negligence on the part of city contractors is a separate issue. Hall was one of the first people to make it to the site Saturday after receiving word about the construction. The crew allowed him to view the permit issued by the city — yet Hall said he quickly noticed that the city had specified to the contractor to work only on the sidewalk, not on the bricks, which the City of Houston confirmed in a statement to the Press.
The city plans to send out an investigator to assess what went wrong this time and why instructions were not followed. The contractor will also be issued a ticket, the city wrote in its statement. "Moving forward," city spokespeople wrote, "Mayor Turner has ordered that anyone doing work in this area be contacted by the City and informed of what they can and cannot do."
Ellis said that the persistence of Freedmen's Town's original dwellers to work with the city is what has inspired her not to quit fighting for the bricks. While the city refused to help the former slaves and their children pave the foundation of their community, the townspeople finally convinced City Council to at least give them permission to do it on their own, so the story goes.
"That's one of the reasons I don't give up," she said. "If they did it, why can't we keep on using their model to work with this group of City Council members, to work to preserve and protect them?”
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