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Lenwood Johnson: Trying to Save a Last Shred of Freedmen's Town History

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And so, after all these years of condofication, it has come to this: one last row of shotgun houses in the Fourth Ward. The transformation from funky and proud Freedmen's Town to go-go, oontz-oontz Midtown is almost complete.

Gone or boarded up are several historic churches, the Fa Real bar, King Cole's Liquor and This Is It! soul food, replaced by creperies, tapas bars and coffeehouses.

And In the sweltering summer sun, out in front of the boarded-up houses on the corner of Victor and Gillette, as he has ever been there before, Lenwood Johnson is there again today, trying his level best to save these ten remnants of Houston's first black neighborhood.

Johnson says he chose this week to speak his piece because the Fourth of July should mean something for the people of Freedmen's Town too.

"We want freedom and independence just like everybody else," he says.

More specifically, he wants these last shotguns to be preserved. He believes that about a millions dollars in TIRZ money that could have been allocated to preserve and restore these houses has been misallocated.

He points out that the city evicted all the tenants in 2005 and has since denied the houses' owners an occupancy permit, thus forcing them to pay taxes on a non-income producing property. Johnson says they will be forced to sell soon and that Trammell Crow would be the likely buyer.

He is also outraged that Mayor Parker has found a way to save the East End's Cage elementary school building. In October, it was announced that the city would take over the 100-year-old, 12-years-vacant school on Telephone Road and preserve it until such time as it can be taken over by a non-profit organization.

(And maybe that would work with these shotguns too: have it be like a combination of the Menil's artist housing and Project Row Houses. Instead of housing installations, the restored Victor Street houses could be home to the artists themselves.)

Johnson wonders why these almost-100-year-old homes don't get the same respect. As he points out, they are on the National Registry of Historic Places and very much an endangered breed. Virtually all of the rest in Fourth Ward have been leveled, their places taken by luxury condos for upscale downtowners.

Johnson seems personally disappointed by Annise Parker. He says that many black people voted for her against the wishes of their moralistic preachers. They believed she would understand what they've gone through, Johnson says.

"We had thought that coming from a background where she was discriminated against, she would be more sympathetic to us," Johnson says. "But looking back, we've had a woman in Kathy Whitmire and a law enforcement person in Lee P. Brown, and they didn't help us either."

"It's like Albert Einstein said, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same,'" he continues. "I used to think that was crazy when I was little, but as I've gotten older, it makes of lot of sense. It's always the same good ol' boys making the back-room deals and the people have no say about things."

It's always been true in regards to Freedmen's Town. The neighborhood sprang up virtually overnight in the immediate aftermath of Juneteenth, 1865, when thousands of newly freed slaves flocked to Houston from the Brazos, Trinity and Colorado and San Jacinto River bottoms. "A lot of them came off the plantations with nothing but the shirts on their backs," Johnson says. "They had to come to the city to look for work."

And according to 1938's Wave of the Gulf , by local businessman and amateur historian Jesse A. Ziegler, so began Houston's "Negro problem." That's always been the official view in the halls of power downtown, and though the message's delivery has been muted since the 1960s, the pressure to clear out Freedmen's Town has only increased. The neighborhood has changed more in the last 20 years than ever before. The "Negro Problem" has at last been exported to suburbia, for the most part, and the inner city's tax base has expanded.

History and the little people lose out. In the century that followed Emancipation, while the city tried to wish them away or worse, the freed slaves and their descendants laid Freedmen's Town's narrow streets with bricks they made by hand, erected several sturdy brick churches (two of which have recently burned down), and scores of the type of vaguely Caribbean-looking shotgun houses like these Johnson is trying to save.

It was also once home to its very own piano-playing tradition, as exemplified by the ragtime-meets-blues stylings of Robert Shaw, Pinetop Burks, Black Boy Shine, and Rob Cooper, and was once even the home of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. Sixth Ward's Peck Kelley, widely believed to be one of the greatest white jazz pianists ever, learned his trade as a boy by slipping across the Sabine Street bridge to "the Reservation," the section of Freedmen's Town that was Houston's red light district beginning in 1908.

The Reservation was swept off the map to make way for the all-white San Felipe Courts Apartments in 1944. (Blacks were allowed to move in by 1968, by which time the apartments were renamed Allen Parkway Village.) Not even the streets where once stood the Reservation's bordellos, gambling houses and gin-joints remain, nor is there a historical marker.

Johnson believes that despite all Freedmen's Town's culture and history, City Hall and the town's monied developers want it too to be erased.

It isn't just hardcore economics. That Freedmen's Town existed so close to downtown was an embarrassment to many Houston boosters, who cringed every time a visiting photographer would snap a picture of a dilapidated shotgun shack in the foreground of Houston's glittering skyline, and some still see houses like those on Victor as more of a disgrace than a treasure.

Most Southern cities had cleared such slums away from the fringes of their downtowns by then; Houston was an exception, though as Johnson points out, Freedmen's Town once extended deep into downtown -- all the way to Travis Street where it meets the bayou. Since the 1900s, blacks have been getting pushed to the west. With the construction of I-45, a line was written in the sand: everything to the east was henceforth to be white, and today Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is the sole reminder of that earlier era of a Greater Freedmen's Town.

"They started by pushing us over the freeway and they've been trying to get us out of here ever since," he says.

"This is a land takeover, just like they did with the Native Americans."

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