Aubrey Smith was on his way home from work when he saw the dump truck at the end of Andrews Street, in Freedmen's Town. He turned down the road and spotted the huge crane. And then the destroyed brick street came into view.
Immediately, Smith joined more than a dozen Freedmen's Town residents in picking up as many bricks as they could find in the rubble, setting them aside to preserve them. The bricks had been hand-laid more than a hundred years ago by freed slaves and their descendants, when they founded the town shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation made its way to Texas. Last week, a construction crew mistakenly ripped the bricks up without authorization while working on a drainage project. An estimated 200 bricks were either destroyed or displaced.
"Freedmen's town is like a big family in one giant house," said Smith, 37, also known as "Youngsta" to kids and elders alike. "So it was like somebody coming into your house unwanted, destroying your priceless, priceless artifacts."
Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a press conference Thursday a timeline for fixing the destroyed strip of bricks, which he said the construction contractor will pay for. Starting Monday, workers will remove additional bricks only to create straight edges around the six-by-ten-foot space that needs to be repaired. In the meantime, all the bricks the residents salvaged will be cleaned, cataloged and stored. The city has hired an archaeologist and other supervisors to oversee the construction work as crews pour a new concrete foundation and restore the bricks. It is expected to take 12 weeks.
Turner said he also plans to make Freedmen's Town a cultural historic district 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, later adding: "Many of the bricks were damaged, but the soul of the people who live here, that spirit has not been damaged."
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On Thursday, Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition President Dorris Ellis Robinson thanked Mayor Turner for his commitment to preserving Freedmen's Town's history, saying it had been a long time coming. Just two years ago, residents stood their ground as a different construction crew tried to rip up the bricks in the same exact area for a similar drainage project. The bricks that had been displaced during that construction mess were also salvaged, and were set to be reinstalled at the time more were displaced.
Smith said back in 2014, he would have rather been arrested and taken to jail than step aside and let the construction workers destroy the history. Although he was born in Houston and raised in Baton Rouge, he said he moved back to Freedmen's Town after discovering his great-great-grandparents had built a life there generations ago.
"Even though I didn't lay them bricks there, my race did, and it's like they went through so much and sacrificed so much for them to be destroyed," Smith said. "Sometimes when I walk down this street, I'll be thinking, I wonder if every soul that put down every brick is still within them."