Why Can't the City Ever Get It Right With the Freedmen's Town Bricks?

Mayor Turner and others lay down some of the real historic bricks before the Kansas City ones showed up Monday.EXPAND
Mayor Turner and others lay down some of the real historic bricks before the Kansas City ones showed up Monday.
Courtesy of the City of Houston
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On Friday, the City of Houston held a celebration at the Freedmen's Town site where, last fall, a construction contractor wrongly ripped up hundreds of the historic bricks laid by freed slaves and their descendants, who founded the town after the Emancipation Proclamation came down.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, council members and longtime preservationists each knelt to reinstall one of the bricks. Turner had evidently followed through on his promise in November to restore all of the displaced or damaged bricks back to their rightful place.

The full re-installation project of all 3,610 bricks began Monday — but the Freedmen's Town preservationists quickly noticed something unusual: Many of the bricks were not theirs.

As it turns out, the city had purchased more than 10,000 bricks from a Kansas City manufacturer to "supplement" the historic bricks — and not a single person involved with the project informed the Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition.

"That's not the story that was being told. We were told we were putting down the original bricks from Freedmen's town," said Doris Ellis, president of the preservation coalition. "I'm just grateful we had our community monitors in place. Had they not been there, we would not have discovered this mishap."

The city has temporarily suspended work on the project in order to bring the preservation coalition to the table and allow its members to examine the Kansas City bricks, said Public Works spokeswoman Alanna Reed. Ellis said that the community monitors supervising the construction observed that the workers seemed to be mixing the non-historic and historic bricks — which Ellis said took away from the significance of the history. The preservation coalition has been working on turning Freedmen's Town into a cultural district where a rich piece of Houston's black history could be on display. And this was not helping. "We're really trying to make it a destination so people from around the world will have a historic place to visit," Ellis said. "If they don't mess it up, we can make it happen."

The fact that people in Freedmen's Town must volunteer to supervise construction crews or city contractors whenever they go near the bricks is telling: This is the third time in five months that something has gone wrong.

First, in late November, a drainage crew wrongly ripped up more than 200 bricks at the corner of Andrews and Genessee, drawing a sharp rebuke from Mayor Sylvester Turner, who said the crew did not have permission to be working there. More than a dozen residents had rushed to the intersection to dig through the rubble and set aside all the damaged or displaced bricks for preservation.

Then, in January, yet another Department of Public Works-contracted plumbing crew wrongly ripped up a segment of bricks on Andrews Street — again without permission.

This time, the bricks from Kansas City were part of the plan, said Reed. Reed said that all 3,610 bricks were carefully removed and archived. But because Genessee Street was expanded, Reed said the extra Kansas City bricks were necessary. She said an archaeologist working on the project approved the bricks since they were most similar to the historic ones.

To the volunteer preservationists, however, the bricks immediately looked as if they didn't belong.

Ellis has been fighting for the preservation of the bricks for years, most notably in 2014 when she lay on top of them to stop yet another construction crew from ruining them. Asked if the repeated mishaps or miscommunication is becoming tiresome, she said she prefers to see it a different way.

"One good thing about knowing history is it gives you leverage," she said. "It makes one not weary, when we go through our little trials and tribulations, because if you know history, you know that the ancestors had to go through it too. Maybe this will be an even better place to visit the more we have to fight for it."

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