Where dozens of parishioners once gathered at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Freedmen’s Town, a handful still meets on Sundays at the vacant lot it stood on.
“We will give God the glory when we bring our church back up and hopefully keep it a community, because when I was going to this church, it was one of the largest ones out here,” parishioner Lue Ammon Williams said.
Where those parishioners once followed concrete steps up to Sunday service, they now follow them to a view of townhomes and the downtown Houston skyline towering over.
The story of Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church follows a similar pattern of many historic structures in Freedmen’s Town, a community established by former slaves in the late 1800s.
Also known as Fourth Ward, the neighborhood is located next to Buffalo Bayou and downtown and referred to by some as the “Mother Ward” because of its historical significance to Houston’s African American community.
A fixture in the neighborhood, Mt. Carmel was built in 1914, remodeled in 1940 and eventually vacated while awaiting funds for renovations. It was later demolished by city crews in 2008. Williams and members of the congregation launched a fundraiser Jan. 4 to pay off the lien—a debt owed to the city for the cost of the demolition—that has grown to over $70,000 since 2008.
Over decades of redevelopment, lifelong residents have led grassroots efforts to preserve what remains of its history. Within the last year, momentum has built at the national level and even international level with a United Nations historic designation, but community-led projects such as the church fundraiser still face funding hurdles, Williams said.
“Some people have referred to the area as being depleted or not up to par,” Williams said. “But we take great pride in it. Sure it needs work, but a lot of people have been derelict in their duties.”
‘An incredible story of persistence’
Established on frequently flooded land, Freedmen’s Town was originally cut off from the rest of the city, including its public utilities and roadways.
“They moved into swamp land that nobody wanted and built their homes from the bottom up. This is an incredible story of persistence,” said Catherine Roberts, the co-founder of the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, dedicated to Freedmen’s Town’s history.
While the neighborhood was systematically excluded from city services, its founders established a vibrant community with sections of shotgun-style homes, several churches, local businesses and a school, Roberts said.
By the 1960s, with the construction of I-45 splitting the community and the civil rights movement granting more opportunities to live elsewhere, the neighborhood began to face new challenges, said Danielle Wilson, curator and manager at the African American Library at the Gregory School, a Houston Public Library branch housed in an historic Freedmen’s Town school building.
As the population shifted to more renters than homeowners, residents had even less political influence.
“Social ills were coming in; land ownership was changing, and all of that adds up in a way that historic neighborhoods like the Heights never really had,” Wilson said.
As Houston grew, the real estate surrounding downtown became more appealing, enticing developers to buy up property and landlords to cash out.
Over time, a narrative that Freedmen’s Town was “lost” prevailed as developers continued to buy up land. Remaining residents resist both that characterization and the continued destruction of the community’s history.
“I appreciate what my ancestors did, and for me to do nothing to preserve what remains would be totally insulting,” said Gladys House, a longtime resident and member of the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition. House ran for the District C City Council position in 2019 in hopes of raising awareness for the neighborhood’s persistent needs.
In the Heights or Old Sixth Ward, visual reminders of Houston’s history are seen through the neighborhood’s architecture. They are designated as historic districts by the city of Houston, a process that must be supported by homeowners. In Freedmen’s Town, the notion of creating a historic district has never gained enough momentum to prevail over real estate development interests, Wilson said.
“The people who actually lived in the community, were by the community and for the community, didn’t have that stakeholding aspect as a homeowner,” she said.
In December, local developer Neal Dikeman purchased one of the last remaining rows of shotgun homes in the neighborhood and plans to rent them out. Prior to him purchasing the properties, Dikeman said they were at risk of being torn down because they had long been left vacant and in disrepair by owners who no longer rented them out. Dikeman said he plans to restore the homes following strict historic standards despite not being required to do so, making him an outlier among those redeveloping properties in the area.
“Folks that fight against restrictions on historic demolitions don’t even want a National Register Marker because they know it’s traditionally been a pathway to get those city protections down the road even though it doesn’t bring protections on its own,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Yates museum is in the process of renovating multiple buildings to serve as visitors centers and establish a walking tour, Roberts said. To do so, however, she said the museum needs roughly $600,000 for two of the largest projects, most of which will be acquired by applying for grants and soliciting donations.
“Probably 80% of our funding comes from in-kind donations. ... It’s a slow job because it’s a big job,” she said.
At the national level, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, partnered with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to pass a bill Jan. 14 establishing a study of the Emancipation Trail between Galveston and Houston ending in Freedmen’s Town. Within the same month Harris County commissioners established a committee to study the county’s historically significant African American landmarks and traditions.
House said she welcomes the interest in studying the area, but without city-level historic protections or investments in community-led projects, soon there will be little left to commemorate.
“There’s no way we should have to struggle like this. ... We’ve got all these [national] historic designations here, and for what?” House said.
Through her involvement with the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition, House said she has failed to receive funding for a proposed youth center or support for the coalition’s neighborhood redevelopment plan. She is currently self-funding the renovation of a historic home she plans to rent out.
“You take time and money and resources from your little business, and it’s still difficult for you to get a job to work in your own community,” she said.
However, Wilson said these stumbling blocks are not enough for her to give up on archiving the neighborhood’s artifacts.
“There’s still enough real estate in that area to tell a great story,” Wilson said. Williams said she hopes that interest carries over to her efforts at Mt. Carmel.
“My faith in God is that we are going to be successful,” she said. “We don’t know God’s ways, and we have been tested and tried, but we are praying for our plan and trust him to bring this to us. This could be a prime time.”