Watching the new Freedmen’s Town farmers market take root, Zion Escobar, the executive director of the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, said she knew a shift was occurring in the neighborhood.

“When I started finding out I have heritage connections to a lot of the names here ... I felt like this is a calling for my life,” said Escobar, who is a trained civil engineer. “A lot of people involved here feel the same way, but they did not have an organization that could carry that faith and mission in a way that was community facing and serving.”

Another community member, Sade Perkins established the farmers market by working with Charonda Johnson, who owns two historic homes and an adjoining lot that she was able to offer up as the venue. The conservancy is assisting in renovations of Johnson’s homes with funding from the Houston Endowment.

Johnson also owns Freedmen’s Town Broke Ass Pizza and now cooks her vegan and vegetarian pies alongside other local vendors selling produce, jewelry, clothing and baked goods. The market began in November and takes shape each Saturday behind St. James United Methodist Church.

Originally founded by freed slaves, Freedmen’s Town grew into a thriving hub for Houston’s Black community that has faced decades of redevelopment partly because of its location between downtown and Buffalo Bayou. It has long served as a symbol of the speed of development in Houston and discriminatory urban planning practices that disrupt communities of color.

“Freedmen’s Town happens to be a microcosm of every symptom of development, every benefit and every tragedy of the way of life in Houston—from infrastructure to housing to gentrification,” Escobar said. “You have people who want to see this community improve while also preserving its history.”

While residents in Freedmen’s Town and beyond its boundaries have spearheaded efforts to preserve its history and protect community members from displacement, Escobar was hired to be the executive director in 2018 to link disparate initiatives together.

In 2020, the conservancy led tours of the neighborhood for national media outlets and museum directors, partnered with the Houston Rockets and the Museum of Contemporary Arts, and earned a grant from the African American History Commission.

Moving forward, Escobar said the conservancy plans to launch an app with a virtual walking tour, host a series of Black History month events and open a visitors center by the end of 2021.

“My background helps me see what could be done better here,” she said. “I am a part of this development pipeline; I understand what roles people play, and I can see that there is a very clear gap between ideas and execution and good-faith actors who will stay for the long haul to make things happen.”

Editor's note: this post has been updated to clarify Sade Perkin's role in founding the Freedmen's Town Farmer's market in November 2020.

Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy

1300 Victor St., Houston