Fourth Ward is one of the six historic wards in Houston, Texas. It is situated inside 160 Loop just west and adjacent to Downtown Houston. Fourth Ward, Houston is known to be Freedmen’s Town, a post- United States Civil War community that is mostly comprised of African-Americans. In this article, we are going to learn more about the history of Fourth Ward and what makes it one of the iconic wards in Houston.
Fourth Ward is considered the oldest African American neighborhood in Houston, Texas because it was established in 1893 as one of Houston’s six political districts. It is viewed as the site of the first significant settlement of African Americans in Houston because more than a thousand formerly enslaved people from Texas and Louisiana plantations made their way here and established the Freedmen’s Town. They started the community on the Buffalo Bayou’s southern bank because they took advantage of cheap land that white Houstonians avoided back then.
In the 1900s, Freedmen’s Town became a forty-block residential area that became the cultural and economic center for Houston’s African Americans. Aside from that, it also became a self-sufficient community that offered its residents access to schools, businesses, social services, and churches. By the beginning of the 20th century, Freedman’s Town’s population started to grow, so the community’s larger area was renamed Houston’s, Fourth Ward.
In 1870, Gregory Institute, Fourth Ward’s most prominent educational facility, was established. This was the first school in Houston that catered to African Americans. The institution was named after a Union officer and assistant commissioner for the Freedman’s Bureau, General Edgar M. Gregory. The school operated until 1894, and today it is now the African American Library at the Gregory School, which aims to promote and preserve the culture and rich history of African Americans in Houston.
In 1920, Fourth Ward’s population grew to 85,000, which is one-third of Houston’s population. Along with this, Fourth Ward also had an entertainment district where white and black Houstonians went to get their jazz and blues fix. In fact, B.B King, an iconic blues artist, even called Fourth Ward’s nightlife to be the breeding ground for jazz and blues musicians. Fourth Ward was also a busy daytime business district where you can spot about 400 stores and shops aside from the nightlife. This is why, back in the 1920s, Fourth Ward was known as the “Harlem of the South.”
However, the decline of Fourth Ward began in 1936 when the Texas Law enacted eminent domain laws that allowed the Houston government agencies to take and condemn black-owned properties. The Federal Housing Administration completed its construction of San Felipe Courts in 1942, an all-white housing project. This too about 25% of Freedmen’s Town. Thirteen years after that, the Pierce Elevated section of Interstate 45 was constructed, this caused about 40,000 residents to be removed, and it also separated Fourth Ward from downtown Houston.
Over the years, Fourth Ward went under redevelopment, and along with this, the community had a cultural resurgence upholding the self-reliance and spirit of its early residents. Today, Fourth Ward’s major cultural institutions such as the Rutherford B.H Yates Museum, the African American Library at the Gregory School, and the Antioch Baptist Church all helped to preserve Fourth Ward’s history for several generations to come.