Freedmen’s Town is the first historically Black community in Houston founded by formerly enslaved people. The historic homes and redbrick-accented streets are distinct features of the neighborhood, which was established by more than 1,000 formerly enslaved people in 1865.
A new initiative to protect and preserve the nationally recognized historic neighborhood has been awarded over a million dollars in support. The Rebirth in Action: Telling the Story of Freedom initiative is a partnership of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy (HFTC), the City of Houston (COH) and artist Theaster Gates.
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The partnership will promote Freedmen’s Town as a monument of community, agency and heritage through the multi-year Rebirth in Action: Telling the Story of Freedom initiative. The initiative received $1.25 million in support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant.
Through education and awareness, HTFC aims to preserve the neighborhood’s legacy. “When you think about the history and the legacy of Black people in Houston, you don’t often know that Freedmen’s Town is the mother ward. You don’t know how important it is to the entire Juneteenth story that the entire country is celebrating,”HFTC Executive Director Zion Escobar tells ESSENCE. “We have people in other countries celebrating the Juneteenth story that really is about something that happened between Galveston and Houston. And that is an incredible gap that needs to be filled,” she adds.
Freedmen’s Town is recognized as Houston’s first Heritage District that includes seven sites recognized by UNESCO’s Routes of Enslaved Peoples project, which aims to “break the silence surrounding the history of slavery and placing this tragedy that has shaped the modern world in the universal memory.”
Rebirth in Action is designed to be a community-driven project led by a team of experts, including engineers and preservationists who collaborate with artist Theaster Gates. Charonda Johnson, Vice President of the Freedmen’s Town Association and fifth-generation Freedmen’s Town resident, will lead the initiative’s community engagement as Partnership Engagement Manager. The project will also include artist-led activations by local and national artists through CAMH’s artist residency program.
“So many times, these projects come into communities and they give the perception that it has a community element or community involvement. And when these projects leave, there is no footprint to say what these projects brought here. And so, by me playing a vital role, my ask is for any projects that come into my community, what does the community get? The key is preservation,” Johnson shares with ESSENCE.
Both Johnson and Escobar say Freedmen’s Town is an important part of Texas and Houston’s history and our country’s history. It is critical that the stories in this historic location be preserved and passed down to future generations.
“So we’re starting with this, but the intention is that through skill shares and through deep community engagement like small focus groups, potlucks, getting together for movie night and other fun things, we’re able to go from trauma to creativity to expression to liberation and return back to ourselves so we can get to this rebirth,” says Escobar.
A kickoff celebration for The Rebirth in Action: Telling The Story of Freedom initiative will be held on Tuesday, February 14.