History

The Fourth Ward of Houston was given the nickname "Freedman's Town" in the aftermath of the Civil War when freed African Americans settled in the area to find job opportunities in the growing metropolis. After Emancipation, over one thousand free African Americans migrated to Houston and bought cheap, undesirable, and swampy properties in the Fourth Ward. Over time, the population expanded dramatically: in 1900, the population of the Fourth Ward was 14,608; by 1915, that number grew to 30,000; and in 1920, the Fourth Ward contained a third of Houston's population.

Freedman's Town today
A look at Freedman's Town today

Although the Fourth Ward is often remembered as a neighborhood for free African Americans, it was an extremely diverse neighborhood well into the 20th century; African Americans were not a majority until 1915. By 1929, though, realtors had unofficially and illegally segregated housing by designating the 2nd, 4th, and 5th wards of Houston as black neighborhoods. Such acts of racial segregation meant that the Fourth Ward became less diverse over time.

Freedman's Town was a center of African-American firsts in Houston. Even before Emancipation, African-American religious leaders opened places of worship alongside white churches in the Fourth Ward. This strong tradition of worship led to other great churches in the area such as the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church and Antioch Baptist Church. The Fourth Ward was also home to many places of education. Colored High School, which was later renamed Booker T. Washington High School, was the only African-American high school in Houston until the mid 1920s, and The Gregory School was the first African-American elementary school in Houston. In 1910, a group of African-American physicians additionally established Union Hospital, Houston's first The Gregory SchoolAfrican-American hospital, on Andrews Street. The leaders of Freedman's Town who created churches, schools, and institutions formed a thriving, significant community in the Houston. They even convinced the city of Houston to pave their streets with brick and helped to pay for the paving, which can still be seen on some streets today.
                                                       The Gregory School, now an archive and center for research

Despite the endemic racism in Houston in the early 20th century, Freedman's Town was a center of African American culture, entrepreneurship, and social life. For example, even in its earliest days, Freedman's Town had remarkable rates of home ownership. Former slaves in Freedman's Town were already able to buy their own homes just five years after emancipation. By the turn of the 20th century, over 12% of African Americans owned their own homes, and on average, African Americans held onto their property for twenty years. This showed not only the economic success of African American families at the time, but the cultural significance of businesses, schools, and churches in the community. The Rutherford B. H. Yates House, the 1312 Ruthven property, the J. Vance Lewis House, and the Wilson-Victor property are examples of the cultural significance of Freedman's Town.

The Rutherford B. H. Yates House

John Henry (Jack) Yates, the father of Rutherford B. H. Yates, was the first pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Freedman's Town and an important community leader. It is because of Jack Yates that home ownership was so common in Freedman's Town, as he assisted incoming families with legal processes and encouraged people in his congregation to purchase their homes. His own two-story home, the first of its kind owned by an African-American, now resides at Sam Houston Park.

Jack Yates's son, Rutherford, had a home next door at 1314 Andrews. One of four of Jack Yates's children to earn a college degree, Rutherford set up a printing business called the Yates Printing Business of Houston. He is remembered as a successful businessman and for authoring a book about the incredible life of his father. His home has been restored and reclaimed as the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, a place to study and learn about the history of Freedman's Town.

The R. B. H. Yates house
The R. B. H. Yates Museum

The 1312 Ruthven Property

Not much information is known about the Ruthven property. The site is located south of the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, behind the museum parking lot. Excavations done by Rice University in 2011 were performed to gather more information about the buildings that once stood at this property, such as a shed. However, data collected from the two subunits posed more questions than they answered about the buildings that once stood at 1312 Ruthven.

The J. Vance Lewis House

The J. Vance Lewis House
The J. Vance Lewis House

Located at 1218 Wilson Street, the J. Vance Lewis House belonged to a prominent lawyer in Freedman's Town. A former school teacher, Lewis dreamed of becoming a lawyer and received law degrees from Michigan and the Chicago School of Law. He became famous in Harris County for being the first African-American lawyer to win a case in favor of a black client accused of murder; however, he was soon questionably accused of irregularity with some of his other cases and was forced to cease practicing law for six months and then seven years. Lewis did not take this as much of a setback, however, as he shifted to civil cases before resuming his full practice. In between cases, Lewis was known for giving fiery speeches and encouraging fellow African Americans to follow their dreams and to become educated.

The property originally belonged to Isabella Simms, who bought the land in 1874 for $80. Lewis acquired the property through his wife, removed the original house in 1907, and built the one that currently stands on the property. Dubbed "Van Court" by Lewis, the current house was built by L. R. Jones for $2,800.

The Wilson-Victor Property

The property at the northwest corner of Wilson and Victor Streets has served three different functions over the years: the location of a store, a barbershop, and two shotgun-style houses. The store was owned by Italian immigrants, and it served the diverse neighborhoods of Freedman's Town. In 1910, approximately 32% of African American-owned businesses were located in the Fourth Ward, including the barbershop on the Wilson-Victor property. The shotgun house was built in 1924, and was owned by two African American barbers, James Williams and Earl T. Randon, through the 1920s. The barbershop was still open in the 1950s, owned by Flossie Davies and Faye Tarver. The barbershop has now been completely restored by the R. B. H. Yates Museum, and they have begun renovations on the one shotgun house that remains.

 The Wilson-Victor Store
The store on the corner of Wilson and Victor Streets

Map
                of Wilson-Victor street corner
A map that shows the store, the barbershop, and the two shotgun
houses that once stood on the Wilson-Victor property


The Rutherford B. H. Yates House

The 1312 Ruthven Property

The J. Vance Lewis House

The Wilson-Victor Property