By ReShonda Tate
It’s been a long, drawn-out fight, but residents of Houston’s first historically Black community are claiming victory in a debate that will allow them to stay in Fourth Ward.
Houston’s City Council has approved an amendment to its redistricting plan that keeps Freedmen’s Town, located in historic Fourth Ward, in District C. It had been part of a plan to be incorporated into neighboring District H, which has seen a population decline, compared to other districts – such as District C.
“We are grateful that when it comes to how the numbers were worked out, we were able to find a solution that, for once, in the last 50 years, doesn’t seek to impact Freedmen’s Town first, instead of seeking alternative solutions,” said Zion Escobar, executive director, Houston’s Freedmen’s Town Conservancy.
A storied history
In the early days of Houston, the city did not have neighborhoods—rather, Houston was divided into six wards by the city-planning brother duo John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen in the 1840s. At the time, the land in the Fourth Ward was seen as undesirable because it was prone to flooding thanks to its close proximity to a bayou. The area primarily became home to formerly enslaved Black people who found they were unwelcome in other areas of the city.
Trying for change
The proposal to move Freedmen’s Town from District C to District H initially was approved to correct a numerical imbalance. District C, located in Fourth Ward, including parts of Houston’s Midtown District, is among the most densely populated in the city and has overgrown, according to city officials.
District H, meantime, was among three districts to have lost constituents, including Districts I and J. By law, the most populous district cannot have more than 10 percent additional residents than the smallest district.
“Our precinct happens to have 5000 plus residents. Because of the changes in density over the last I would say 10-15 years, we have more density than most other places in district H or the nearby area,” Escobar said, adding community members understood the numbers game at play and what needed to be done, solely from that perspective.
“We understood that it was a fact of just numbers. It was just a question of all the populations that have been impacted, does it have to be Freedmen’s Town that’s shifted now? What is the benefit to Freedmen’s Town and what do we stand to lose by being shifted,” Escobar asked.
Residents took those questions to a city council meeting on Oct. 11, during which they voiced concerns about the proposal and why they felt it was a setback for Freedmen’s Town.
“Momentum is everything when it’s taken 50 years to try to get positive momentum in the right direction towards the rebirth of Freedmen’s Town. We’re in Houston’s first Heritage District. It took five to seven years to get that ordinance done, to get that passed,” Escobar said.
Residents of Freedmen’s Town expressed concern the move would jeopardize improvement and educational projects already in the pipeline, organized through District C. In particular, residents expressed concern over leaving the representation of Abbie Kamin and feared entering a new district would postpone projects they’ve worked years to get off the ground.
“You don’t want to change horses mid-race,” Escobar said.
However, keeping Freedmen’s Town in District C required a compromise to stay within the law. City Counselor Abbie Kamin proposed an amendment to keep the neighborhood within her district. However, in order to do so, she has proposed giving up three neighborhoods: Candlelight Plaza, Shepherd Park, as well as parts of Garden Oaks.
Escobar said the push in Freedmen’s Town was not to kick out any other neighborhood — they simply wanted to preserve their own.
“We didn’t want to be infringing on someone because we understand in Freedmen’s Town what that’s like to be reclassified and to be moved,” Escobar said.