I see the gleaming towers of Houston reaching to the sky. This bright image is set against a the ruins of a community. A recent visit to Houston’s historic Fourth Ward led me to meditate on this question: Do we want to be transformed by the glint and glitter of modern progress or by the renewing of our hearts by a meditative journey on the ground?
This neighborhood was once a prosperous community of freed slaves creating a life for themselves near the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Freedman’s Towns were formed all over the country after the Civil War. This 37-acre settlement on the west side of downtown Houston remained owned by Freedman descendants from 1865 to 1939. In 1939 the eight remaining black families, who still owned Freedman’s Town, took their case to the Supreme Court and lost their land. A few years later, Housing Authority officials built a public housing project on the site for all-white returning World War II veterans. The neighborhood was further eroded when Interstate 45 cut through the middle in the 1950s. Many of the residents began to move to other parts of the city and the thriving community that once with filled with business and nightclubs and at least 23 churches slowly became a ghost town. Recent efforts to preserve parts of the area, which is being taken over by condominium developments, were the focus of my recent walk in Freedman’s Town.
Walking the labyrinth is a meditative practice. A meditative journey on the ground can be a “cross cultural blueprint for well being” as the sign on the labyrinth at the former Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church said. We can be transformed by opening our hearts. Rather than looking up to the modern, gleaming skyscrapers downtown, we can look to the earth and our own feet as we walk the labyrinth. Walking these streets to try to understand the past is also a form of prayer or meditation.
We are walking in someone else’s shoes on today’s journey getting a dim glimpse of the life of freed slaves in Houston’s early days. As downtown grew and developers started building condos and apartments here, this history could have been lost. But visionaries have transformed the site of former churches, a school and soon a beauty shop museum to bring to life the stories of the people who once lived here.
I walk these bricks.
These bricks soaked by the muscle and sweat
of my father.
I walk these bricks.
These bricks baked in the relentless sun
of this city.
I walk these bricks
everyday to serve another master.
They may say we are free but
we are still bound.
Bound to meager wages and the never ending toil
along these bricks
Bethel Park, the site of the former Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, stands as a reminder of this church that was originally built in the 1890s. The building was destroyed by the elements – wind, water and fire – over its long history but always re-built. The park stands as a reminder that we must never lose hope. The promise survives in the sound of the water overflowing a fountain within its walls. We also see promise in the words engraved around the sacred space: prayer, compassion, hope, service, peace, community, worship, love, forgiveness.
No visit to Freedman’s Town is complete without a visit to the African American Library at The Gregory School. This school first opened in 1870 as the first public school for African Americans in Houston. The exhibits within its walls tell the little known stories of the residents of this area. Luminaries like Dr. Thelma Patten Law, the first female black obstetrician, and Heman Sweatt, who integrated the University of Texas, come to life here. Adinkra symbols like this one at the entrance remind visitors of the importantance of knowledge about our past.
Another sign of hope in this once vibrant community is the move to create a museum to celebrate the rich history of beauty and barber shops and to further preserve the stories of this area. This summer an original stage play called “In All Thy Getting: The Forgotten Story of Freedmen’s Town” will be presented at The Ensemble Theatre in nearby downtown Houston. Walking tours of the area are also offered on a regular basis through the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum. This foundation was created by the great granddaughter of the original founder of Freedman’s Town, Rev. Jack Yates. The promise of transformation remains in this unique area of Houston.
As I end my meditative walk, I am reminded of the words of Maya Angelou in her inspiring poem, “Still I Rise” —
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.