The Urban Historical Reclamation and Recognition Collective (from left to right: Ángel Faz, Vicki Meek, Jonathan Norton and Christian Vazquez) is bringing the Tenth Street neighbourhood’s story to life in Dallas
Photo: Jonathan Zizzo. Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center
After the American Civil War, formerly enslaved people seeking economic independence and safety from racial violence created Black settlements across the South known as freedmen’s towns. On flood-prone lands and inhospitable terrain on the outskirts of cities, families carved out close-knit communities—building homes, churches, schools and businesses from the ground up. In Texas, more than 550 freedmen’s towns were formed between 1865 and 1930, but factors like gentrification, urban renewal and population loss have led to their erasure.
In recent years, Texans with family ties to the state’s original African American communities have advocated for cities to preserve what is left of them before it is too late—and artists are joining the effort. Several new art projects and exhibitions in Dallas and Houston highlight this often neglected piece of the past.
“My work is rooted in history,” says the Dallas-based artist Vicki Meek. “I always felt it was a lot easier to get people to learn about history through art than it was to get them to read a book.” She has been leading a public art project called Urban Historical Reclamation and Recognition, which focuses on Dallas’s Tenth Street Historic District, a neighbourhood that began as a freedmen’s town. By the 1900s, Tenth Street was a vibrant Black community in segregated Dallas. “They had everything the community needed: cleaners, movie theatres, restaurants, doctor’s offices,” Meek says. “Everything was self-contained in Tenth Street.”
By the 1950s, Dallas was growing and a major highway project was headed to town. Interstate 35 cut right through the Tenth Street community; homes and businesses were bulldozed to make way for it. “That was the beginning of the end,” Meek says. The neighbourhood declined as families moved to outlying suburbs, and businesses closed.
Dallas designated Tenth Street a Historic District in 1993 in an attempt to protect what remained of its original character. But the city continued to neglect historic homes and structures, and many were demolished. In 2019, after facing pushback from residents, the Dallas City Council voted to end city-funded demolitions in Tenth Street. But redevelopment pressures have not gone away, and the future of the community remains uncertain.
When Meek was offered a fellowship by the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2022, she decided to use the opportunity to document communities vulnerable to erasure. She gathered a team of local artists and historians, who spent the past year interviewing Tenth Street residents—elders who knew what the neighbourhood was like in its heyday and their descendants. The team then set out to bring the neighbourhood’s story to life.
The result is a series of five markers that, starting on 6 July, were placed at historical sites in the district—including at N.W. Harllee Early Childhood Center (the first school to be named after an African American in the Dallas school district) and the home of Nathaniel Watts (a Black doctor who treated neighbourhood residents). Each marker has a QR code, enabling visitors to listen to and read about the significance of the location, as well as get a feel for what it was once like using an augmented-reality feature. Some markers are at sites that no longer exist, like Elizabeth Chapel, a once-popular meeting space that was demolished in 1996. When people scan the QR code and point their phones at the now-empty lot, an image of the church appears on their screens as if the building were still there.
Legal battle brings renewed attention in Houston
Around 250 miles south-east of Dallas, another Texas freedmen’s settlement has caught the attention of the art world. In the heart of Houston’s Fourth Ward sits Freedmen’s Town. After the emancipation of enslaved people in the US, Freedmen’s Town became the economic and cultural centre of Houston’s Black population. There, formerly enslaved people and their descendants built homes and churches and paved the streets with bricks. They opened grocery stores, restaurants, jazz clubs and other businesses, and the area prospered.
Then downtown Houston began expanding, and parts of Freedmen’s Town were replaced by new buildings, housing and a highway. Much of the community was lost to redevelopment. In the 1970s, preservation groups worked to save the original structures that remained. They succeeded in getting the federal government to designate Freedmen’s Town a nationally registered historic site in 1985.
In 2014, the City of Houston began moving forward with plans to renovate Freedmen’s Town’s original brick streets. Residents protested. An ensuing legal battle brought renewed attention to the community. In 2019, several landmarks in the district were designated as part of Unesco’s Routes of Enslaved Peoples project, including the African American Library at the Gregory School and Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. The city is now working with local residents on a plan to preserve the bricks while the streets receive much-needed upgrades to the utilities beneath them.
In 2020, the City of Houston approached the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) and the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy about forming a partnership to address the longstanding infrastructure issue. “The way in which the bricks needed to be removed and placed back in the streets was going to require both a very artistic approach as well as a historic-preservation approach,” says Mich Stevenson, the project manager for the partnership. The museum and the conservancy have been meeting with Freedmen’s Town residents, city officials and artists to discuss how to go about the project. As they do so, CAMH is putting on a series of exhibitions about Freedmen’s Town.
Tenth Street Historic District marker at the N.W. Harllee Early Childhood Center
Photo: Jonathan Zizzo. Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center
This past winter, Stevenson curated This Way, an exhibition featuring works by 12 Black Houston-based artists, some of whom live in Freedmen’s Town. Through photography, film, painting and sculpture, they show the history and present realities of a robust community altered by systematic forces. The exhibition first showed at CAMH and is now on display at the African American History Research Center in Freedmen’s Town (until 19 October).
CAMH is also hosting an exhibition inspired by Freedmen’s Town by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. The Gift and the Renege (until 20 October) speaks to the patterns of promise and denial that take place in the struggle for property in marginalised communities. Gates, who has a history of redeeming left-behind spaces, spent time with Freedmen’s Town residents while making the works.
Stevenson says it was important that artists involved in this partnership not make extractive work. “What we did not want to do is create a dynamic in which artists are going into the community, snapping photos, bringing them back to the museum and then there’s never any interaction with the community,” he says. “Both in This Way as well as Theaster Gates’s exhibition, you’ll see a true collaboration with community members.”
Artists are also engaging with Freedmen’s Town community members through a residency programme set up by CAMH and the conservancy. Tay Butler, one of two current resident artists, has been making collages using copies of historical documents from Freedmen’s Town, and helping local residents undertake ancestral research. He has also been connecting with community leaders to find a tangible way to give back to the neighbourhood. Right now, he is hoping to revitalise a basketball court. “I was adamant that we prioritise what’s useful and feels best to members of the community,” he says. “The purpose of this residency, as far as I’m concerned, is to represent the legacy, the people, but also to serve.”
Butler says the renewed interest in Houston’s Black communities in recent years is warranted—but he knows there is a lot more work to be done. “I’m not naive,” he says. “I know that a collage workshop and a research-driven project are not going to fix the issues in Freedmen’s Town. The only thing that can fix the issues is actual political policies and investment”, policies that improve homes and community spaces—not so that wealthier people can move in, but so people who already live there can stay. Butler wants his work to help spur these changes. “Obviously, I’m being optimistic and thinking way ahead. But that’s the hope.”