With the conclusion of our segments on the Houston history of the first four wards, we now move into new territory as we take you through the Fifth and Sixth Wards. The original four wards were chartered in 1839, and they undeniably played a crucial role in the foundation of Houston history. While the later wards tell a slightly different story, they are no less ingrained in Houston history.
HOUSTON HISTORY OF THE FIFTH WARD
Formed in 1866, the Fifth Ward would join the ranks of Houston’s districts nearly three decades after the original four wards were instated. The Fifth Ward was created from portions of the First and Second Wards as well as some additional land even further north of Buffalo Bayou.
An influx of freedmen moving into the area had sparked the need for more city governance, and the growing population was quickly given official status as the Fifth Ward of Houston. The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Houston Shipyard provided ample job opportunities for the working class, and the ward’s population continued to grow. The Fifth Ward got its nickname very early on. “The Nickel,” as it was dubbed, offered a sense of community among its residents and also served as a hub for black businesses and congregations.
For many of its earlier years, the Fifth Ward’s population was split fairly evenly between African-Americans and Caucasians. Despite its economic success, the area was plagued by poor public and municipal services, leading to unrest among residents.
Residents were paying taxes to the city without reaping many of the expected benefits. Inadequate police and fire services, and bad drainage and sanitation were among the many complaints. It was so bad at times that secession was threatened on more than one occasion, once in 1875 and again in 1883. The first fought for improved utilities and paved streets, while the second led to an iron drawbridge being built over Buffalo Bayou at San Jacinto Street, which significantly improved transportation into the area.
THE GREAT FIFTH WARD FIRE
The ward continued to grow and fostered many businesses and churches, but February 21, 1912, would deal a major blow to the region when a raging blaze broke out throughout the Ward. The fire, which could be seen from many miles away, was believed to have been started by vagrants who had been squatting in a vacant house near Hardy and Opelousas. The high winds that night caused the fire to spread rapidly, decimating homes and businesses along the way. Though there were no human casualties the fire was an absolute devastation to the Fifth Ward, parts of the Second Ward, and Houston in general. Many key industries were temporarily crippled, including cotton and railroad. All that aside, the city pulled together, and assistance was given by both the mayor and some charity organizations and businesses. Despite this damage, the Fifth Ward rebuilt and continued to prosper into the early half of the 20th century.
Following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the community of Frenchtown grew out of the Fifth Ward to form a cultural pocket made up of Louisianan transplants. These mostly Catholic Creoles of French, Spanish and African descent created a unique society, a sort of city within a city within a city. Though seen as black by laws and larger society, at the time the Creoles of Frenchtown and the African-American community living in the Fifth Ward typically considered themselves to be two distinct groups. Though the Creole community has since blended with other groups, remnants of the culture can still be found in the area, especially about food and music.
THE NICKEL’S RISE AND FALL
After World War II, Houston’s second public housing project for African-Americans opened in the Fifth Ward. This drew more people into the community, especially as the Fourth Ward was running out of room for its existing population. The area around Jensen and Lyons was booming and was the home of businesses of many calibers, serving as an epicenter of the local community.
However, due to a combination of factors, the area fell into decline in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1960s brought Highway 59, which split off one of the Fifth Ward’s most happening areas from the rest of the district. At the same time, integration allowed people more freedom to move around, so many who were able left to explore other opportunities. Businesses slowly pulled out of the area and crime rates unfortunately escalated – the Fifth Ward earned its new nickname, “The Bloody Nickel.”
In more recent years new housing and community developments have sought to reinvigorate the area. As one of the most densely populated Houston neighborhoods, the demand placed on housing and public services is hard to sustain, but efforts are beginning to turn the area around. Through all of this, the Fifth Ward has never lost its sense of community.
From Houston history of the Fifth Ward, we will next look at the real discoveries that you shouldn’t miss out on.