The Fourth Ward was the last of the original four wards chartered in 1839 when Houston was still newly a city and covered the southwestern portion of the town. Over the years this area has meant a lot of different things to the Houstonians who have lived there, resulting in an intricately layered perception of the neighborhood’s identity. Houston’s Fourth Ward History has been crucial as to how the city has developed into what it is today.
HOUSTON’S FOURTH WARD HISTORY
The first Capitol building of the Republic of Texas was located here on Texas Avenue from 1837 to 1839 before it was moved to Austin. The stately building was then put up for rent, first becoming Capitol Hotel and then later Rice Hotel. The Fourth Ward would also become the site of Houston’s first cemetery—Founders Cemetery. Many of the city and state’s first leaders are buried there, including John Kirby Allen, one of Houston’s founders. The cemetery has a slightly darker reputation as well. Houston’s first legal hanging took place there in the southeast corner in what became known as Hangsman Grove, and at least two other hangings would follow in the coming decades.
In our previous ward history segment, we explored the important role the Third Ward had in the history and progress of Houston’s African-American community. While this is undeniably true, the Houston’s Fourth Ward history has incredibly strong ties as well, and it is important to note that it served as the original epicenter of Houston’s early black community.
Freedman’s Town was a post-Civil War community of recently freed slaves who settled along Buffalo Bayou in the Fourth Ward. The streets were paved with handmade bricks crafted by these earliest settlers, some of which remain today due to the preservation efforts of modern citizens who do not want to lose this important piece of history. Freedman’s town became known as the “Harlem of the South” due to its nightlife, many restaurants, and vivacious jazz scene.
Shortly after Texas slaves were emancipated, the first Houston African-American Baptist congregation was formed in 1866 as the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. They were initially assisted by the First Baptist Church, and services were typically provided by traveling ministers, but in 1868 Jack Yates became the first official pastor of the church. Shortly after that, the church members were able to build a permanent home for their congregation in the center of Freedman’s Town at 313 Robin Street, where it still stands today. This church would become a pillar of the African-American community and was crucial to the formation of area schools and civic services. Yates went on to become a prominent leader in the broader community as well and helped make Emancipation Park a reality.
However, the ward’s population continued growing, and it became one of the most densely populated areas of Houston; by 1920 it held one-third of Houston’s total population. Unfortunately, the Fourth Ward did not have much geographical room for expansion, unlike the other wards, which made this population boom trying to maintain. The neighboring Third and Fifth Wards developed housing that catered more to the African-American population, while an all-white public housing development was built in the Fourth Ward. Furthermore, other educational and societal institutions continue to open up in these other wards, drawing workers away from the Fourth Ward, and people were regularly being forced to relocate as the city center rapidly expanded.
Sam Houston Park
Established in 1899, Sam Houston Park consisted of 20 acres of footpaths that passed by an old mill, over streams, and by a 52-year-old school house that was quite literally a house. It was the planned demolition of this house in the 1950s that would spark the beginning of Houston’s Fourth Ward history preservation efforts. In 1954 the Heritage Society was formed, led by Faith Bybee, Harvin Moore, and Marie Phelps, who were able to save the Kellum-Noble House successfully. After their initial victory, the Heritage Society continued to set its sights on more preservation projects. Today the Vellum-Noble House is joined by Reverend Yate’s old home, a pre-Texas Revolution cabin, an 1891 church built by German and Swiss immigrants, and what would have been called a modern mansion in 1905.
Due to the the Fourth Ward’s rapid growth inside a relatively constrained area, older buildings and homes were constantly being torn down to make room for the new. Much of what once was has been lost to the booming construction of a constantly changing city, but within this Sam Houston Park has become one area in particular that strives to preserve the past.
Though the community of the Fourth Ward outgrew its physical capacity and was crowded out by downtown expansion and social imbalance, those who remain still feel a strong sense of belonging and admiration for Houston’s Fourth Ward history. This is evidenced by the continued efforts to preserve what is left of the area’s vibrant history.