The Third Ward has a very rich history. The City of Houston has been shaped by all the wards, but the Third Ward is where real change in our city happened.
The History of The Third Ward
The Third Ward, like its three other original siblings, was incorporated in 1839 and covered the southeastern quadrant of the city, starting at Congress and Main and extending to what was then the city limits of Houston. This district served as Houston’s management hub and was considered an elite neighborhood with Victorian homes and residents from predominantly white-collar professions. The area ultimately underwent a major transformation after the construction of Union Station was completed in 1910, resulting in an area that catered to the most transient population brought in by the transportation center. Today Union Station remains as a part of Minute Maid Park, serving as the venue’s main entrance.
The Third Ward has also played a crucial role in Houston’s struggle for racial equality. Post-Civil War brought many emancipated slaves into the region and the Third, and Fourth Wards drew in an extraordinarily high concentration of people looking for jobs and to start a new life. However, like many other regions of the nation the area remained highly segregated until the 1960s, but that did not stop the African-American community in the Third Ward from forging their unique path toward a strong sense of self-identity and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.
At the time churches served as primary catalysts for community change and political activism. Ministers frequently served as leaders in the broader community and congregations often spearheaded the establishment of educational centers and other critical societal structures. During the Civil Rights movement, churches played a significant role in facilitating voter registration and provided a safe space for community members to meet and discuss critical social issues.
In 1872 Reverend Jack Yates and other freed slaves purchased a plot of land that would eventually become Emancipation Park. They wanted it to be a place where they and their descendants could congregate and celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the day Texas slaves were finally freed on June 19, 1865. The park was eventually donated to the City of Houston and for many years it was the only public park available to the African-American community.
In 1893, Houston saw the Texas Freeman founded, which was one of the first black newspapers in this part of the country. It would eventually join forces with the Houston Informer in 1931, but the paper’s legacy of covering issues crucial to the fight for integration and racial equality would continue through the decades.
Riverside Hospital opened in 1926 and was a much-welcomed addition to the area, catering to Houston’s black population. Previously treatment could only be obtained in segregated wards of charity hospitals or at Union Hospital, which was too small to accommodate the needs of the community. Riverside also trained and employed African-American doctors and nurses.
Shotgun Houses and Project Row
Though there were many styles of homes built in the Third Ward, shotgun houses were a common option for many years. These houses were only one room wide and one story tall, and were so named because a shotgun shell fired through the front door would be able to pass all the way through the house and the back door without hitting anything. This building style is thought to have originated in New Orleans. Today some of these buildings are preserved in the Project Row Houses, which strives to be the “catalyst for transforming the community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture.”
El Dorado Ballroom
Built in 1939, El Dorado Ballroom was located on the corner of Elgin and Dowling across from Emancipation Park. It was tantamount to the area’s jazz and blues scene and played host to numerous locally and nationally renown artists, including Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed. Its popularity began to decline in the 1970s, but in 1999 it was purchased by Project Row Houses and was restored as a performance venue and community space. Continuing its association with musical talent, today the Third Ward is well known for being the birthplace of Beyoncé Knowles.
TSU and the Spark for Desegregation
Texas Southern University underwent many name changes and transformations before finally settling on its current name in 1951. It began as Houston’s first junior college for African-Americans in 1927 and operated out of Yates High School. Over the next couple of decades, the school would grow, both in attendees and in recognition, and the need for a larger facility would emerge. The college would reopen as a university in its current location in 1947. The new campus would also become the home to a new Texas law school, which was the result of a lawsuit by Herman Marion Sweatt in 1946; he had been denied entry into the University of Texas law school because of his race.
On March 4, 1960, a sit-in was organized at Weingarten’s Grocery and Deli by members of TSU’s Progressive Youth Association. Students sat peacefully at the lunch counter for several hours with the hopes of finally being served alongside the restaurant’s white patrons. Though the students who protested were not able to accomplish their goal that afternoon, it marked the start of a movement in the Houston area. By August of that year, Houston lunch counters desegregated and were followed by other Houston establishments.
Join us next time as we take you through some modern day discoveries of Houston’s Third Ward.