The Fourth Ward in Houston, also sometimes referred to as Freedmen's Town, is one of that city's most important African-American historic communities. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was the center of Black cultural and professional life in the city. By the early twentieth century it housed prominent educational institutions and the majority of the Black physicians and attorneys, while at night its bars and night spots attracted Whites and Blacks who came to hear great blues and jazz musicians. Blues guitarist B. B. King later termed the Fourth Ward night life the "breeding ground" for musicians Arnett Cobb and Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins. The Houston city charter of 1839 organized the city into four wards. The fourth is located just southwest of downtown Houston, along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. It extended south of Congress Avenue and west of Main Street to the city limits. Although the Fourth Ward was established as a political subdivision, and although at least through the nineteenth century it housed more Whites than Blacks, the area is best known as one of Houston's oldest and most important Black neighborhoods. Initially it encompassed most of what is now downtown Houston west of Main Street, as well as the residential areas along San Felipe Street (now West Dallas) and West Grey that still are referred to as the Fourth Ward and are today almost exclusively Black in population.
The Fourth Ward emerged as Houston's most prominent African-American neighborhood when thousands of freed slaves flooded into the city after emancipation. These newcomers settled on the fringes of the third, fifth, and fourth wards. The Freedmentown area north of San Felipe and the streets west of downtown not only attracted the largest number of the new Black residents but also housed the first Black churches, schools, and political organizations. Several factors combined to facilitate the subsequent growth of the Fourth Ward's Black community. First, its location-southwest of downtown and on the San Felipe road, which connected the city with the Brazos River plantations-meant that it was situated on the major route that brought freedmen into the city. In addition, in the aftermath of the war many Whites who owned farmland on the outskirts of the city recognized the economic advantage of subdividing their land to provide housing lots or rental houses for the rapidly growing Black population. One former slave recalled that his owner, Charles S. Longcope, had assembled all of his slaves in June 1865, and, standing in his door of his Second Ward mansion, read them the proclamation that gave them their freedom; he then offered each of his former slaves a building lot in the Fourth Ward. Finally, the Fourth Ward provided a home to early Black religious and educational institutions. It had, in fact, achieved this distinction even before emancipation. In 1851 Black Methodists began worshiping in their own church, adjacent to the White Methodist church on Milam Street in the Fourth Ward. This Black church briefly housed a school for Blacks in the late 1850s. After the Civil War the Fourth Ward attracted two of the city's most important African American churches, the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Travis at Bell, and Antioch Baptist Church, located initially at Rusk and Bagby and later on Robin Street. The Fourth Ward's role as a center of education was strengthened in 1870, when the various Freedmen's Bureau schools in the city were consolidated at Gregory School, the first public school for Blacks in Houston.
As the Black population of Houston grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the nature of Black Houston and the Fourth Ward began to take shape. Lacking a single concentrated area of Black population, Houston, like many other Southern cities, had several Black enclaves. The Fourth Ward was one of these. In the late nineteenth century the community spread slowly out of the downtown area around the present site of the City Hall and Houston Public Library, south and west down San Felipe Street and adjacent areas of the Old Freedmentown area. By 1907 the shotgun residences that are today characteristic of the Ward began to be commonplace (see FOLK BUILDING); they were joined by T-shaped houses, L-shaped houses, and several two-story tenements. Along the major streets commercial buildings, churches, and schools appeared while many of the residential blocks had a commercial building, usually a cafe, grocery, or bar, on the corner.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the Fourth Ward maintained its position as the economic, cultural, and intellectual center of Black Houston. Although never more than 36 percent of the city's Black population resided in the ward, it continued to house a disproportionate share of its professionals and was home to most of its significant institutions. For example, in 1869 Black churches were instrumental in the organization of the Harris County Republican Club, an integrated political organization that held most of its meetings in Antioch Baptist Church. Rev. Jack Yates and other Black ministers successfully campaigned for a permanent park site for Houston Blacks. In 1872 they established Emancipation Park, in the Third Ward. Yates and Antioch also took the lead in promoting Black education. After failing to attract Bishop College to the city, in 1885 they established Houston College (also known as Houston Baptist Academy) in the Third Ward. The college moved to a three-acre wooded tract on the western edge of the Fourth Ward in 1894. Until the mid-1920s the Fourth Ward was home to the only Black high school in Houston (Colored High School, later renamed Booker T. Washington High School), and Ernest O. Smith began the movement that resulted in the establishment of the Black branch of the Carnegie Library, located in the Fourth Ward across the street from Colored High School. Finally, in 1915 all but one of the Black doctors and dentists in Houston, as well as 75 percent of the Black lawyers, had offices in the Fourth Ward; in 1910 a group of Black physicians established Houston's first Black hospital, Union Hospital, on Andrews Street near San Felipe. Development of the Fourth Ward was capped by the construction of the Pilgrim Life Insurance Building, an imposing structure that housed offices, clubrooms, ballrooms, and a rooftop roller rink; during his trip through Houston in 1930, Lorenze Greene described the building as "an imposing office building, The most beautiful, Owned by Negroes, I have yet seen." On the other hand, in 1917 the Fourth Ward was the scene of Houston's worst race riot (see HOUSTON RIOT OF 1917).
The Fourth Ward lost its preeminence in the 1920s as the Third Ward passed it in population and began to attract more Black institutions, including Houston Negro Hospital (now Riverside General Hospital), Yates High School (the second Black high school in Houston), and Houston Colored Junior College (the antecedent of Texas Southern University). The Fourth Ward also faced other difficulties. First, its ability to expand was severely limited. Unlike the other two early centers of Black population, the Third Ward and the Fifth Ward, the Fourth Ward was hemmed in on the south and west by other developments. In the 1920s it failed to continue to attract as many new residents as did the other wards, and it began to lose its more affluent residents to new housing developments. Second, beginning in the 1930s, White institutions and downtown businesses encroached on the Fourth Ward. Black residents were displaced in that decade as land was cleared for the City Hall complex. More damaging still, in the early 1940s land north of San Felipe was cleared to build San Felipe Courts (now Allen Parkway Village), a housing development for White defense workers. (Housing projects for Blacks were built in the Fifth Ward and the Third Ward.) The construction of Interstate 45 southwest of downtown Houston eliminated many of the ward's most important buildings and destroyed the geographical integrity of the community. Finally, in the 1960s a large area of the Fourth Ward in the vicinity of Antioch Baptist Church was cleared to make way for the construction of office buildings; today Antioch stands, cut off from its community and surrounded by office towers.
By 1980 the only residential area left in the old Fourth Ward, along West Dallas (formerly San Felipe) and West Grey just a few blocks west of downtown, had become the poorest Black area in the city. Its population had declined to fewer than 4,400, down from almost 17,000 in 1910. Almost 50 percent of its residents lived below the poverty level, and only 5 percent owned their own homes. In the 1980s and 1990s the continued future of the Fourth Ward as a Black community came under serious attack. Plans to tear down Allen Parkway Village and redevelop the area with office buildings and upper-income housing were presented, only to be delayed by citizen opposition-and, more importantly, by the economic downturn of the mid-1980s. The viability of the community has been undermined by the disappearance through neglect of much of its housing, the reluctance of investors to put capital in the ward, and doubts about the future of the neighborhood. Allen Parkway Village and the absentee landlords are still waiting for the bonanza that redevelopment would bring.