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FRENCHTOWN, HOUSTON

Frenchtown.
Photograph, Frenchtown in Houston. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

FRENCHTOWN, HOUSTON. Frenchtown was a neighborhood of four square blocks located on the northern edge of Houston's Fifth Ward in Harris County. It comprised approximately 500 Creoles of French, Spanish, and African descent from Louisiana. These “Creoles of Color” were descendants of a mostly free, mixed-race population that lived in colonial southwestern Louisiana in the eighteenth century and came to northeastern Houston and organized a community in 1922.  

Early Frenchtown residents came to Houston, which was booming in the 1920s, to seek economic opportunity. Many Frenchtown skilled or semiskilled workers, including mechanics, carpenters, sawmill workers, and bricklayers, were recruited and employed by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Others worked in the oil industry and other Houston industries along the Houston Ship Channel. More Creoles moved to Houston after the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and another wave of migration was spurred by Houston’s employment growth during World War II. The area, a neighborhood primarily of shotgun houses, was bounded (in the 2010s) by Collingsworth Street to the north, Russell Street to the east, Liberty Road to the south, and Jensen Drive to the west. The name Frenchtown was in common use by the late 1930s by both residents and outsiders. 

Their community of largely French-speaking Catholics was centered around Our Mother of Mercy Roman Catholic Church and had a rich Creole culture distinguished by its colorful patios, unique cuisine, and characteristic zydeco music. Historical markers at Collingsworth and U.S. Highway 59 and at Liberty and U.S. Highway 59 commemorate Frenchtown and its role in developing zydeco, a blend of traditional Creole music with Houston’s blues and R&B. 

The tight-knit group married within the community and thereby maintained their cultural identity. Many residents built their homes with lumber from boxcars retired from Southern Pacific Railroad's Englewood Yard, on the east side of the intersection of Liberty Road and Wallisville Road. Neighborhood streets were dirt roads; residents used streetcars for transportation and walked to Jensen Drive and Liberty Road to ride them. The women of the community refused to take employment as cooks, despite the appeal of their cooking. 

Residents of Frenchtown had a distinct language, religion, cuisine, music, and in some instances light skin color that separated them from the larger black community in the Fifth Ward. These differences caused some resentment in the black community. Some Frenchtown children were ridiculed in school due to their language, and for some adults language made assimilation difficult, so parents eventually discouraged the use of French by the children. Some changed their names on arrival in Houston.

Early residents of the area walked three miles or paid five cents to ride the streetcar to St. Nicholas Catholic Church at Clay and Live Oak, then the only Catholic Church in Houston for people of color. By 1929 they had raised funds for their own church by holding la-la dances and selling gumbo, boudin, and pralines in their homes. Before construction began, the funds were stolen, but the Southern Pacific Railroad donated a new site, and the residents themselves constructed Our Mother of Mercy Roman Catholic Church, a humble structure at Sumpter and Granger. The first Mass was celebrated on June 9, 1929.

Two theaters that served the neighborhood were still standing as of 2016: the Lyons Theatre (a revival church in 2016) at 4026 Lyons at Benson and the 1941 De Luxe Theater (newly-renovated as an event venue in 2016) at 3303 Lyons.

continental_zydeco_ballroom.jpg
Owner Doris McClendon stands at the door of her club,the Continental Zydeco Ballroom in Houston. Located in the heart of Frenchtown, the legendary venue, originally owned by her grandfather, Charley Johnson, was the Bayou City's premier zydeco showcase until it closed after McClendon's death in 1997. Photograph by James Fraher. 

A number of factors contributed to the gradual decline of Frenchtown and its distinct culture after World War II. With the end of residential segregation, subsequent generations moved out of the area, while others married into the larger black community. The construction of U. S. Highway 59 cut through the center of the community. Frenchtown gradually merged into the Fifth Ward and lost much of its Creole identity. By the 1990s groups such as the Frenchtown Community Association led efforts to preserve the Creole culture of Frenchtown, including its musical component—zydeco. Considered to be a birthplace of zydeco, Frenchtown was still home to popular clubs such as the Continental Zydeco Ballroom, which closed in 1997, and the Silver Slipper Lounge, which was still open in 2016.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

“Frenchtown and the Silver Slipper,” Houston Past (http://houstorian.wordpress.com/category/other-businesses/), accessed November 27, 2016. J. R. Gonzales, “Celebrating Frenchtown,” Bayou City History: A blog about Houston's Past (http://blog.chron.com/bayoucityhistory/2009/02/celebrating-frenchtown/), accessed November 27, 2016.  Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin (Frenchtown; Zydeco). Houston Chronicle, February 16, 2009; December 14, 2015. Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church: History of the Church (http://www.ourmotherofmercy.net/history.html), accessed November 27, 2016. Roger Wood, Texas Zydeco (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).

Diana J. Kleiner, rev. by Ron Bass

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Diana J. Kleiner, rev. by Ron Bass, "Frenchtown, Houston," accessed January 19, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hrfvg.

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on December 20, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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