by Dr. Andrea Roberts
“If you ask what I remember, I have to say that I remember a new version of what I left. Black teachers, business owners, and laborers. Where I came from, in the country, we already had all of those. I found only more cars and concrete when I arrived and boarded off of McGowan.” (My great grandmother Maraliah Williams, imagined, Arrival: 1930)
“I went to Kelly Services to apply for a temp job. It never occurred to me that they said no because I was a black girl. I then lived in Trinity Gardens, and traveled in Pioneer Buses (blue and white) that were only for the Black part of town. Then I moved to Third Ward, to live with a cousin. I had to be in school. I could work part time, but not full time. My first job was as a waitress at a club on Bell Street that people from a freedom colony owned. Then I managed apartments near TSU. There were lots of black businesses then. The problem is we got civil rights, but not ‘silver rights.’ No more black businesses and black money circulated after integration. No more patronizing of the black grocery…they could not compete with Weingarten’s. When I lived near South Union, we already had a grocery. We no longer create our own stuff.” (Ms. Willie Funderburk, interviewee, Arrival: 1964)
These are linguistic reenactments. The first, an imagining, is my great- grandmother Maraliah Williams, who came to Third Ward from Brazoria County when she was 17 and boarded at a house on McGowan Street while working as a cook. The second, Ms. Willie Funderburk, is a baby boomer whom I interviewed a few years ago— from her home in suburban Houston, she spoke fondly of her journey from a historic Black settlement to Third Ward in 1964.
Popular culture is filled with entertaining reenactments of African- Americans who return to rural homeplaces while simultaneously retaining access to opportunity in urban meccas (see Queen Sugar). Stories of exodus and return to Third Ward tell us much about the eternal search for spaces in which one can be freely Black. Those I interviewed living today in Houston, its suburbs, and in Deep East Texas spoke of Third Ward as a space of belonging in which people felt free to perform blackness in new ways. We all know a Hadnot, a Renfro, or a Simmons, because so many of them journeyed from Deep East Texas to Houston from the time of the Great Migration to the present.
In my research of these geographies, I encountered women who traveled from one space of belonging in a secluded settlement to find the same “survivals” of their black rural enclaves reproduced in Third Ward. African-American baby boomers descended from the inhabitants of rural freedom colonies (settlements Black Texans founded between 1865 and 1920) embody an urban-rural “in-between-ness.” Now living in suburbia, many of them hold dual senses of belonging to both Houston and rural East Texas freedom colonies, and are committed to preserving both spaces.
To sustain and preserve historic Black neighborhoods and communities, we must build upon and seek liminal spaces and peoples as “nodes” of knowledge exchange and resiliency—links in a chain, embodied continuity in the Black Meccas of rural East Texas and the Third Ward.
Dr. Andrea Roberts is an Assistant Professor Urban Planning and Faculty Fellow of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A & M University. Roberts was a 2016-2017 Emerging Scholar Fellowship in Race and Gender in the Built Environment of the American City at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Her research and teaching explores African American diasporas and heritage through ethnographic study and documentation of the history of African American placemaking and planning in early ex-slave settlements as well as contemporary grassroots planning and social constructions of “free Black ” communities.