Local VIPS come out for Freedman's Town Project

By: Darshell McAlpine

Meet the incomparable Ferrell Phelps, artist, talk show host, and renowned celebrity photographer. The list of personalities he has photographed from TV, movies, sports, and music is impressive: Dionne Warwick, Destiny’s Child, Kelly Price, Nancy Wilson, Shaquille O’Neal, Nephew Tommy, Thomas Miles, Rachelle Ferrell and the list goes on. There is no bravado or ego to navigate when you meet him, no immediate sign of the impact he has had or the circles he has been a part of. He is just an unassuming man with an infectious laugh, outrageous sense of humor and a pronounced passion for nearly every genre of art, but most specifically photography. After several years of arduous preparation, the Ferrell Phelps Freedmen’s Town Exhibition was finally unveiled on Saturday, July 8, 2017, at the University of Houston.

Tawana Cox photographer

The exhibition took attendees on a journey through time featuring vignettes and thought-provoking photographs depicting what life may have been like for Freedmen Town settlers. In the very middle of the ballroom rested a raised platform that resembled an auction block. On that platform, which included an American flag, stood three African-American men chained and roped together, dressed in burlap loin cloths, behind an actual for sale sign that read “Valuable Gang of Young Negroes”. If you were not riveted by that display, you only needed to wait for the string of protesters coming against the murder of innocent African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement followed by the gospel choir singing “Safe in His Arms” to be swallowed up in emotions. The evening was a powerful reminder of the perseverance of Houston's African-American community.

Newly freed slaves established Freedmen Town around 1865 near Houston’s Buffalo Bayou in what is now called the Fourth Ward or Midtown. On land deemed untameable at the time due to its swamp-like terrain, newly freed slaves laid the foundation for what would become a thriving community of churches, homes, businesses, and educational institutions. The streets were laid with bricks that not only acted as pavement for traversing the terrain but also as a means of communication and protection for its residents. Those bricks have become a symbol of the struggle the community faces as it seeks to survive and has led to many initiatives to keep them from being removed.

Tawana Cox photographer



It was at a “Save the Bricks” rally in 2014 where Ferrell acknowledged his limited power to make the kind of changes that would save the area completely. On the other hand, he understood that if nothing else, he could help preserve its great history through photography. With that in mind, Ferrell came up with the plan for a project using actors and actresses to portray fictitious scenes from the era, bringing to life the beauty and strength of that community while preserving the legacy it represents.

Tawana Cox photographer

Hundreds of people from Houston and around the country came together to celebrate this magnificent body of work. Five-time Grammy Award Winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams and the illustrious educator Dr. Thomas F. Freeman were the 2017 Ferrell Phelps Freedmen’s Town Exhibition Honorees. George “Golden Boy” Phelps entertained with the release of his new single and video “The Bricks Shall Remain”. A host of vendors, volunteers, and professionals donated their time, talent and treasure to make the night unforgettable.

Tawana Cox photographer

Freedmen Town has changed dramatically since 1865. As Midtown, it now boasts high-end town homes and flats that have no hint of the sacrifices made to bring the area to life. Ferrell envisioned the exhibit as a part of the collective effort to keep a legacy alive, an effort that started with Freedmen Town founders like Jack Yates and continues to this day with those pastors and civic leaders on the ground making their voices heard. This exhibit just adds volume to that work. The Ferrell Phelps Freedmen’s Town Exhibition is the heartfelt labor of a team of highly trained and passionate people headed by an extraordinary visionary whose only goal is to make sure that Freedmen Town is not forgotten.

Tawana Cox photographer
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