Photo By Ferrel Phelps

The Lost Roads of Freedman's Town

Houston's history is filled with holes. This has been the bane of local historians for decades, twice the city has lost its archives and most of what's left is in private collections. Many parts of the city's past have been preserved only as oral history. From retelling to retelling history becomes lore, and lore becomes legend. That is what has happened to a single street, Andrew Street in the Fourth Ward. Dating back to the civil war, the street is part of a fight to preserve its history, though those that are trying to save it don't realize this is just the latest incarnation of the storied avenue.

Andrews is in the heart of Freedman's Town, founded by emancipated slaves after the civil war. Long neglected by the city, like many minority neighborhoods the area had to rely on its own people to provide local services rather than the government. When Freedman's Town was originally created in 1865 the residents petitioned the city and the reconstruction government for proper roads. The city had no inclination to provide the freed slaves with roads, and the military governor was extremely busy pacifying the state.

Sometime in the late 1860's Freedman's Town did get their roads, though little is known about them except they were of poor quality. A mixture of dirt roads made of gravel and shells, they were little better than just mud. Still, the roads could handle wagon and horse traffic and served their purpose. The first Andrews Road lasted for over 30 years, until it was destroyed along with most of the neighborhood by the Great Hurricane of 1900. The area was prone to flooding to begin with, but the damage from the storm was catastrophic. The original Bethel Baptist church was swept away in the flood waters. Every building was destroyed or severely damaged. The road lost several inches of foundation and was deemed a total loss by the city.

For the next several years Andrews Street and the surrounding areas were left with just a mud road. The city's reconstruction was painfully slow, and the black community was not a priority. One man, a preacher and businessman named Ned Pullum, took matters in his own hands and created Pullum Standard Brickworks in 1904. Pullum was a mason, and his expertise allowed him to rebuild the roads using bricks created from the muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou. The roads were supposed to be patterned at each intersection with spiritual symbols, but sadly no record of these seems to exist today. The mud and clay bricks were the first real roads Freedman's Town had ever known.

The last incarnation of Andrews Street was created when the city finally got around to answering the petitions from the neighborhood. Pullum's bricks were adequate, but they were not a long term solution. In 1914, a full seven years after Freedman's Town filed a formal petition to get new roads built, the city contracted Eureka Paving to replace all the mud and clay bricks with slate bricks from Coffeyville, Kansas. Local folklore said the bricks were paid for by the residents at the cost of $1 per brick, while Pullum's bricks were paid for by locals at a much lower price, Eureka's bricks were installed at a price of $1 per foot. One neighbor who's name was lost to time nearly scuttled the deal by demanding money to have the road in front of his house paved, but community pressure made him change his mind.

Progress on repaving the roads was painfully slow. What was supposed to take a few years took the better part of a decade. Eureka received angry letters from the commissioner of roads accusing them of padding the contract. When Eureka finished the first part of the contract, they were replaced with another brick company that finally paved the last of Freedman's Town with the red brick roads you see today. After over almost sixty years, the neighborhood had the streets it needed.

Today Andrews is in a serious state of disrepair. Much of Freedman's Town is gone, replaced with townhomes and upscale stores. The rebuilt Bethel Baptist burned down in 2005, was condemned in 2009 and finally converted into a part inside the walls of the rebuilt church. Large portions of the bricks are lost, and potholes are filled in with random bricks of all types to just cheap poured asphalt. Parts of the street have sunk into the ground, causing uneven sections guaranteed to bottom out almost any car. Worse, the sewage system is in bad need of being updated, and the city is in a legal dispute with a community organization over replacing the sewer with preserving the history of the Eureka bricks.

Andrews Street has rebuilt multiple times. Through natural disaster, negligence and necessity the street needed to be replaced. Freed slaves facilitated the first incarnation, a complacent government allowed the second to happen, an enterprising community leader created the third, and finally the city came around and came to the aid of a neighborhood it had long neglected. Now Andrews is in need of a new surface again. Time and the courts will determine what the new Andrews will look like, but it will just be the latest in a long string of roads to serve the Fourth Ward.

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