FERRELL PHELPS AND
HIS STRUGGLE TO SAVE FREEDMAN'S TOWN
Written By H.G.Welch
Houston loves renovation at the expense of its past. The city is constantly under construction and large portions of neighborhoods have been re-branded to fit modern needs.
From it's struggle to renovate downtown in the '90s to turning the old factories and warehouses by the George R. Brown into the fashionable Eado, the Bayou City loves its face lifts. There is a cost though, as what little is left of our history gets torn down without a second thought. Nowhere in the city personifies this problem than Freedman's Town.
Founded after Civil War by the freed slaves, the neighborhood that bore the name of its founders has long been ignored by the city. The residents became self sufficient due to the neglect the city's leaders were often guilty of.
After the Great Hurricane of 1900 when the roads and foundations were completely destroyed, the city refused to repave the roads until other parts of the city were repaired first. In response Pastor Ned Pullum founded the Pullum Standard Brickworks and paved the streets himself using clay from the shores of Buffalo Bayou.
When the freeways came in the 1950's Freedman's town was split in half, and tens of thousands dispossessed as their homes became parking lots and skyscrapers in Downtown Houston leaving only Antioch Baptist Church as the sole building left on that side of the freeway. In 1984 the neighborhood was declared a National Historical Site, but the city through eminent domain and tax liens have taken more and more land.
Economic issues hit the neighborhood just as hard, and from the 580 buildings in 1984 when the neighborhood was given historical recognition, barely 70 remain, and almost all in poor repair.
Now a new attempt to save the dwindling area has emerged. Ferrell Phelps, local celebrity photographer and film producer, is trying to preserve what little of Freedman's town is left through a documentary. Houston is trying to balance renovating the neighborhood and preserving its historic importance. Sadly many of the buildings are beyond repair, and the streets are a mess of patchwork replacement bricks.
Phelps is trying to make people aware of the lost culture and history by recreating the people that walked the red brick streets for more than a century. Though the original Pullum brick roads are lost to time, the red slate bricks that replaced the clay are a sign of the will to be treated as equals. For seven long years the streets were a left a muddy mess until Pullum did the work himself. His stubbornness finally forced the city to address the Freedman roads, and the nearly century old bricks are a testament to his perseverance.
Phelps' documentary showcases the entirety of Freedman town's history. From its start from newly freed slaves, through Houston's dark past with racial tensions, to its heydays of the 1940's, its decent into crime after the crippling land seizure and finally its much diminished status today, Phelps uses photography and film to show what it was like for more than a century. With so much lost, including even Pullum Standard Brickworks and Bethel Baptist, he is trying to hold on to a major part of the city.
His hopes are to save what is left, from the Hayes Museum to the last of the row houses. He is a pragmatist, knowing that time and neglect has already doomed many of the buildings, but still is trying to save what can be preserved. He is focused on the red roads, in the hopes of preserving them if not as a road, then as the cornerstones of a museum.
Phelps has brought in local celebrities as well as up and coming models and athletes to appear in his compelling photographs. He knows the only way to save the dying community is through publicity, and it is his hope that he can move enough people through the imagery and emotional pull of losing a large portion of the city's rich history that what little is left can be saved.
The neighborhood's past with the city government has been contentious at best, so he hopes that private citizens can rally to the call as they have done in the past to save the buildings and the street.
Ferrell Phelps has set up several websites to help spread the word on his project and raise money to help with the preservation efforts.
Official Facebook Link