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Community Leaders Fighting Excavation of Historic Paving in Freedmen's Town

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In a city with precious few truly historic assets to preserve, the red bricks of Freedmen's Town are a powerful symbol that could all but perish in the path of progress.

"This was the first place that the Freedmen landed after slavery. They came and built this community. We lose a sense of place. We lose a legacy that these ingenious forefathers left for us," said Doris Ellis Robinson of the Freedmen's Town Coalition.

Laid down back in 1913 by hands who had known the suffering of bondage, it had taken the folks of Freedmen's Town six years to convince the city's white leadership to allow them to pay for the improvement out of their own pockets.

A century later, a different city leadership says the historic street must be torn open for new sewer and water pipes.

The Freedmen's Town Coalition has proposed tunneling under sidewalks instead, but Tuesday Mayor Annise Parker emphatically rejected the option.

"She said, 'I don't want anybody to get confused. This is how we are going to do it.' So we got a fight on our hands - a major fight," said Kofi Taharoka, National Black United Front Chairman.

While the City of Houston has promised to clean and re-place as many bricks as possible, it's estimated only a third will remain intact after excavation.

Likely lost will be patterns in the brick believed by historians to bear African lore and even directions.

"That pattern tells a story of families finding their way to safe places, pointing to the 19 churches they built in Freedmen's Town. They were safe places for them to not be harassed," said Catherine Roberts, Director of the Yates Museum.

"They are tapping into something they have no idea they are tapping into. They are tapping into our spirituality, our history and our culture. These people who built these streets, they left us a tremendous treasure," said Taharoka.

The Freedmen's Town Coalition has accused the City of violating the National Historic Preservation Act and claim an investigation is underway. With the viable option of sidewalk tunneling rejected, the hope is that outside forces will determine callous disregard for important history by the City Council and Mayor Parker.

"What they left for us is something we should care about and love enough to fight for," said Ellis Robinson.

"This is an opportunity for building some racial bridges. This is needed right now. We are really suffering in this country," said Roberts.

The Mayor's Office issued the following statement:

"We will make every effort to preserve the bricks in Freedman's Town and replace them in the same pattern. We must also take into consideration all of the residents who deserve the best infrastructure in that area and make it happen within our allotted budget. Bear in mind we are doing several preservation projects in that area which include the area around The Gregory School."

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