How one photographer documented the disappearing landscape of Houston’s Fourth Ward
In 1984, Elbert D. Howze, a Black Vietnam War veteran in his 30s, was studying photography at the University of Houston. After class one day, he drove about 10 minutes northwest into Houston’s Fourth Ward. He wondered at the narrow streets, the tumbledown houses, and the proud community that seemed forgotten by the city. Howze had found his way to Freedmen’s Town, a once-bustling neighborhood settled by formerly enslaved people in 1866—one of many such enclaves founded in the Reconstruction era. Its streets were still paved with bricks that the newly free had laid in intricate patterns. Soon he was visiting the Fourth Ward with his camera “practically every day,” his widow, Barbara Howze, told me.
Howze arrived at a moment when the neighborhood was under threat. Since before World War II, the city of Houston had used eminent domain to capture land, making way for whites-only housing and later I-45. By the late 1970s, Houston was in the midst of an oil boom, and many landlords had sold their property to developers. Howze’s photographs documented what was left of a disappearing landscape, including the ward’s characteristic 19th-century shotgun cottages and the first Black public school in Houston, the Gregory School (bottom row, second from left). But above all, he let the neighborhood’s remaining residents fill the frame with their personality. The texture of their lives offers a corrective to erasure.
“The Fourth Ward is more than just a place,” Howze wrote. “It is a state of mind, but more importantly, it is people.” His regard for his subjects is reflected in their unstudied poses, the smiles intimating camaraderie. A boy, flanked by his buddies, stares back at the photographer. Two women show off a baby, their arms akimbo.
Howze died in 2015. Today his photographs are held in the Fourth Ward at the Gregory School, now restored as an African American history center. They are an essential record of the historic neighborhood, where activists are still fighting to save the brick streets laid by the emancipated.
*All images: MSS 0171—Elbert D. Howze Photographs, African American History Research Center, Houston Public Library
This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “Freedmen’s Town.”