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The Third Ward

Good story about a great historic neighborhood.

In 1872, four influential African-American ministers and businessmen pooled $800 to buy 10 acres of land along Dowling Street. That was the birth of Emancipation Park, a safe place to celebrate Juneteenth and freedom from slavery.

TSU, still thriving in the Third Ward today, got its start as the Colored Junior College in 1927. In the next 25 years, the school would grow into a four-year university with its own 53-acre campus and law school. But the intent of state leaders at the time was to preserve segregation and the notion of “separate but equal” in higher education.

The Third Ward grocery store and luncheonette that was the site of Houston’s first sit-in is long gone, replaced by a post office. At the edge of the parking lot is a state historical marker that describes the students’ nonviolent protests, which eventually led to the peaceful desegregation of lunch counters, department stores, movie theaters and other local businesses.

“I realized fairly soon that ignoring these students was not the best thing to do,” [Rev. Bill] Lawson says. “Part of my calling as a minister was to be concerned about the vulnerable. It was not to maintain the standards of the powerful, which included the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Third Ward still is a real place in the hearts and minds of most of its residents and former residents, including the self-proclaimed “queen of the Third Ward,” BeyoncĂ©. No matter that the geographical and political demarcations that established four wards in 1839, then a fifth after the Civil War and a sixth in 1876, were essentially erased in 1905.

At that time, the city covered only 16 square miles, and none of the wards extended much more than two miles from the intersection of Main and Congress. Roughly, most of the historic Third Ward extended south and east from that dot on the map. Today, what is known as the Greater Third Ward has more than doubled in size and extends south to Old Spanish Trail and east to the University of Houston.

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Problems. Issues. Controversies. Certainly there are plenty in the Third Ward.

Brown says rising property taxes are making it hard for her to stay in her beloved neighborhood. “Those taxes are making it hard for everybody. I don’t know if they’re trying to push us out.”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is worried about the most often discussed problem in all six wards – gentrification. He welcomes new residents who want to become part of the neighborhood and respect the Third Ward traditions and culture.

For those moving in only because “they’re dying to get to downtown as fast as they can,” forget it, Coleman says. “We don’t need more three-story boxes, either.”

That’s a tall order. The Third Ward isn’t just close to downtown, it encompasses or is close to UH, Midtown, and the Museum District, too. People are going to want to live there, and short of applying historic status to various neighborhoods there’s not much you can do to prevent the three-story boxes and other high-end, non-traditional properties from being built. Personally, I’m a big fan of the foursquare brick architecture that you see around the Third Ward and the few remaining un-gentrified areas of Montrose, but I’m not buying up lots out there, either. Anyway, read the whole thing, especially if you don’t know much about the history of the Third Ward. For a town that paves over its past with brutal regularity, Houston sure has a rich one.

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