REBIRTH OF AN ICON
Black history library will honor 4th Ward
By ALLAN TURNER
Vacant for almost 30 years, Fourth Ward’s Edgar Gregory School — once a bastion of education in the heart of Houston’s oldest black neighborhood — had fallen on hard times. Wind whistled through broken windows; rain cascaded through the roof; pigeons frolicked where once earnest young scholars pursued their vision of a broader, better life.
All around the Victor Street elementary, a direct descendant of Houston’s first African-American school, market forces whittled away at Freedmen’s Town, a once-vibrant center of black life. What was left was, as with the school, little more than a reminder of what had been.
But don’t sell the Gregory short. Next month, the school will bound back to the center of community life as the African American Library at Gregory School, the first Houston Public Library branch exclusively devoted to black history and culture. The makeover cost $11 million from federal community development block grants, and library and city of Houston construction funds, said library spokeswoman Sandra Fernandez.
It will feature reading rooms, galleries, an oral history recording studio and office space for visiting scholars. At its core will be an archive of photos, recordings and documents focusing on the lives of blacks in Houston.
To administrative manager Hellena Stokes, the new library will “pay homage to the people who were living here, the people who created the community,” and preserve their legacy for current and future generations.
“It will help us realize that we have a great history,” she said, “and that history is Houston’s history.”
The African American Library, set to open Nov. 14, will join the public library’s other special collections, which include the Houston Metropolitan Research Center specializing in local and state history and the Clayton Library for Genealogical Research.
As a research library, Stokes said, the center will differ from neighborhood libraries in that it will not lend books or other materials.
Renovation of the Gregory School, which opened in 1926, began last year, said Wendy Heger, the library’s assistant director for planning and facilities.
“The interior was a wreck,” Heger said. “The floors were rotten and had holes. The roof had holes. But the brick and concrete superstructure was good. We did a little reinforcing of the structure, but it was solid.”
The school’s exterior had been coated with white cement plaster, which was removed to reveal the handsome underlying red bricks. The biggest change to the building — a Texas Historical Commission archeological landmark — is a glass-fronted lobby on the building’s north end.
“When we open our doors, people are going to be totally amazed,” Stokes said. “The transformation is wonderful, but there still is a sense of the old school. The hallways still are like the elementary schools of those times.”
The building’s first floor will be devoted to exhibits documenting black history. The upper floor will contain the library’s collections, and provide reading rooms and office space for staff and visiting scholars.
A long lineage
Gregory School is a direct descendant of the Gregory Institute, the city’s first black school, which opened in 1870 on Jefferson Street. The school was named for the Freedmen’s Bureau official who donated land for the institute. For decades, the Victor Street school was a center of community life for Freedmen’s Town, a black neighborhood abutting downtown that was settled by freed slaves after the Civil War.
The library’s collections will include a broad range of materials documenting the black American experience, Stokes said. The local collections, which will include letters, newspaper clippings, business documents, photographs and recorded oral accounts, are being assembled from the ground up.
“A lot of people think we will just be getting materials from the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. An effort to solicit items for the library began earlier this year with the opening of collection centers at neighborhood libraries and an outreach program to local churches.
A special emphasis is being given to the library’s Fourth Ward neighborhood. “We were a real community,” Stokes said. “We had churches, homes and businesses. A lot of that is gone without a trace. Gentrification has happened just as it happens in most major cities.”
Thus far, about 200 items — photos of and ads for historic businesses, letters, news accounts of school sports triumphs — have been collected.
“This library has been a long time coming,” Stokes said. “But it’s here. It’s a reality.”
The African American Library at Gregory School needs historic photos documenting life in Houston’s black neighborhoods. To donate, call 832-393-1384. Here are some of the types of pictures needed.
• Architecture: old and new developments in neighborhoods to document growth and change
• Business: businesses and business owners
• Nature: tropical storms, hurricanes and, especially, snow
• Politics: rallies, marches, protests
• Leisure: dances, art, fairs
• Sports: tennis, football, basketball, boxing
• Schools: graduation and graduates, high school football games, homecoming, prom
• Churches: congregations, pastors, baptism, christenings, vacation Bible school, church picinics