More than 150 years ago, a story of freedom began to unfold in Houston’s Fourth Ward as thousands of freed slaves made the historic neighborhood their new home.
Working together, the freed slaves began their journey to establish a community that would later become known as Freedmen’s Town, a national historic site that embodies the rich history of African Americans plight to live freely in Houston following the Emancipation Proclamation.
It’s a place Zion Escobar said she is helping to preserve through Houston’s Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve the legacy of Freedmen’s Town through organizing, policy, and community engagement.
Their purpose is to tell the untold stories of Freedmen’s Town and gain global recognition for the oldest Black settlement in Houston.
“So many people don't know how essential Freedmen’s Town is to the national story of freedom,” said Escobar, the executive director of Houston’s Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. “There's an incredible jewel there. It just needs to be uncovered and polished and refined, so that people can understand the value of this history and why it's worth protecting and preserving, which is what we aim to do.”
The idea of freedom is a common thread among many Combined Municipal Campaign Agencies who provide essential services to the community and promote social causes that help underserved families and communities to become economically independent.
CMC agencies are central to the city’s annual employee giving drive that raised more than $700,000 last year, demonstrating how city employees and CMC agencies unite to spark change — even during a global pandemic.
“I was humbled by the number of employees who donated during a challenging time for everyone,” said Jennifer Cobb, the city’s citywide CMC coordinator. “It really shows that city employees and CMC agencies care about making a positive impact and that’s where the 2022 COH Cares campaign comes in.”
“We really wanted to show the community that city employees and CMC agencies are on a mission of care together,” Cobb said.
Escobar said CMC donations will help the Conservancy to fund a broad community engagement effort to promote awareness about their top five priorities, including organization, historic preservation, heritage tourism, collaborative leadership, and education and citizen empowerment.
She said she believes telling the story of Freedmen’s Town can trigger economic investment that will protect its legacy.
“With community engagement, re-education, and the development of heritage tourism, what we're doing is triggering investment to transform Freedmen’s Town into a center of commerce and tourism and expand the recognition of its legacy to a global scale,” Escobar said.
“Freedmen’s Town is where Black Houston took shape,” Escobar said. “It’s the source of the city’s early Black leadership. It’s where the story of freedom began.”
“They built homes, schools, businesses, churches and lives,” Escobar said. “They built a world in which African Americans could prosper and thrive.”
The Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy is leading several projects to help tell the story of Freedmen’s Town.
To help promote heritage tourism, the Conservancy is developing a Visitor Center to support community engagement, an augmented reality app that will provide a self-guided immersive experience in real time for tourists and locals, and a web-based platform that displays a visual and historically accurate representation of the development of Freedmen’s Town from 1865 to 2020 that can be viewed online.
They will also develop a financial incentive plan that will aid in the preservation of current historic resources in the community and a long-range plan to gain World Heritage Designation to help ensure the legacy of Freedmen’s Town.
Escobar said she hopes city employees will join the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy’s mission and vision to reimagine how preservation is viewed by the community, while working to tell the untold stories of the historic community and the many challenges residents have endured over the last 150 years.
“With your help, we will deliver a call heard around the world to visit, invest, and celebrate this legacy,” she said.
Freedmen’s Town is a story of resiliency, which city employees and CMC agencies can relate to as we all navigate life during a pandemic.
This year, let us continue to unite in our mission of caring through our generous donations to CMC agencies that pave a way for at-risk kids to attend college, shelter families from homelessness, help feed the community, work to save the environment, or save abandoned animals from the streets.
Let’s do it because COH cares.
CMC agency code #2894.