Wednesday, 29 March 2017 09:30

Documenting the past

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Gregory School 1903 Gregory School 1903 Photo courtesy of African American Library at the Gregory School


West of downtown Houston nestled between high-rise condos and midtown eateries sits the African American Library at the Gregory School in historic Freedman’s Town.

Once serving as the city’s first African American public school, the restored red-bricked building now serves as a community resource that preserves and promotes the rich history of African Americans in Houston.

“The African American Library is the third special collection from the Houston Public Library System,” said Danielle Wilson, curator and manager for HPL’s African American Library at the Gregory School.

Classroom in Gregory School

photo by: Courtesy of African American Library at the Gregory School

“Its mission is to promote and preserve African American history and culture.”

Founded in 1870, the Gregory School, previously known as the Gregory Institute, was originally located in downtown Houston on Jefferson Street between Smith and Louisiana until a severe storm left the building beyond repair.

In 1903, the school was relocated to Victor Street in Freedman’s Town, the city’s first independent black neighborhood where freed slaves settled near the southern swampy edges of the Buffalo Bayou after the Civil War.

In 1926, construction of the existing building took place.

“Because it was the first self-contained African American community, they moved the elementary school to this neighborhood,” said Wilson. “It served as an elementary school from 1926 until the early 80s.”

For three decades, the building stood vacant before being acquired by the city from the Houston Independent School District.

Through federal community development block grants and library and city of Houston construction funds, the dilapidated school was redeveloped into the first city building dedicated to African American history.

Wall of photos for exihibit in Gregory School

photo by: Courtesy of African American Library at the Gregory School

“Mayor Lee Brown looked at other institutions across the country that were doing the same thing we wanted to do,” Wilson said. “And that is to serve not only as an archive but also as special collections with exhibition space.”

“There were efforts before, but there was no building,” said Wilson of earlier attempts to create a dedicated space focused on African American heritage.

 “All of the doors that you see are doors that were in the original structure,” said Wilson of the remodel of the building, which included the addition of reading rooms, permanent exhibit galleries, a special collections stacks room, a library, and an oral history recording studio.

With a focus on African American culture and history, the undertaking of collecting artifacts for the library was lead by Patricia Smith Prather, co-founder of the Texas Trailblazer Preservation Association.

“She was the historian on the project,” said Wilson. “She went into the community to raise awareness about the Gregory School and also to collect objects and items.”

 “We did scanning projects throughout the city and at differing neighborhood library locations back in 2008,” Wilson said.

 “We asked people to bring documents and old photographs,” she said. “We collected quite a few collections that way.”

But the library’s aspiration to document the history of African Americans in Houston is far from over.

“We’re still trying to build their story,” said Wilson of the library’s continuous efforts to preserve and collect items of cultural or historical significance through its Walk-in Wednesday Archiving Services.

“People can come in with their items, photographs or documents that they want to donate,” said Miguell Cesar, lead archivist at HPL’s African American Library at the Gregory School. “We will go over the items they have and determine their significance and historical research value.”

“If they’re ready to start a collection, we sign a donor agreement form,” he said. “If I find something that I know is of use, that’s the exciting part.”

Since opening its doors in 2009, the library has amassed nearly 500 special collections that reflect African American culture and traditions.

“African American history wasn’t documented well in the beginning,” he said. “The library is helping to fill in those gaps.”

Exibit in Gregory School

photo by: Courtesy of African American Library at the Gregory School

“Finding people in Houston that contributed to something significant but were never documented or even acknowledged, we’re able to do that here,” Cesar said.

“Often times people don’t think about 50 or 100 years from now,” Wilson said of the significance of the library and it collections. “People might be gone but their legacy can still be celebrated.”

“In a sense, we are living in history,” Wilson said. “It’s like reading a book chapter by chapter, you want to know what happened then.”

“If you don’t think you know what you have, you should definitely come see the archivist,” Cesar said of residents who might have items tucked away in storage boxes.

The library has four permanent galleries that highlight African American culture and traditions, including a temporary exhibit gallery that rotates exhibits every 3 to 4 months.

The next exhibit to be showcased is Wandering Spirit: African Wax Prints, a tribute to the century-old handmade designs and patterns on textiles that originated in Indonesia and were copied and industrialized by Europeans and exported to Africa.

The exhibit will be on view from May 15, 2017 until August 16, 2017.

To learn more about the African-American Library at the Gregory School, log on to



The Hilliard Taylor Photo Collection  Houses along a street in 4th Ward.
Willie Lee Gay Collections, Yates home on 1318 Andrews Street, showing wagon and horse drawn carriage. Home built in 1870.  1900s
 PH0030 Bennie Ruth Lewis Jackson Collection 1965 Inside the
The John Hightower Collection  Gregory School Class Photo Date Original 1948
The John Hightower Collection Gregory School Class Photo 1948
The John Hightower Collection Booker T. Washington Basketball Team 1954 ; 1955
McCullough Family Collections Wyatts Chapel Baptist Church 1956
The C.F. and Hortense Smith Collection  Unidentified man sitting at a desk.


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Walk-In Wednesdays Archiving Services

The library offers archiving services to the public every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  The public is encouraged to bring items to be viewed by an archivist or discuss a possible interview with an oral historian.

Example of past donations include:

  • Letters and post cards
  • Wills and deeds
  • Research notes and memoirs
  • Scrapbooks
  • Photos
  • Family Trees 
Permanent exhibit galleries at the African American Library at the Gregory School
Restored classroom

The gallery showcases a classroom restored to its original 1926 appearance.

Freedman’s town gallery in honor of the neighborhood

The gallery chronicles the establishment of the African American community in Houston after emancipation.  A variety of stories, powerful images, timelines, and artifacts make up this gallery.

Two African Americans in Houston Gallery

The gallery honors African America Houstonians whose culture and heritage played a significant role in the development of the city into what it is today. Photographs and artifacts represent seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and fait. 

Temporary Exhibitions Galleries

The gallery features new exhibitions that highlight African American history, culture, or the arts. Educational programs including lectures, films and workshops complement these exhibits. At times, some exhibitions will utilize items from the Gregory School special collections of historical items.


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