As part of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has also been a renewed interest in black towns. A temporary “Black Towns Matter” mural in Independence Heights, inspired by the street mural in Washington, D.C., debuted Juneteenth weekend and will be visible until the end of July, if rains don’t wash it away first.
Black families started to migrate to the North Houston neighborhood now known as Independence Heights around 1908, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The area was developed by Wright Land Company and consisted of small, wood-framed houses purchased by the residents. Many of the houses were built by black contractors who lived in the area.
On January 25, 1915, Independence Heights – with its population of nearly 600 residents – was incorporated, becoming the first African-American municipality in Texas. Lawyer George O. Burgess was elected its first mayor. Independence Heights was annexed by the City of Houston on Dec. 26, 1929, but its significance is still championed by residents of the neighborhood also known as Studewood.
Tanya Dubose, who heads up the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, is one of those supporters. For Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the date in 1865 when black slaves in Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation issued two years earlier, Dubose along with other stakeholders and a number of students wanted to do something big to recognize the area’s significance.
“(It is) history not in the history books,” she said.
Dubose said the temporary mural at the 3300 block of Link Road, which featured the phrase “Black Towns Matter” with the “O” a portrait of Mayor Burgess, was not widely publicized by her group. Yet there was a helicopter taking photographs over Juneteenth weekend and media coverage that reached far beyond Houston.
“We had such a diversity of people who brought their families (to see it),” Dubose said.
The hashtag #blacktownsmatter highlights other towns that also marked their historic significance – in Canada, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, among other places.
“It was an international thing,” Dubose noted.
To honor the neighborhood’s seniors, there was a parade for them to enjoy from their porches or front doors.
“Our seniors had not been out of the house,” Dubose said. “Some did get out and dance on the mural.”
Also on June 19, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher visited Independence Heights to see the mural and to announce the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that has been filed to make #Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Because the artists did not use permanent paint, the rain will eventually wash the mural away. Some of that has already occurred, but Dubose remains hopeful that it will remain mostly intact for a number of weeks.
While she says much of the reaction to the mural was positive, there were also comments online that the creation of the mural was a racist act.
“The establishment of black towns – it was racism that created them,” Dubose counters. “(Whites) didn’t want to live in the same neighborhoods. So we went and made our own towns and incorporated some of them. I’m proud of what my ancestors accomplished.”