The number of Houstonians who know that Independence Heights was the first incorporated African-American city in Texas is small, but thanks to a host of developments in the area – including a new mural – that will hopefully change.
Tanya Debose with the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council says that her organization is responsible for stimulating investments in the neighborhood, and that the group has been strategizing for years about how to both revitalize the community and preserve its past.
“We want to be a voice for people who live here, as well as other stakeholders,” said Debose.
So when Whole Foods announced plans in 2015 to put its first Whole Foods Market 365 in Houston on the northeast corner of Yale St. and Loop 610, Debose’s group reached out to the company.
“We have a rich history in the Heights,” said Debose. “People think this is the Heights, but Independence Heights was never part of the Heights.”
As the Texas State Historical Association explains, Independence Heights was bounded on the south by Thirtieth Avenue, on the north by Fortieth Avenue, on the west by Yale Street, and on the east by Airline Drive in Harris County. The Wright Land Company developed a new community for African-Americans where homeownership was affordable due to private financing and because resident contractors built most of the houses and churches.
The city was incorporated in 1915 with a population of 600. The city’s mayor was G. O. Burgess, and its newspaper was The Houston Informer. The Independence Heights School was established in 1911, and a future mayor, O. L. Hubbard, served as its first teacher. There were grocery stores and cafes. Residents worked in Independence Heights or in Houston, the Houston Heights, and elsewhere. In 1928, Independence Heights ceased to be its own city when residents voted to become a part of Houston.
When the management at the Whole Foods asked how they could be good neighbors, Debose and the council told them about plans for historical murals in the neighborhood. That led to the company offering the side of their building for a showplace mural that Debose said is both “a canvas and a gateway” to Independence Heights.
The community wanted Solel International, a non-profit arts organization, to design the mural, with the community having content input. After a presentation, Whole Foods employed Solel to create it. Danny Asberry El, who is the president of Solel International, said the project has special resonance for him because his mother was a former resident of the neighborhood in the 1960s.
“She used to tell me how supportive everyone was here,” he said.
The mural, which was originally supposed to take three months was completed by five artists, including Asberry El, in a little over two weeks.
“Everything was preplanned,” said Asberry El, noting that Whole Foods was a very supportive partner throughout the process.
Debose explains that the mural depicts the three mayors of Independence Heights – G. O. Burgess, O. L. Hubbard, and Arthur L. McCullough looking down on the former city hall. Asberry El said that the other people pictured in the mural are looking up, “toward a brighter future.”
Asberry El said that the effort to mirror the community paid immediate dividends.
“A little boy came up while we painted and said ‘[the people] look like me!’ One of the other painters actually got choked up,” he said.
The mural is not the only way that Whole Foods is reaching out. Debose said that the company has recruited vendors and products that will reflect the area’s heritage and serve the immediate neighborhood.
Affordable housing, preservation is the key
Some years back, Debose participated in a livable center study which stressed the need for affordable housing, including multi-family housing.
In answer to that need, in 2017 the Houston Housing Authority built the first multifamily housing development in Independence Heights at 302 Crosstimbers Street, on the southeast corner of Crosstimbers and North Main Street.
In a press release announcing the project, the HHA said Houston has the third lowest availability of affordable housing for those with extremely low income or who earn 30 percent of their area median income.
The 154-unit Independence Heights Apartments, with solid wood cabinetry, granite countertops and an on-property community room for social gatherings and meetings, is now available for leasing.
Creating affordable housing in a neighborhood which real estate company Redfin recently named as a “have it all” neighborhood remains a challenge.
“We need to stop the bleed,” said Debose, who said her group is working very closely with elected officials, to keep its longtime residents from moving away. Some are in the flood plain and even with a buy out from the city, they wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in the place many have lived their whole lives. “They need to elevate homes, so people can stay there.”
One item that could be a game changer for the area is a Welcome Center, which Debose said the council will locate on North Main between 33rd and 35th streets.
“We’d like to create storyboards and other things,” said Debose. “We get a lot of tours here trying to find out our history. We want to do cultural programming and continue to find ways to tell our story.”
To tell the story, you have to preserve it. Debose said there are efforts underway to secure landmark designations for Burrus Elementary, Jackson’s Barbershop, seven historic churches and 20 locally protected homes.
Unfortunately, the original City Hall which was privately owned was previously sold and demolished.
Another impetus to preserve and revitalize the neighborhood is the promotion of a network of historic black towns across the country by the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance.
“They are creating a cultural corridor,” said Debose, “and we would be a stop along the corridor. We need to get some more good things on the ground for that.”