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Independence Heights: A Window to the Past

Background | Founders | Annexation

In 1908, black families began to move into an area northeast of Houston known as Independence Heights. By 1915, it contained over 600 people. That same year, its residents voted to become an incorporated city in Texas. This was significant because this settlement was completely owned and run by African Americans. In fact, the new city of Independence Heights was the first African American city in the state of Texas, according to accounts in the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post.

_____The citizens of Independence Heights elected attorney G.O. Burgess as the first mayor, established several churches, raised a city hall, and built a school. The city’s blocks filled quickly with dozens of black-owned businesses and homes built by resident contractors. In Independence Heights, people found a welcoming community life.

_____Yet, what makes Independence Heights historically significant has just as much to do with the ways in which its history and people were typical as it does with the ways in which they were unique. The stories of the city and its citizens reflect many of the early twentieth century experiences of African Americans throughout the South. In this way, the history of Independence Heights serves as a window through which we can glimpse part of the African American experience during the first half of the 20th century.

_____The Reconstruction era after the Civil War ended set the stage for the birth of Independence Heights. Houston’s African American slaves first learned of their emancipation when General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. In Texas, this day is still celebrated as “Juneteenth.” Following Granger’s arrival, freed slaves poured into the Houston area from plantations in nearby Brazoria and Fort Bend counties.

_____Freed slaves settled throughout the Houston area, rather than concentrating in a single location, and many acquired property at a surprisingly rapid rate. By the early 1880s, one-fourth of the black homes in the Third and Fourth Wards were owner-occupied. The former slaves who were able to obtain property were typically employed as skilled workers, shopkeepers, business owners, and professionals. These career achievements, however, were not the experience of most former slaves. In 1870 eighty-two percent of all ex-slaves were employed as domestic, unskilled, or semiskilled workers.

_____During the early part of Reconstruction, former slaves made additional gains on the political front. Houston’s Republican Party worked tirelessly to register black voters and in 1869 elected the radical Republican Mayor, Thomas H. Scanlan. In the same election, several blacks were elected to the Houston City Council. A few years later, Scanlan and three African American city councilmen were reelected to office.

Background | Founders | Annexation

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