Through Lenses of 12 Black Artists, CAMH Presents Visual History of Houston’s Freedmen’s Town

Through Lenses of 12 Black Artists, CAMH Presents Visual History of Houston’s Freedmen’s Town

Installation view of 'THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show' at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2023. (Photo by Sean Fleming)

IN THE SUMMER of 1865, less than two months after the end of the Civil War, thousands of former slaves, or “freedpeople,” from the Texas countryside and every state in the former Confederacy made the pilgrimage via the San Felipe Trail to Houston’s Fourth Ward and established Freedman’s Town — a neighborhood for families determined to build and establish a thriving community as the country entered the Reconstruction era. Nearby cypress trees provided wood to construct family homes and handcrafted bricks were used to create the neighborhood’s streets. In June 2021, the Houston City Council voted to make Freedmen’s Town the city’s first official Heritage District, which allows nonprofits to help fund the restoration and care of the community’s historic structures, including those brick streets.


Bricks are a recurring visual motif in THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show, a group show of paintings, photographs, videos, and mixed-media works by 12 Black artists that explore the history of Freedman’s Town, and life as it is lived today in this historic community. On view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston through March 17, the exhibit is part of the CAMH’s new partnership with Houston Freedman’s Town Conservatory (HFTC) and is curated by Mich Stevenson, with support from fifth-generation Freedman’s Town resident Charonda Johnson.

The participating artists include Johnson, the late artist and designer Imhotep Blot, Colby Deal, Nahtan (Nate Edwards), Dom Elam, Amarie Gipson, Priscilla T. Graham, Gem Hale, Berlin, Jaylen Pigford, Irene Antonia Diane Reece, and DJ and musicologist Jason Woods, also known as Flash Gordon Parks. Each artist was granted a research fellowship to create a work informed by the archives of Freedman Town’s African American Research Center and oral histories from the community’s residents.

The art on display ranges from large-scale installations to smaller intimate works, some relatively straightforward, others more head-scratching and cryptic, although nothing is presented without helpful historical background. Johnson’s miniature, mixed media work of found objects, including what looks like balls of cotton in the riders seats of a small Ferris wheel, pays tribute to the De-Ro-Loc (colored spelled backward) Carnival, which was established by Black Houstonians in 1899 in response to the whites-only No-Tsu-Oh (Houston spelled backward) autumn festival. Woods’ installation “The Ebony Bar” recreates the 1950s-era Freedman’s Town Tavern owned and operated by George Edward Johnson, and includes a bar, signage, and a vintage jukebox listing classic 45” singles by Bubbha Thomas and The Lightmen, soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks, Masters of Soul, and — humorously positioned under “Fox Trots and Rumbas” — DJ Screw’s classic mixtape “Robin St. 4 Life.” Meanwhile, Nate Edward’s poetic video “Hold It Close, Don’t Forget” features four different generations of Freedman’s Town Residents clinging to and suspended in the air by floating bricks.

In a time when basic, fundamental historical facts are being threatened with erasure, THIS WAY is not only a celebration of regional identity and pride but an opportunity for Houstonians and tourists visiting the Museum District to learn more about and connect with our nation’s collective history.

Installation view of 'THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show' at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2023. (Photo by Sean Fleming)

Installation view of 'THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show' at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2023. (Photo by Sean Fleming)

Installation view of 'THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show' at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2023. (Photo by Sean Fleming)

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