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Court- ordered mediation may help FTPC save historical bricks

Gladys House of the FTPC, leading a libation ritual before the press conference.
Gladys House of the FTPC, leading a libation ritual before the press conference.

What seemed to be a pre- court room press conference about the historical bricks that line the streets in Freedmen’s Town/Fourth Ward, turned out to be a notice that a resolution could be right around the corner by way of court ordered mediation.
Led by their apparent tireless leader, Dorris Ellis Robinson, the Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition and supporters presented a statement giving the public an update on what the status is on the bricks and their removal.

“The impasse came on January 20 when the city began removing the bricks and the FTPC immediately sought a restraining order and Judge Alexandra Smoots- Hogan granted a Temporary Restraining Order with a hearing set for Friday, January 30,” said Dorris Ellis Robinson, President of the FTPC. “With the importance of this historic cultural resource, the need for preservation and the need to improve infrastructure in the area, Judge Larry Weidman, in the 80th Civil District Court has ordered the City and FTPC to mediation, which begins February 5.”

The mediation news is an ice breaker in the long standing stalemate between the City and the FTPC about the removal of the bricks for an infrastructure utility project to be done under the historical brick streets.

After a temporary restraining order (TRO) was served to Don Conrad of Conrad Construction on January 20th and the project came to a crashing halt, the City of Houston contested the motion which landed the FTPC under the counsel of Attorney Benjamin Hall in Judge Smoots-Hogan’s courtroom on Tuesday, January 27th, a week after the restraining order was served. Judge Smoots- Hogan upheld her TRO, only to amend it to add the date it was issued to the document.

January 30th was the anticipated day for a court room battle that has been brewing for 7 months, but Judge Larry Weidman whose court they were scheduled to be in, ordered the two parties to mediation during a status meeting between both counsels.
“I want preservation of the area, if it comes through mediation I’m good with that, if it comes through a forced resolution we are fine with that as well,” said Ellis- Robinson.

The TRO is still in effect and during the mediation phase the bricks are protected from removal by the City.
Members of the FTPC are hopeful through mediation the City will see that there are alternate solutions and see the value of preserving such a historical landmark.

“They are historic, they are legacy, they are the blood and sweat of the freed men and their ancestors and their money made the difference,” said Ellis- Robinson. “That is why we can stand here today because they made a decision to improve themselves and this was about 49 years out of slavery, so their energy should be an inspiration to us all, so this area should be a place where people should want to come to see what did people do once slavery ended, where did they go, how did they fare, how did they make a living. It’s so much energy that should come from it.”

Their plan is to come before the City again, as they have presented their trenchless tunneling method of procedure since July of 2014, and ask them to take another look at their actions and what taking those bricks up means to the city.
Restoration is not an option; the FTPC wants preservation only and is still ready to fight for what they believe in. One hurdle they have to go back and jump again is the bricks that have already been removed in two previous attempts to uproot. The City of Houston promised to label each brick so they may be placed back from which they came, yet during the excavation of the bricks twice prior, no labeling was performed.

“That is an unresolved issue that has to be discussed at the table,” said Ellis-Robinson about the failure of the City to label the bricks. It is a known fact that the bricks were laid in a Yoruba pattern that led many to safety and have historical markings on some. “We can’t let that continue and we will find clarity to figure it out.”

A voice in the midst of the supporters compared Freedmen’s Town bricks to the infrastructure project performed in River Oaks many years ago, calling for the same methods to be used.

“The city of Houston actually pioneered trenchless technology 30 years ago in the River Oaks project when they put in all the sewage there without disturbing the streets and not tearing up the surface at the demand of the people of River Oaks,” said Michael Nixon, the National Historical Preservation Consultant for the RBH Yates Museum located in Freedmen’s Town blocks away from the designated removal site. “That was done and it’s been done all over the country and even since then it’s a common thing. You actually save money because it’s a less labor intensive thing you don’t have to have as much digging up and in terms of the bricks you don’t have to mark them, remove them, put them back in the same place which is very labor intensive and the city is not even doing that, they infer they are but they really aren’t and they admitted that in court on Tuesday that they aren’t numbering the bricks and we are saying like before, do what you did for the people of River Oaks and do it for Freedmen’s Town, it’s a win, win and it doable. It’s very easy to adapt the current contract to provide for that.”

Now that a judge has order the City to talk to the FTPC via mediation the discussion of preservation and protection for what was called a “culture treasure” will finally take place on what should be listening ears with a mind for compromise.

“We aren’t trying to present the City with any new information. We have been presenting to the City since July options that were available to them to preserve and protect,” said Ellis- Robinson, FTPC President.
“Now that the judge said go to mediation to work it out and figure it out, I believe that on both sides we will work to figure out what the solution is. We will come out with a good solution for the preservation of the Freedmen’s Town and also to provide the infrastructure that citizens in this area is in need of.”

Updated information: Mediation will begin Wednesday, February 4, 2015 from 9a.m.-5p.m. at 770 South Post Oak lane, #410, 77056 with Judge Mark Davidson as the mediator. Mediation for FTPC is led by Attorney Benjamin Hall.

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The bricks came up to go back down: Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition saves the bricks for another day

Concerned citizens sit on the bricks to prevent further removal.
Concerned citizens sit on the bricks to prevent further removal.

The Freedmen Town Preservation Coalition (FTPC) showed how serious they are about protecting the historical bricks of Fourth Ward today as they firmly stood on the bricks, unmoved, forcing Conrad construction crew to stop removing the bricks.

On Wilson St, in Fourth Ward construction crews hand removed bricks for what was a demonstration of what will be. They dug up the bricks and stacked them on top of each other before the FTPC and concerned community members began to show unrest about the demonstration.

“This is just a trial,” said Alvin Wright, Public Information Officer for the City of Houston. “We are hand picking them up and taking them to a center to have them cleaned and to see if we are doing the process properly.”

The continuous fight over preservation and restoration has been continuous since June when Mayor Parker announced she would restore the streets in Freedmen’s Town/Fourth Ward after doing infrastructure to update utilities. The issue came in when community members realized the hundred year old historical bricks would be disturbed in the process.

For months the FTPC along with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee championing for them on the federal side have visited City Hall petitioning for a recall of the restoration project while holding press conferences, teach-in and walk throughs of the streets for people to learn history in order to appreciate their effort and join in.

Many entities are involved such as the Texas Historical Commission and TXDot. TXDot is working with the FTPC now to see if disturbing the bricks as is, is illegal due to the historical significance.

Congresswoman Lee said she wanted TXDot and the US Department of Transportation notified so they may begin a thorough investigation as federal money is involved.

The lack of communication between the City of Houston, the FTPC, TXDot and other powers that be led to the misunderstanding of when to touch the bricks and where. Today they all discovered that it will not be an easy task to take up the bricks and the FTPC showed constant displeasure in the process of taking up the bricks.

“They took them up without labeling them, how are they supposed to know where to put them back,” said Lue Williams of the FTPC?

Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition President, Dorris Ellis Robinson, laid down in the trench surrounded by FTPC members on the bricks.
Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition President, Dorris Ellis Robinson, laid down in the trench surrounded by FTPC members on the bricks.

After a three hour stand off the bricks that were taken up were replaced in the street. President of the FTPC, Dorris Ellis Robinson, laid down in the trench where the bricks were removed after she led the protestors in the song, We Shall Not Be Moved.

The bricks were replaced and they remain for another day. The Congresswoman has requested another meeting with the City for January as she spoke with the city liaison for Mayor Parker, Keith Wade.

Construction crew replacing the bricks that were removed.
Construction crew replacing the bricks that were removed.