African American Library at the Gregory School

The city's first library to focus on African American history and culture

The African American Library at the Gregory School is a library and archival site in Houston’s fourth ward dedicated to preserving the origins of Freedmen’s Town and the fourth ward in downtown Houston. Opened as a school for Houston’s African American youth, the Gregory school was built by the members of Freedmen’s Town and served the community for several years. The school was burned down and rebuilt, and now serves as a museum and archive to preserve the items of some of Houston’s most prominent African American residents of Houston’s past and present.

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in the Union-held territory were set free. It was not until June 1865 that slaves in Texas would be freed after Union Army General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas to announce that all slaves in the state were free. The former slaves in the Houston area left local plantations and about 1000 newly emancipated slaves settled in downtown Houston’s fourth ward along the Buffalo Bayou. This area was chosen because the land was swampy and cheap. Although the residents were free, they were not allowed to use facilities and services for whites. Led by Jack Yates, they built a community that provided its own services and utilities. The residents built their own homes and churches. The town’s members included doctors, lawyers, teachers, and bricklayers. Some of the prominent leaders of the town included Jack Yates, his son Rutherford B. H. Yates, Ned. P. Pullum were ministers. In 1875, Antioch Baptist Church was built by the Freedmen’s Town residents and Jack Yates served as its pastor. The church served the community for many years and is the only original building still in existence from the Fourth Ward.

In addition to the services the community provided, the Gregory School was built to educate the children of Freedmen’s Town. The Texas Legislature authorized the creation of public schools for Freedmen's Town by 1870. The Gregory Institute, named after Edgar M. Gregory, opened in 1872. Gregory was an officer in the Union army in the U.S. Civil War and the assistant commissioner of the Texas area's Freedmen's Bureau. For many years, the institute served the African American community and ensured the success of Freedmen’s Town and became a beacon for the community by providing a place where African Americans could learn basic literacy skills. These skills allowed many of them to join the workforce and support themselves or to open their own business. Sadly, in 1893 a destructive storm left the school with severe damages, forcing the Gregory students to relocate to Colored High School on West Dallas Street, now known as Booker T. Washington High School, while builders repaired the affected areas. Unfortunately, it would take 10 years before the school was operational again. In 1903 the Gregory School opened as an elementary school, earnestly welcoming back a new generation of students at its present-day location between Cleveland and Victor Streets. Structural issues with the second building led to the construction of a multi-building complex that opened in 1926 with 20,000 square feet of space. The Gregory Elementary School was formally decommissioned in 1984 with its teachers and students transferred to Lincoln Elementary. The Gregory building was left as a forgotten relic for many years, facing encroachment by the cities developers who began eyeing its desirable downtown location.

Facing an erased history, historians, preservationists, descendants of former residents, and activists began discussing a way to preserve this historic building. The restoration project received $11 million dollars from the City of Houston and the Houston Public Library to preserve the building, and it was decided that it would be re-purposed as a research library. Renovation of the Gregory School began in 2008. Developers then began asking African American residents of the area for any memorabilia to use in its exhibits and to fill the archives. It took about one and a half years for renovations. The library formally opened in November 2009. Renovations included the removal of the school’s windows so they could be restored and reinstalled, and the brick cleaned and preserved in an effort to match its original 1926 appearance. The library features galleries, an oral history recording room, archive rooms, and an original classroom. Many of the materials in the library's possession are digitized so that they may be viewed online.

The presence of the African American Library at the Gregory schools pays homage to the people who lived in Freedmen’s town and who created the community. In 1985, Freedmen’s Town was placed on The National Register of Historic Places. Antioch Baptist Church was added to the registry in 1976. In 2019, the African American Library at the Gregory School along with other significant historic African American sites were placed on the UNESCO Slave Route Project, an international registry of locations associated with the transatlantic slave trade.