Grounding Study (Brick by Brick)

Grounding Study (Brick by Brick), A Community Brickmaking Workshop in Freedmen’s Town (2019-ongoing)

The brick streets in Freedmen’s Town National Register Historic Place are an important historic asset in Texas. In the early 1900s, the freedmen and their descendants petitioned for over six years to have bricks installed in their streets. The City refused permits unless a white company, Eureka Paving, was hired. Eureka hired brick installers who lived in Freedmen’s Town and charged the community a steep price to pave their streets. Despite these conditions, the Freedmen’s Town laborers worked together to pave their streets using brick patterns that originated from West African traditions.

In Grounding Study (Brick by Brick), we worked with community members to build over 300 bricks using 2,000 pounds of Texas clay and 30 gallons of Buffalo Bayou sand left over from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. This process is to pay homage to both the material and social histories of the brick streets in Freedmen’s Town, as well as to infuse the new bricks with a contemporary context and build something productive from the destruction of Harvey. Participants were also invited to write down their memories of the neighborhood and hopes for the future of Freedmen’s Town on pieces of paper, which were dissolved and incorporated into the clay. Adding paper to clay is a technique that is often used for repairing cracks; we think of this in symbolic relation to the divisive history of the streets. This process links past, present, and future histories of place and seeks to promote participation in the preservation of the brick streets in Freedmen’s Town, which are an invaluable asset to Houston. The finished bricks will be incorporated into plans for a Freedmen’s Town Visitors Center.

This project was conceived by artist Elizabeth M. Webb in collaboration with artist Rick Lowe and planned in partnership with Charonda Johnson of Freedmen’s Town Association and the Freedmen’s Town Conservancy. Grounding Study (Brick by Brick) was funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Special thanks to the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, the African American Library at the Gregory School, Mister Moonwalk and the Glassell Studio School.