Today’s post was written collaboratively by staff from The African American Library at the Gregory School and the National Archives: Miguell Caesar, Lead Archivist/Manager; Sheena Wilson, Archivist/Assistant Manager (both at the Gregory School); Damani Davis, Archivist/Subject Matter Expert of Records Related to the African American Experience; Billy R. Glasco, Jr., Archivist at The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration
By 1870, Freedman’s Town (NAID 40972374), an area settled by emancipated slaves in Houston Texas’ Fourth Ward, was being transformed from a swampy, flood prone site considered inhabitable into a thriving community that would become the center of African American life in Houston throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The establishment of Freedman’s Town gave birth to the religious, financial, civic, and educational institutions that would be the foundation of Houston’s African American culture.
Out of the inception of Freedman’s Town came the Gregory Institute. Named after Major General Edgar M. Gregory, abolitionist and assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas, The Gregory Institute became the educational bedrock for African Americans in Houston during Reconstruction. This article will recount the establishment of Freedmen’s schools in Texas and how a school created for the educational advancement of newly freed slaves would become the paramount institution for preserving Houston’s African American history.
In the aftermath of the emancipation of four million formerly enslaved black men, women, and children, the Freedmen’s Bureau served as the primary Federal institution tasked with managing the transition of this population from slavery to ostensible “freedom.” Among the various critical social services that the Freedmen’s Bureau offered to this newly freed population, its assistance with their educational endeavors was one of the bureau’s most notable legacies. The newly freed African Americans demonstrated a fervent desire for education and immediately sought to use their own limited resources, churches, and mutual aid societies to establish schools. The Freedmen’s Bureau, however, was able to help facilitate their efforts in collaboration with northern advocates, philanthropic institutions and benevolent societies interested in the education of these newly freed Black Americans.
The Freedmen’s Bureau’s educational activities were largely administered by a Superintendent of Education agent assigned to each particular state. Each Superintendent of Education had his own separate office which was specifically focused on the advancement of education in the state under his jurisdiction. The records for the bureau’s Superintendent of Education for the state of Texas are reproduced on NARA Microfilm Publication M822: Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Texas, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870 (these records are available online through familysearch.org, series are listed in the National Archives Catalog). NARA’s Descriptive Pamphlet (DP) for this microfilm publication provides a concise historical background of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s educational activities in that state:
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Texas included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sunday schools for both groups. The school regulations devised by the Office of the Superintendent of Education specified that reading, writing, and arithmetic were studies of greatest importance for freedmen; these subjects received the greatest emphasis in most Bureau schools. Teachers were recruited from the local white population, from among the freedmen themselves, and from the North by freedmen’s aid societies. In 1867 Assistant Commissioner Joseph Kiddoo concluded an agreement with the American Missionary Association that would provide the schools with teachers in Texas.
The Bureau’s responsibility for education included the establishment and maintenance of schools and the examination and appointment of teachers. Bureau funds were used to pay teachers’ salaries and provide for their transportation, for the construction and repair of school buildings, and for the rent of properties used for educational purposes. Private organizations and individuals were also involved in establishing and financing freedmen’s schools in Texas. A number of these schools were established upon the initiative of local whites and freedmen, although subsequently they were given direction and support by the Bureau. The American Missionary Association provided some of the pay for teachers it recruited, and salaries were partially subsidized by contributions from the freedmen. Bureau policy dictated that, wherever possible, subscriptions be solicited from freedmen for establishing schools and that tuition be charged for each student in attendance.
As in other former Confederates states, many White Texans were violently opposed to the education of Black Texans. Most White Texans desired to keep Blacks as close to their formerly enslaved status as possible; therefore, they fiercely resisted any actions that would potentially elevate Blacks to a competitive social, political, and economic status. Black education was viewed as a significant threat to the status quo and their ideal vision of a white supremacist racial hierarchy.
It is in this context that the Gregory School in Houston, TX was established. The Gregory School was a Freedmen’s school created at the order of Major General Edgar M. Gregory. It became the first school for African Americans in the city of Houston.
Founded in 1870, the Gregory Institute was established in a two-story frame building on Jefferson Avenue at Louisiana Street. Funds for the private school were raised by trustees Richard Brock, Reverend Elias Dibble, Peter Noble, Reverend Sandy Parker and William Waff. The Gregory Institute became a part of the Houston public school system in 1876, with Henry C. Hardy becoming the first Black principal the following year. The building was damaged by a storm in 1893, and the students of Gregory were relocated to Colored High School. The original building was beyond repair, so a new wooden building was constructed at the current site at Wilson and Cleveland in 1903 at the cost of $9690. Since then neglect, overcrowding, and damage from a fire have required the construction of yet another facility.
In 1927, another new two-story, 20,000 square foot brick building was built on the grounds and the 1903 building was used as a cafeteria. During the same year, the school was renamed to Gregory Elementary School. Students continued to attend classes there until 1980, when the Houston Independent School District closed it due to low enrollment and a decaying structure. Gregory Elementary School merged with Lincoln Junior High School to become Gregory-Lincoln Education Center. The site was listed in the national register of historic places in 1985 and designated as a state antiquities landmark in 1995.
Over the next 20 years, the building sat unoccupied and vacant falling into further disrepair. The City of Houston acquired the property from the Houston Independent School District during the spring of the new millennium. And within two years, plans were in progress by then Mayor Lee P. Brown and other city officials to turn the building into a culture and research center.
In 2008, the Houston Public Library began restoring the building and opened on November 14, 2009 becoming the newest of three special collections operated by the Houston Public Library. Today the African American Library at the Gregory School serves as a research center to promote and preserve African American History and culture in the Houston Area. One of the first libraries of its kind in Houston and one of the few African American libraries in the country, the archive supports the collection, preservation, and dissemination of historical papers and cultural information about the Black experience in Freedmen’s Town, the Houston area and Texas.
Archival collections can be explored via the digital archives, guests can discover Black historical past by an in depth assortment of archival paperwork and images, providing deep dives into the households, companies and neighborhoods of Houston’s historic Black communities.
The Oral History Collection represents a wealth of under-documented experiences from a few of Houston’s outstanding residents that uncover the tradition and historical past of Houston’s wards, civil rights, integration, enterprise homeowners, neighborhood establishments, and far more. In addition to the archives, there is a space for permanent and traveling exhibits to highlight materials in the collection.
The experience at the African American Library at the Gregory School appeals to everyone regardless of race, culture, age, gender, or educational level. Gregory cultivates understanding between cultures while stimulating conversations about community.
Resources related to Freedmen’s Schools at The National Archives:
- Letters Sent by the Superintendent of Schools, 1869-1869, RG 105 (NAID 6038054)
- Monthly School Reports from Teachers and Subassistant Commissioners, 1865-1870. RG 105 (NAID 6037434)
- State Superintendents’ Monthly School Reports, 1/1866-5/1870, RG 105 (NAID 6037435)
- Monthly Reports of School Buildings Owned, 7/1869-4/1870, RG 105 (NAID 6037437)
- Registers Relating to Schools and Teachers, 1865-1870, RG 105 (NAID 6037443)
- Contracts Relating to the Construction and Repair of Schools, 2/1867-12/1870, RG 105 (NAID 6037440)
- Collection of digitized microfilm from Office of the Superintendent of Education is available on familysearch.org
Explore The African American Library at the Gregory School’s archive and recent projects: