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Righting a Wrong in My Neighborhood

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the civil war, took effect. The news eventually reached Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865. The proclamation opened up the way for the unraveling of the institution of slavery in the United States. For generations, African Americans have faithfully celebrated “Juneteenth” as the ultimate day that signifies freedom for them.

Although many African Americans were declared free, there was another narrative of segregation that ran parallel to this story. Because the sin of racism was so deeply entrenched in the systems of the United States, many public spaces were not open to African Americans to publicly celebrate something as momentous as their emancipation.

With great discernment and foresight, many African American community leaders in the south pooled together their resources and purchased public spaces for African Americans to celebrate freedom. In Houston, leaders of the black community purchased a 10 acre plot of land now known as Emancipation Park. It was purchased in 1872. This piece of land would serve as an official gathering spot for the black community in Houston to celebrate Juneteenth. The park was donated to the city in 1916, and served as the only park open to people of color for the next few decades.

The park was donated to the city in 1916, and served as the only park open to people of color for the next few decades.

Emancipation Park is located in what is currently known as Houston’s historic Third Ward, where I currently live with my family, and serve the Christian Reformed Church as a Community Chaplain.

However, a grave injustice occurred in our neighborhood in 1892. The original street running adjacent to Emancipation Park was called “East Broadway.” In a very aggressive move, city officials saw it fit to rename a street in a predominantly African American neighborhood, running adjacent to a park celebrating the emancipation of freed slaves, after Lt. Richard Dowling, a confederate hero credited with protecting Houston from Union invasion during the American Civil War.

Many people speak of the confederacy as simply a historical group that wanted its independence from the union. That’s why many still fly confederate flags openly, and why there's such livid resistance to taking down confederate monuments from public spaces and categorizing them as historical artifacts that belong in museums.

But when we try to divorce the deeply embedded protection of institutional slavery and white supremacy inherent in the confederacy, we tell a history that is grossly truncated. The confederacy fought against liberty and justice for all. The confederacy fought for a regional economy built on the idea that blacks were good for nothing other than to be slaves relied on for their labor. There is grave injustice and serious idolatry when we are unable to see systems of oppression for what they truly are: armed robbers of the dignity of humanity inherent in all God’s children.

A grave injustice occurred in our neighborhood in 1892.

As Bryan Stevenson puts it, “We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don’t think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.” We will never claim true justice if we fail to name injustice.

In 2016, city officials in Houston saw the narrative for what it truly was. The changing of the name of the major street in an African American neighborhood to something that honored the confederacy was a gross act of aggression against people who call Third Ward home, and who commute everyday on Dowling St to Emancipation Park and beyond. In an attempt to pursue justice, the city proposed changing the name of the street to Emancipation Avenue.

Many factors would determine if this would pass or not. Would the name change align with patterns of naming streets adjacent to major city parks? Would the city have to change the rules for street naming to do this? Would a majority of property owners on Dowling St support the name change? Was there buy in and overwhelming support from the community at large for this name change?

We will never claim true justice if we fail to name injustice.

The City Planning Commision and the City Council hosted various public hearings, giving residents an opportunity to speak for or against the motion to change Dowling Street to Emancipation Avenue. And our neighborhood showed up in great numbers to support the name change. Religious leaders, businesses, nonprofits, community leaders and residents all came out with a unified voice to speak about the justice inherent in honoring the legacy of African Americans and the collective emancipation of all Americans from slavery.

“Emancipation is for all of us. We have all been emancipated from the dividing walls of hostility that have kept us from living into a truly unified identity. As you vote, you have a chance, in a seemingly small but vastly significant way to tear down the walls of hostility between us and create a thoroughfare that honors the past, celebrates the present, and builds a future that leads us all on a collective journey towards complete freedom.”

Those were words that I had the privilege of speaking at one of the the hearings, with a strong contingent of members from my community standing with me. One after another, we took turns addressing our city leaders, encouraging them and showing our overwhelming support for the name change. The name change would admit wrongdoing in changing the name from East Broadway to Dowling. The name change would usher in a more just future for all who call Third Ward home. And for me, as a person of faith, the name change would show that, together with people of good faith and goodwill, we were working for the peace of our city. We were aligning our desires with the desires of our God, who “loves justice, and hates robbery and wrongdoing.” (Isaiah 61:8)

I feel pride for my community that always makes diamonds out of the dusty situations life throws its way.

On January 10, 2017, Houston’s City Council officially voted to change the name of this street from Dowling Street to Emancipation Avenue! This summer, signs went up around the neighborhood changing the name. I drive or walk on Emancipation Avenue almost every day. I feel a deep sense of pride whenever I see that name. I had a small part to play in the dramatic narrative of the name change. I feel pride for my community, a neighborhood that, against all odds, always makes diamonds out of the dusty situations life throws its way.

As a first generation Nigerian immigrant, I stand on the shoulders of ancestors who have made it possible for a man like me to freely live, work, and thrive in a historically and culturally rich African American neighborhood. My African American friends have paved the way for me to weave my thread into the fabric of this beautiful neighborhood and city. As an African, I celebrate that my story is inextricably linked to the stories of my African American kindred. Emancipation is for all of us.

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