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August 8, 2008

Preserving Houston's African-American History

Houston has a rich, multi-cultural history that should be more widely known and celebrated. Houston is moving ahead on one project to help overcome that and safeguard that history for generations to come.

The African American Library at the Gregory School is a significant addition to the Houston Public Library and a very important expansion to the Library's special collections.  It will be housed in the building that served as the first "Colored" public school for African-Americans in Houston. The building is located in Houston's historic Freedmen's Town, a National Register Historic District.

The Gregory School was named after Edgar M. Gregory, a Union officer and Assistant Commissioner to the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas, which established many schools and churches. Built in 1926, the two-story concrete framed structure is a State Archeological Landmark, as designated by the Texas Historical Commission. This historical building is located at 1300 Victor Street.

The mission of this facility is to serve as a resource and repository to preserve, promote, and celebrate the rich history and culture of African-Americans in Freedmen's Town, the city of Houston, the surrounding regions and the African Diaspora. To accomplish its mission, The African American Library at the Gregory School will build, preserve and make accessible to historians, researchers, and the general public an incomparable collection of multi-type resources, including but not limited to, reference books, rare books, archival materials, exhibits, oral histories and innovative programs.

The Houston Public Library is an institution that has been a part of Houston's community for more than 100 years, and the addition of The African American Library at the Gregory School to its 41 other locations will serve as a monument in celebration of all African-Americans who helped shape Houston's history.  This is an exciting, long-anticipated project in the Fourth Ward. The Houston Public Library has been working with an advisory board, with representatives from the community, academia, nonprofits, and government to represent community interests throughout the entire process.

The Gregory School will be completely restored. The original structure will have very few changes to the exterior or interior walls. Approximately eighty percent of the original door and window openings will be restored. The north side of the building will be altered to include a new glass lobby and will serve as the new main entrance.  The site improvements include a new parking area along with open green space to create a park-like atmosphere.

As part of the renovation, windows will be removed, carefully restored, and reinstalled.  Bricks will be carefully cleaned, preserved where possible, and replaced with matching brick where needed. The final result will be a dramatic transformation of the existing, vacant structure to its original 1926 appearance. A new entrance lobby will be clearly identifiable as modern construction, but will be transparent, allowing views to the original walls and doors. All proposed improvements have been reviewed and approved by the Texas Historical Commission, which administers Federal historic preservation standards (from the Department of the Interior).

Space will be provided on the first floor for temporary and permanent historical exhibits, a restored classroom, a digitizing photo lab, and receiving and processing of archives. The second floor will feature two reading rooms, open archives, two conference rooms for researchers and visiting scholars, an oral history recording room, visiting scholars' offices, staff offices and work areas.

Construction began in May 2008 with a one-year construction schedule. Following are key milestones in the projected schedule:

  1.    May-August 2008: Removal and treatment of hazardous materials (lead, asbestos), removal of non-historic interior elements
  2.   August-September 2008: Removal of non-historic elements, initiation of window and roof restoration; removal of the 1962 building adjacent to the historic structure (beginning August 11, 2008)
  3.   September-November 2008: Site preparation for utilities and paving, structural renovation of building, flooring repair, air conditioning infrastructure installation.
  4.  November 2008 - January 2009: Construction of glass lobby, construction of new roof, installation of air conditioning and fire sprinkler systems.
  5.  January - February 2009: Construction of interior walls, door frames, sheetrock installation, painting.
  6.  February - March 2009: Landscaping, parking lot and sidewalk construction; flooring and tile installation; installation of cabinets, furniture, appliances.
  7.  April - May 2009 - Cleanup and corrective work.
  8.  Summer 2009 - Installation of exhibits and furniture; setup of offices, archival rooms, and reading rooms; installation of computers and A/V equipment; library personnel move-in.
  9.    Late Summer 2009 - Open to the public

For ongoing information about The African American Library at the Gregory School and to see how the new facility will look, visit