Looking back wards
Six wards a thing of the distant past, but they still give a sense of place
Main and Congress as it looked at the turn of the century, when it marked where the original four wards converged.
By Dave Schafer
In 1987, Joyce Williams, chairwoman of the Southeast Area Council, formerly the Third Ward Area Council, announced that her group had stopped referring to that area as the Third Ward. After all, the wards hadn’t existed for more than 70 years.
“The city has become a cosmopolitan city,” Williams told the Houston Chronicle. “The term ‘ward’ is stagnant, unsophisticated, and places areas in isolation.”
But the sense of place the wards imbued in residents, many of whom live in areas that weren’t even part of an actual ward, is strong, and residents won’t let the term die.
“The wards haven’t had any real meaning since 1905. But people are very interested in them. They’re an important part of our history,” said historian Betty Chapman.
In the beginning
“The ward system was a way to have city representatives reflect their constituents. And it was the forerunner of today’s district system,” said Richard Feehan, Public Works & Engineering senior trainer who teaches a class on Houston history.
Houston’s original 1837 charter provided for a mayor/alderman system. The mayor and aldermen were required to be free, white, have lived in Houston for six months, and hold more than $100 in real estate, according to the League of Women Voters’ 2003 “City Manual.”
At the time, the city covered 62 blocks and had 1,000 residents. The charter allowed it to expand to nine square miles and created three wards that each elected two aldermen to the City Council.
In 1840, Texas’ congress altered Houston’s charter, dividing it into four wards that each elected two aldermen who served two-year terms, according to Margaret Sweat Henson’s “Roster: Houston City Officials, Harris County Officials, 1837-1975, and Volunteer Fire Company Officers to 1894.”
Wards were divided along geographic boundaries, regardless of population density.
The wards met at Congress and Main. Northwest of that intersection was First Ward; northeast, Second Ward; southeast, Third Ward; southwest, Fourth Ward.
“They really were mixed societies in the early days,” Chapman said. “Where you worked dictated where you lived, not who you wanted to live around.”
The First Ward, home to the market house and Buffalo Bayou boat landing, was the center of commodity and produce business. The Second Ward held the heavy warehouses and courthouse, so it attracted lawyers and merchants. The Third Ward, with the nicer homes, had businessmen, professionals and craftsmen. Much of the central city was in the Fourth Ward.
In 1865, freed blacks developed a five-mile area of the Fourth Ward and called it Freedman’s Town.
And then there were six
In December 1866, two aldermen were elected from the newly created Fifth Ward, bordered on the south by the Buffalo Bayou and on the west by White Oak Bayou. Fifth Ward’s Lyons Avenue was the center of thriving business activity, according to Chapman.
In 1870, Thomas Scanlan was appointed mayor of Houston and Texas was readmitted to the United States, according to the Handbook of Texas. A new city charter approved by the state allowed blacks to hold office. After Houston was reincorporated, another new charter in early 1874 called for 10 aldermen elected from five wards.
In 1876, the Sixth Ward was created, bounded by Buffalo Bayou and the southwest boundary of the First Ward.
Ward of corruption
As the city grew, the wards’ outlines stretched. After people got automobiles, they started moving away from the inner city, Chapman said.
Nationally and within Houston, concerns were growing about corruption in the ward system of government. White, well-to-do businessmen had a stranglehold on the alderman spots, and the city was running up debt.
When Mayor O.T. Hold took office in 1902, the city’s books were in such disarray that sufficient data for a financial statement was unavailable. Independent auditors discovered a shortage of more than $54,000 for 1899-1902.
On Dec. 10, 1904, “Charges of corruption within the wards were answered by an overwhelming vote to abolish the wards,” according to a 1975 Houston Post article. A new city charter created a commission form of government. Four commissioners were elected at large and became department directors.
“The city thought that form of government would help elect more representative leaders,” Chapman said. “Commission forms were becoming popular, and the city thought it would also be a more progressive, efficient government.”
The wards were officially abolished by city ordinance in November 1915.
Gone, but not forgotten
“Not a lot of people seem to know that the wards aren’t still around,” Chapman said. “People might think they live in the Third Ward. No, they don’t. They might live where the Third Ward might have been, but they don’t live in the ward because there are no wards.”
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