When Lynn Ray Ellison lived in “The Rectangle” — the area of Texas City where the city’s African-American community lived and thrived in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — life was different, he said.
More than 500 black families lived in a 10-block radius between the borders of Texas Avenue to the north, Bay Street to the east, 10th Street to the west and Fourth Avenue to the south. They owned and operated businesses, attended Booker T. Washington School, which closed in 1967, and worshipped at the six churches that lined the block.
“That was our city,” said Ellison, a former Texas City commissioner and one of the city’s first African-American elected officials. “That was where black people had to be in that time, and we made it our own.”
Now The Rectangle and the residents who lived there have been replaced by the refineries of the oil and gas industry, but a memorial to that era is under construction less than a mile away in Sanders Park. The Texas City African American Cultural Park, a 12,000-square-foot brick memorial to the African-American community in Texas City, is a decades-old effort by Ellison and others that’s finally paying off, he said.
“We’ve been working to see this through for more than 12 years,” said Ellison, who served on the commission from 1978 to 2000. “It really is a dream come true to see it happening now.”
Concrete was poured this week for the project, which the city budgeted $250,000 for at a council meeting in December. Construction will continue over the next couple months for an expected mid-March completion, Texas City Parks and Recreation Director Dennis Harris said. The cultural park will be a strong addition to the historical resources the city already has, he said.
“This is the perfect location,” he said. “It’ll be a great complement to our current park system.”
The specifics surrounding what will go inside the memorial haven’t been finalized yet. Officials from the six churches and the Booker T. Washington Exes group are supposed to meet next month to decide.
But the idea behind the project — to memorialize the residents and institutions of The Rectangle, the history behind the African-American community in Texas City, as well as how the explosion in 1947 that killed more than 400 people affected the area — is well defined, Ellison said.
The churches are all donating pieces of their history — bricks, cornerstones, church bells — and the sign that formerly hung on the front of Booker T. Washington will be there too, along with a life-sized statue of Martin Luther King Jr. A wall surrounding the memorial and a gazebo next to it will feature photos of the residents and businesses that used to be in The Rectangle, Ellison said.
“I’ve had people digging through their cedar chests for photos for this,” he said.
For Jasper Victoria, who lived on First Avenue South from the 1934 to the 1950s, right in the middle of The Rectangle, until he graduated high school from Booker T. Washington, the memorial fills an important void in the city.
At that time in Texas City, people didn’t trust each other, Victoria, 84, said. Black people couldn’t cross Ninth Street without being harassed by police or others, he said. The memorial will help to address that time, and remind people of good times as well, he said.
“It’s a good memory,” he said. “When you’re just thinking and you walk by and look, you think of those people who lived in that time. My old principals and friends and pastors — gigantic people in that time. It reminds you of that.”