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Before the Highway: Houston, Texas

Rose Childress recalls the racism and continuing health risks entwined with the roadways around her

Two slides with information about the Pleasantville neighborhood

Images from The Houston Flood Museum

Scenes from the Project Pleasantville timeline. (Click on the image to learn more about the exhibit and timeline.)

Few American cities are as emblematic of the intertwined promise and peril of roadway construction as Houston, Texas. The city and Harris County have more than 1,200 miles of highway, including I-45 and the 610 Loop, both of which came about after the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. As a result of being cut off from the main streets and businesses of the city, historical neighborhoods of color — including Independence Heights, the first incorporated community of Black Texans — became isolated, endured stunted economic growth and saw a decrease in family wealth.

The development of a bridge in the early 1970s alleviated some commuting stress for the predominantly Black and Latino residents living near the Port of Houston, which is one of the largest and busiest seaports in the United States. However, the community’s proximity to several major freeways has exposed it to a pernicious, health-damaging air pollution "burden,” which — as noted in a 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences — is commonly carried by Americans of color because of their proximity to heavily trafficked roads and industrial facilities.

Many community members view the health impacts of the area’s air pollutants as a greater threat than the geographic disruptions. Among them is life-long Houstonian Rose Childress, 67, a retired schoolteacher, widow and mother of two, who remembers the construction of the Sidney Sherman Bridge — commonly known as the 610 Bridge or the Ship Channel Bridge — and the startling health challenges she saw among her students. 

2 photos of Rose Childress

Photos courtesy of Rose Childress

Rose Childress in a favorite photo (left) and as an AARP volunteer (far right) with Shondra Wygal of AARP Texas, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and fellow-volunteer Lydia Oliphant.

Unfresh Air

In an eight-county analysis of air pollutants that can pose a risk to human health, "[a]reas with greater emissions burdens are largely located in the vicinity of the Ship Channel. The confluence of pollution and vulnerability occurs along the Ship Channel, particularly in areas that are closer to the center of the region."

"Evaluation of Vulnerability and Stationary Source Pollution in Houston," a 2020 report by Sustainable Systems Research for the National Resources Defense Council and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services 

AARP: Why is the Ship Channel Bridge so important to Black Houstonians?

Rose Childress: The Ship Channel Bridge opened for traffic on March 2, 1973. I remember it vividly because I had not been driving for very long. In the evening I would drive across that bridge thinking, "Am I going to get up there, but they haven't really finished it, so I’ll fall off!"

At that time, I lived on the northeast side of Houston. My family would often go to Galveston, which is to the southeast. Before the Ship Channel Bridge, there was the Washburn Tunnel. As a Black person, as a young person, you didn’t use it. The tunnel was between the small cities of Jacinto City and Pasadena. If the posted speed limit was 35 miles per hour, a Black person needed to drive 34 miles per hour. Pasadena was 100 percent white. We did not go to or stop in it. A Klan headquarters was there. Those areas were tightly run 50 years ago. Over time, the demographics have changed tremendously. 

Those of us who are older still remember and are still mindful even though the demographics have changed. Because the demographics have changed the attitudes have changed. There are surely a lot of folks just rolling over in their graves.

AARP: What neighborhood did your family and other Black families live in?

Childress: Pleasantville was an area where Blacks with a little money lived. A number of them worked at the Ship Channel as longshoremen. Teachers, doctors and Black politicians lived there as well. There was also the Fifth Ward. Congressman Mickey Leland and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan were from that area.

I was the third of four children, all born in Houston. Our parents were working folk. My mother did day work, and my father worked at the steel mill. They were from Louisiana and never finished high school. We lived in a house set up on bricks. 

Is Past Present?

According to estimates, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project — a plan by the Texas Department of Transportation to widen and expand the number of lanes on I-45 — could wipe out 158 houses, more than 400 apartments and condo units, nearly 350 businesses, five churches and two schools, mostly in Independence Heights. The I-45 expansion project has met with opposition from community groups and even the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has requested that the state-led project be paused while potential violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act are investigated.

Once the bridge was built, we were able to go from one side of Houston to the other. It tremendously changed the amount of time it took to get from the north side to the south side. I think the bridge increased the pay of folks because it provided more job opportunities.

Economically it was good, but then the neighborhoods became commercial districts. Pleasantville now is surrounded by commercial buildings and warehouses. Other areas, like Denver Harbor and neighborhoods to the east, saw more and more land acquired. Instead of houses and apartments, there are a lot of warehouses. People start to move out when that happens.

More people began to work at the Ship Channel, and it became more racially integrated. Before, you had to know someone to have a chance of working at the Ship Channel. There was a lot of segregation and whites didn’t want to lose their jobs to Blacks and Hispanics. My dad and several other relatives worked at the Armco Steel, which is not far from the Ship Channel. 

AARP: Environmental injustice has been a persistent issue for communities of color in the Houston area, especially following infrastructure projects such as the Ship Channel Bridge and highway construction. What impacts have you seen?

Childress: There are a number of oil refineries. I used to work at a school that was a stone’s throw from the Ship Channel. You would go outside sometimes, look up in the sky, and see plumes of whatever it is the refineries were burning off. I would see that and think about the many people who had allergies, asthma and other respiratory illnesses There were always concerns in the community about the air contamination that goes along with the construction progress.

In fact, there were little tributaries where people would go fishing and crabbing. The water has been impacted. When I taught school, we would often talk about the difficulty so many kids had with learning. As teachers we attributed part of that to the Ship Channel Bridge and the industries in the area. Neighborhoods, including Pleasantville, Denver Harbor and others off the Ship Channel, were affected, to be sure.

A Google map image of the Ship Channel communities in Houston

Google Maps

The Ship Channel area of Houston. The locations marked in yellow are mentioned by interviewee Rose Childress in her recollections.

Jimmie Briggs is a documentary storyteller, writer and advocate for racial and gender equity. He is the co-founder and executive director emeritus of Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to activate youth to stop violence against women and girls, and the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War (Basic Books, 2005). A native Missourian, he is the author of an upcoming oral history of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 police killing of teenager Michael Brown Jr. Briggs’s articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Root, among other publications. 

Additional research by Shondra Wygal, AARP Texas

More 'Before the Highway' articles

Visit the "Before the Highway" landing page for interviews with impacted communities in Florida, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Tennessee.

See the "Before the Highway: Learn More" page for links to articles, videos, histories and more about the communities impacted by the interstate highway system. 

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