The rough vocals of James Brown can be heard coming out of the ballroom. Children are cooling off while learning to swim at the neighborhood pool. Teenagers are laughing as they come out of the movie theatre. Businesses are flourishing and the neighborhood is growing. At one point, this was the common occurrence on Dowling Street.
Today, the music has stopped. The neighborhood park is virtually empty. The children are no longer heard laughing or playing outside. The majority of homes are run-down and many of the businesses are now closed.
“Dowling Street was once one of the major thoroughfares in Houston. It had movie theatres, department stores and drug stores. Dowling was where most African-Americans did business,” said Dr. James Douglas, Executive Vice President of Texas Southern University.
From the 1930’s into the 1970’s, Dowling Street was a center of entertainment, arts, business, and youth development in Houston’s Third Ward Community. Emancipation Park, originally the only municipal park for African-Americans, offered a community center, pool, and playground for residents of the Third Ward. The Eldorado Ballroom, a former symbol of pride within the African-American community, held dances, talent shows, and concerts, often times being the nightclub of choice for Houston’s minority population. Wolf’s Pawn Shop and Department Store, open since 1955, has been a highly regarded business throughout the years because of its involvement in community organizations and areas of service.
Emancipation Park, located at 3018 Dowling, is a historical landmark in the Third Ward community. In 1872 Rev. Jack Yates, along with a small group of church leaders who were former slaves, raised $800 in order to purchase the 10 acres of land to celebrate Juneteenth celebrations. Dating back to 1865, June 19 or Juneteenth is the day African-Americans in Texas learned slavery was abolished. Yates and the church leaders decided to name the land ‘Emancipation Park’ in honor of their recent freedom.
Emancipation Park was donated to the city of Houston in 1918. Racism and segregation were the prevailing social ideas of the time and Emancipation Park was the only park minorities could use. In 1939, the Work Projects Administration added a community center to the park designed by William Ward Watkin. The new facility was dedicated at the Juneteenth celebration held on June 18, 1939.
Today, Emancipation Park has tennis courts, a basketball court, a large softball/football field, picnic area, playground, swimming pool, and community center.
Like much of Dowling Street, Emancipation Park has fallen victim to changes in the economy and surrounding communities.
“The park had been divested in for about 50 years,” said Dorris Ellis, president of Friends of Emancipation Park. “After the Civil Rights and Fair Housing laws were passed, people who cared about the park had the opportunity to go elsewhere. They did not need Emancipation Park to be there green space location. Hence, they were able to go and play and take their families to other places in the city. That meant that individuals who had more resources were no longer using the facility.”
“An upgrade to Emancipation Park will bring pride back to the neighborhood and bring people back,” said Douglas. “Very few people go there now. The park was once a hub for African Americans.”
In 2012, Mayor Annise Parker announced plans for a $33.6 million renovation for Emancipation Park. A new gymnasium, playground, basketball court, baseball field, pool house, and water features are all included in the city’s plans.
“This park has a history, and this park has a future. We just have to work to connect the two together,” said Parker at a Juneteenth press conference held at the park on June 19, 2012.
Raymond Bourgeois, an employee at Wolf’s Pawn Shop and lifelong resident of the Third Ward area, echoed Ellis’ sentiments. However, he believes current residents along Dowling Street will not be in the neighborhood to enjoy the renovated park.
Bourgeois noted the increased home construction expanding along Dowling Street bringing new residents into the area. Multi-family homes and buildings are being built and the neighborhood is slowly starting to resemble downtown Houston.
Bourgeois believes within the next 10 years Dowling Street will have a new appearance along with a new group of residents which will effect who uses the park.
“Unfortunately, those in the neighborhood now will not be here to enjoy the park. A new park will be built to satisfy those moving into the neighborhood,” said Bourgeois.
Emancipation Park is surrounded by multiple businesses that have been pillars in the community along Dowling Street. Each business not only offers a significant amount of history to the Third Ward Community but also to African-American history.
From 1939 until it closed in the early 1970s, the Eldorado Ballroom, located at the corner of Elgin and Dowling, across from Emancipation Park, was the most popular venue among African-Americans for upscale blues and jazz performances.
At its height in popularity, the Eldorado was the premiere showcase for live performances of secular music by African-American musicians.
Houston musicians Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Sam “Lightning” Hopkins got their start playing at the Eldorado Ballroom then went on to national fame. Peppermint Harris and Joe “Guitar” Hughes also launched their careers there.
Many nationally and internally known musicians also made appearances at the Eldorado. Etta James, Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker, Bill Doggett, and Ray Charles all headlined at the Eldorado Ballroom into the 1960s.
By the early 1970s the Eldorado’s popularity began to decline. Like much of the economy along Dowling Street, desegregation greatly affected the ballroom. The passing of the Civil Rights laws allowed African-Americans to economically branch out into formerly segregated parts of Houston and soon the Eldorado Ballroom closed.
In December 1999, The Eldorado Building was acquired by Project Row Houses, a non-profit arts and cultural organization.
The Progressive Amateur Boxing Association (PABA), located at 3212 Dowling Street, was founded in 1968 by Houston’s first fighting preacher, Reverend Ray Martin. As a non-profit community based athletic, counseling, educational and resource center, the PABA has served over 11,000 youths in the Third Ward and greater Houston area.
Boxing greats like George Foreman, Sr., Evander Holyfield, Joe Frazier, and Joe Louis the Brown Bomber all stopped by the PABA.
In 2004, Martin and the organization built a full scale boxing ring in Jack Yates High School. With this accomplishment, Martin helped to launch the first boxing academy in a Texas public high school and the nation.
Wolf’s Department Store and Pawn Shop, located at 2701 Dowling Street, has been a staple of the community along Dowling for the last six decades. Established in 1955, Wolf’s has offered the surrounding community a wide variety of products and services. From men’s clothing to antiques and artwork, the product selection and interior design are reminiscent of the department stores of the 1950’s.
Wolf’s longevity on Dowling is partially due to its “superior customer service” and relationships with frequent customers.
“Most of my clientele have moved out of the neighborhood and they come back,” said Bourgeois. “A lot of my clientele I know personally. Many of them don’t have ID’s. When they get a check no one else will cash it but us because we know that’s them.”
Today, Dowling Street may appear neglected but it was once the center of African-American activity in Houston.
Dowling Street may never return to being the center of African-American activity it once was but in time it will be revitalized into an entirely new community.
“I think Dowling Street is going to come back,” said Douglas. “There will be businesses but they won’t be owned by African-Americans. If you look around Dowling Street there are a lot of vacant lots and boarded up houses. But, if you look just west you will see a lot of condos. Those condos are going to move down and across Dowling and pretty soon they will dominate the area. When you bring in people, you bring in restaurants. You bring in other services that those people will need. Within the next 30- 40 years we will see a transformation on Dowling Street.”