Politics

How to Erase a Neighborhood

It’s been decades since Manning Rollerson cut the grass in front of his grandmother’s home in Freeport, a petrochemical town of about 12,000 that’s situated on the Gulf, about an hour’s drive south of Houston. But he still remembers the way the wild onion would burn his eyes as he pushed a barely functioning manual mower over the lawn every Saturday when he was a young boy. His grandmother would bring him a cold towel to wipe his eyes, along with a sandwich and some sweet tea. And he remembers, too, how sometimes, when he was bored and looking for trouble, he would throw rocks at the house—a modest blue one-story with a wraparound porch and a vegetable garden in the back, in the city’s East End. “Boy, stop hitting the house,” his grandmother would scold him. “You’re going to have to live in that house one day.” 

Established in 1930 as the town’s Negro District, the East End was the only part of Freeport where Rollerson’s grandmother, Louise Richardson, was allowed to buy property after the city passed a Jim Crow–era segregation ordinance. Though the neighborhood had a view of the water, the homes and businesses were soon dwarfed by the port’s expanse of chemical plants and industrial facilities. When Rollerson was growing up here in the sixties, Freeport’s schools were starting to desegregate, but Rollerson remembers his mother saying the city still felt like a sundown town, a place where white residents could threaten and intimidate African Americans outside after dark. As a child, he and his peers stayed in their corner of the city, especially at night. 

Rollerson would eventually raise his own children in the East End; his oldest daughter grew up in the blue house, spoiled by her great-grandmother. But the house is long gone—his family had to demolish it in 2002 after, Rollerson says, the city wouldn’t issue him permits to make repairs. In fact, houses have vanished, one by one, all over the East End—and so have churches, schools, the barbershop, and the mom-and-pop stores that served the once-thriving community. Today, only a handful of residents still live in the East End, and weeds cover vacant lots where houses used to stand.

Manning Rollerson on his land in Freeport’s East End neighborhood.

Photograph by Michael Starghill

Most of the families who used to live here have sold their properties to Port Freeport, which is planning to deepen its ship channels, part of a $295 million program to make Freeport the home of Texas’s deepest port. Alongside that project, the port plans to expand its footprint into the East End, converting the residential neighborhood into a complex of warehouses and U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities to service the port’s expanded operations. The expansion would allow Port Freeport, which delivers an estimated statewide economic output just shy of $100 billion, to accommodate larger cargo ships in addition to servicing companies like Dow Chemical, Phillips 66, Chiquita, and Dole.

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Boosters of the expansion argue that it’s an economic no-brainer. “Port Freeport is a major driver of Brazoria County’s economy. It will have an even bigger impact as these projects come online,” says Gary Basinger, the president and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance for Brazoria County.

Phyllis Saathoff, the port’s executive director, said in a statement, “Acquiring the 103-acre tract of land adjoining Port Freeport will enable us to keep growing our facility and increasing the Port’s vital role to the state of Texas.” 

Freeport’s local newspaper, the Facts, has aggressively editorialized in favor of the project and suggested that criticism of the demise of the East End is unwarranted. In October, the managing editor of the paper wrote that the “gnarled faces” of residents fighting the port expansion are holding on to memories of a bygone era. “Watching the East End transform from a place for young families into a place for international commerce undoubtedly is painful for many, but the end result will be to the long-term benefit of the city and region.”

Rollerson, now in his sixties, is one of the few stubborn holdouts. Even though he hasn’t lived in the East End for years and has moved a few miles away into a different house, he is clinging to the deed to his grandmother’s land. Soon enough, though, Rollerson will almost certainly have to let go of the land and, along with it, any lingering hopes of reviving the East End. In 2016 the port offered him a little more than $20,000 for the lot where the house once stood. Rollerson thinks his property would have been worth more if the house were still standing, but it’s hard to say what the number should be: East End residents say their land values have been artificially depressed by years of disinvestment and industrialization. 

According to the Brazoria County Appraisal District, the quarter-acre lot that Rollerson’s grandmother once owned on East Second Street is valued at just $4,290—about $18,000 per acre. The same goes for other empty lots in the East End. In contrast, the neighborhood just west of the East End, farther away from the port and the petrochemical facilities, boasts much higher property values. Empty residential lots there are valued at more than $30,000 an acre, on average.

Rollerson refused the port’s offer, and in October, the port’s six elected commissioners voted to use eminent domain to take over the remaining pockets of the neighborhood owned by private citizens. 

That means that for the remaining landowners in the East End, the question isn’t whether to sell but rather how much to settle for. It will likely be a long, drawn-out process that will involve lawyers and independent appraisers negotiating with the port for a higher selling price. But even so, Rollerson is adamant that he doesn’t want to sell: if he can’t live in the East End, he wants to keep the land in his family’s name and lease it to the port for its operations. Rollerson sees it as a fair deal: if the port takes his home in the name of economic progress, he ought to reap some of the profits. The port, however, told Texas Monthly in a statement that it wouldn’t consider that option.

The waterfront in Freeport.

Photograph by Michael Starghill

The Freeport harbor in the early 1900s.

The Freeport harbor in the early 1900s.

University of Texas at Arlington Library via University of North Texas Libraries/The Portal to Texas History

Left:

The waterfront in Freeport.

Photograph by Michael Starghill

Right:

The Freeport harbor in the early 1900s.

University of Texas at Arlington Library via University of North Texas Libraries/The Portal to Texas History

Most East End landowners, Rollerson included, say the demise of their community was no accident. Founded by the Freeport Sulphur Company in 1912, the town was once home to the world’s largest sulfur mines. In 1939 Dow Chemical Company began building its first plant in Freeport. As industry and employment boomed, so did air and water pollution, and the only neighborhood in which black families were allowed to buy homes was downwind. 

East End residents claim that the city of Freeport has long neglected the neighborhood, refusing to fix streets and denying permits for new construction or repairs to old homes. As the homes and businesses crumbled, so did the property values. The city’s 2002 master plan labeled the majority of homes in the East End blighted. (The city attorney declined to comment on something that occurred before his tenure.)

As neighbors left the community and businesses shuttered, many of the remaining homeowners decided to sell their homes and lots to the port, which had been making offers in the East End since the nineties. But those who sold before the port declared eminent domain took the lowest offer before they had a legal right to negotiate for more. Then, several years ago, the port authority began using “coercive and involuntary” methods, including threats of eminent domain, against the remaining holdouts, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by Rollerson in 2018. The suit alleges that the predominantly black and Hispanic residents of the East End were “the target of intentional racial discrimination,” in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Long before the port formally voted on an eminent domain resolution in October, it was making below-market offers to landowners in the East End, says Amy Dinn, a lawyer from the Houston nonprofit Lone Star Legal Aid who is representing Rollerson. “Someone says, ‘Here’s $12,000 for your property or we’ll eminent domain you,’ we’ll take it,” she says. “And community members didn’t always understand what eminent domain meant—‘I’m going to have to give it to you, or take the $12,000?’ ” 

That “fundamental misunderstanding” around the eminent domain process, as Dinn diplomatically puts it, meant that landowners who sold to the port years ago weren’t aware of or able to exercise the protections intended for them: the right to bring in their own lawyers and property appraisers, the right to appeal offers made by the port to a special commission, and, in some cases, the right to take the port to a jury trial to determine a fair price. 

Rollerson’s lawyers put it more bluntly in the complaint: “The East End of Freeport has quite a sordid history as an area where the white population could put African Americans, and other minorities, ‘out of the way,’ making its very existence ripe for being taken advantage of when the time was right.” 

(In a statement regarding this, the port said Freeport has “changed dramatically in the past 40-plus years” and many of the properties it acquired in the East End had simply been poorly maintained.)

It isn’t unusual for a public entity such as a city or port, or a company whose operations are deemed a public interest, to make an initial lowball offer early in the eminent domain process. In the Hill Country, for example, the oil pipeline company Kinder Morgan has been accused of doing just that as it acquires land for a controversial pipeline. (Texas Monthly’s parent company, Enterprise Products Company, also owns interests in the midstream oil and gas industry, among other investments.)

But the dynamic in the prosperous Hill Country region is different in some important ways. One Gillespie County resident who balked at an offer of $85,000 took the company to a hearing and was eventually awarded $11 million. Others settled for upwards of $1 million despite initial offers as low as $20,000 or $45,000. Residents say the pipelines being proposed to cut through the Hill Country threaten to spoil scenic views in a region of Texas that has mostly escaped industrial development and boasts soaring land values. East End residents were never going to get million-dollar deals. Decades of industrial activity have left the East End far less desirable for anything except more industry.

Rollerson’s lawsuit alleges that the port targeted elderly residents for a “swap” program: in exchange for deeds to their East End properties, the port offered new homes just a few miles away. According to the lawsuit, the homes were smaller than promised and were located in the hundred-year floodplain. The East End was on the highest ground in Freeport and rarely, if ever, flooded during storms. (In a statement, the port denied the lawsuit’s assertion and said that the new homes were “certified as insurable” and hadn’t experienced floods in the past two years.)

A federal judge in Galveston dismissed Rollerson’s suit in November. Lone Star Legal Aid is appealing, but the eminent domain process is well underway, and there are few hurdles left before the port acquires the East End in its entirety.  

“Driving through the East End is painful,” Rollerson says as we tour the nearly empty neighborhood on a rainy November afternoon. When the deals are inked and the deeds transferred, Rollerson wonders: will anyone remember how Freeport’s black residents carved a home out of the East End? 

Manning Rollerson with his extended family on his property in Freeport.

Photograph by Michael Starghill

The East End’s trajectory is not unusual for low-income communities of color in Texas: segregation, accompanied by polluting industries, followed by an aggressive industrial expansion that ultimately displaces the remaining residents. “These are long-term, systemic problems that exist in how we design where we live,” Dinn says. 

For example, in 2012 some residents of Corpus Christi sued the Texas Department of Transportation after it announced that the new harbor bridge spanning the ship channel would be built through the city’s historically black north side—for years, the only part of the city where nonwhite residents could buy homes. The same pattern holds true for highways in major cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston: they were built through middle-class black communities, which federal and local governments viewed as blighted, ignoring the contribution to intentional redlining policies. 

“That’s one of the reasons that [government agencies] have an affirmative duty to acknowledge past discrimination,” says Colin Cox, another attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid. “The history of discrimination, especially with roads and [the purposeful siting of] industry near certain communities means that every time those get expanded, they take more of the same people’s land.”  

Freeport’s mayor, Brooks Bass, knows that residents feel that the city never supported the East End. “There are a lot of hurt feelings,” he says. “Folks probably wanted more from the city government, but we have to work within the constraints thrust upon us.” 

If the port completely takes over the East End, its facilities will bump up against downtown Freeport and the Old Brazos riverfront—and just a few blocks away from the city hall offices where Bass was sworn in last fall. He says it will be harder to attract new businesses and residents to the downtown area when the view of the water is obstructed by a fence and rows of cargo containers.

“The port owns a tremendous amount of property in Freeport,” Bass says. “How much is enough?” 

It’s already too late for East Enders like Lila M. Lloyd, a 91-year-old woman who has lived through the neighborhood’s slow spiral into decline. Lloyd was born in Freeport in the twenties. She left for Houston to get her high school diploma—there were no black high schools here back then. Some time later, she returned to her family home in the East End as a widow, raising five children on her own. 

Lila M. Lloyd in front of an abandoned house previously owned by her brother Robert Shanklin in the East End.

Photograph by Michael Starghill

When Lloyd’s father was saving to buy the property, which the family still holds the deed to, he used to bury his pay stubs in a box under a tree for safekeeping. That way, no one could destroy the only proof that he’d earned every penny he would eventually put toward buying a house. “He had to fight for it,” says Susan Johnson, Lloyd’s daughter. “The only reason that they gave him the land was because he had all the receipts.”

“I would have never thought that I would ever have a home of my own,” Lloyd says. “I could never seem to make enough money, raising my kids on my own.” Her children were among the first to desegregate Freeport’s schools. Lloyd, like Rollerson, was eventually forced to demolish her house after the city wouldn’t issue permits for repairs. Piece by piece, Lloyd and her relatives tore down the old home themselves.

Now that the port has invoked the formal process of eminent domain, Lloyd might be able to get a higher price than if she’d been pressured into selling years ago, as many of her neighbors did. She’s held out for largely sentimental reasons—the memories and the history—but there’s also the question of fairness. Like Rollerson, she wishes she could lease the land so that it would remain in the family’s name. 

Even so, a higher selling price for the land—tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars—won’t take away the sting. “This isn’t about the money,” Johnson says, close to tears. “It’s about my grandfather’s legacy. When you take it, I lose.” 

Johnson has been trying to make peace with this realization. She can pass on the stories and the history of the East End to her children and their children. But she won’t be able to pass down the land, or the home and the community she once knew. Lloyd, Rollerson, and the handful of landowners holding out in the East End with them will be lucky, Rollerson’s lawyer predicts, if they get $30,000 or $40,000 apiece. But it’s impossible to put a price tag on all they’ve lost.

Tags: News, Politics, Race, eminent domain, Freeport, Oil and gas, Segregation

Comments

  • just me

    It’s a damn shame how a group of people could live in only one section of the town (which I’m sure wasn’t a choice location), and now that big dollars are involved, even that location is not going to be available. If the commissioners are going to use eminent domain, they need to pay an amount that is equal to the importance they are placing on the expansion. On the flip side of the coin, the money is not as important as the ability of a government entity having the power to take and erase a community!

    • JR

      How would you feel if residents were given a new house and a stipend for moving costs in exchange for existing houses, most of which are 80 years old?

  • Clifford Ward

    Wonderful article, will follow this reporter anywhere. I grew up in Clute in the 50’s and 60’s and Clute had their area for minorities and I ask my mom why and she said bad people set that up. Instead of bringing all people, race or religion to one area and benefiting from the differences there were set up in areas not as good as others.