Monthly Archives: January 2008

Houston’s Red-Light District

[Bayou City History rendering of the 1913 boundaries of the reservation]

The red-light district established in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1908 has been discussed on the Bayou City History blog, and on the Houston Architecture Info Forum. (See also this Houston Press article regarding Jelly Roll Morton’s association with the district.) Articles in the Galveston Daily News dated before and soon after the district was created offer some additional information.

As noted elsewhere, the district was referred to as the “reservation”. There has also been mention of the red-light district in Houston known as the “Hollow”, which appears from the following pre-1908 news reports to have been a red-light district in a different area – the creation of the reservation may have been in part an attempt to “clean up” the Hollow:

11/23/1907: “Houston, Tex., Nov. 22. – Complaints were filed in Justice Matthews’ court today against two alleged owners of property in the ‘Hollow,’ the local red light district. One complaint was filed against Michael De George, alleged owner of a house at the corner of Texas avenue and Louisiana street, which it is claimed he permits to be used as a house of ill repute. A similar charge was placed against Leonard A. Howard, alleged owner of a house on Prairie avenue. This action was the result of a recent campaign started by the business men of the city for the purpose of cleaning up that part of Houston.”

12/2/1907: “Houston, Tex., Dec. 1. – Tomorrow morning the court room of Justice of the Peace J.C. Matthews will be the scene of much activity, as the cases against certain property owners in the red light district will them come up for hearing. It is alleged by complainants that the property owners in the ‘hollow’ are renting their homes for immoral purposes, and a campaign is on for he ‘purifying’ of the district.”

A 1908 article post-dating the creation of the reservation, and discussing a fire in the area, appears to support descriptions elsewhere of the boundaries of the red-light district:

12/29/1908: “Houston, Tex., Dec. [28?] – A big fire in that section of the city known as the ‘Reservation’ gave the city fire department two hours’ hard work early this morning, and before the conflagration could be said to be under control five large, new two-story dwelling houses had been destroyed and about forty people, mostly women, rendered homeless. Since the city has created the new Reservation some large residences have been erected in the district, and all were occupied. The loss, as shown by the records at the fire station, total about $36,500 . . . . Several women and one or two men who happened to be in the buildings were slightly injured. The fire started in the house . . . at 800 Hardcastle street. No one seems to know just how it originated, but one rumor is in circulation which suggested the possibility of incendiarism. . . . One of the other houses was located at 802 Hardcastle street, and was occupied by Lucia Caldwell, a colored woman, who rented the rooms in her house to white women. A house on Crosby street in the rear of the other two mentioned . . . was occupied by Josie Sasser, also a colored woman. Some difficulty was encountered in getting the women out of this house, and after they had reached a place of safety they were taken to a house in the Second Ward owned by a sister of the Sasser woman. Sadie Gill owned and occupied the house at 804 Hardcastle street. . . . Rose Wilson owned and occupied the house at 813 Hardcastle street, but it was only slightly damaged. . . . The house at 810 Hardcastle street is owned by W. Rucker and occupied by Josie King. It was only slightly damaged. The house at 719 Shipman street, owned by P.H. Donigan and occupied by Daisy Brooks . . . was damaged to the extent of about $25. The roof was also slightly damaged on the house owned by J.M. Cobb and occupied by Crystal Sheldon, at 817 Hardcastle street.”

Articles appearing during the summer of 1909 give some insight into the complexity of the social issues surrounding the creation of the reservation, as well as the racial prejudices of the time:

6/26/1909: “Houston, Tex., June 25. – Under habeas corpus proceedings held in the Sixty-first District Court at [2?] o’clock this afternoon, Judge Norman Kittrell dismissed twenty cases of vagrancy which had been lodged against the same number of women from the Tenderloin district in Houston. City Attorney Wilson, assisted by local talent, was present in behalf of the women, contending that they are not subject to arrest and conviction on vagrancy charges, inasmuch as the Legislature of 1907 passed a law permitting all cities operating under a special charter to segregate the lewd women in a city in a specified and well-defined district. As soon as Justice McDonald learned of the action of Judge Kittrell he had the constable call the names of each of the women who had been arrested, in front of his office, and as the women did not answer to their names as they were called, their bonds were declared forfeited. It is very probable that Justice McDonald will issue new warrants for the arrest of the same women, and then it is thought be some of the limbs of the law here, that the higher court will be asked to issue an injunction restraining the justice of the peace from further molesting the women in the Reservation on vagrancy charges, but it is contended that for any other offense, such as fighting, stealing, etc., the women, notwithstanding they commit the offense within[] the bounds of the Reservation, would be amenable to the law as applied by either county, state or justices’ courts.”

6/26/1909: “Houston, Tex., June 25. – Armed with about twenty alias warrants issued tonight by Justice McDonald, Constable Frank Smith and his deputies are rearresting as many of the women as can be located who were this afternoon released from custody by an order of Judge Kittrell in the Sixty-first District Court in habeas corpus proceedings. Among the women who were this afternoon released there were some four or five negresses and these are alleged to be the proprietresses of houses of ill fame in the red light district in Houston where white women of dissolute character are permitted to stay. In dicussing the matter with a News man tonight, Judge McDonald stated that it is his intention and desire to disenthrall the white women in the lower walks of life in Houston from the throes of negro domination. In other words, he has taken a stand to prevent the races from commingling even in an execrable avocation, and he proclaims in a most emphatic manner that he is in the fight to the last ditch.”

6/27/1909: “Houston, Tex., June 26. – The spectacular fight of the Justice of the Peace McDonald for the segregation of the races at the “reservation” which has been productive in the past thirty-six hours of injunctions galore, habeas corpus proceedings, arrests and rearrests, alias warrants and contempt proceedings, was temporarily suspended this morning when Judge Norman G. Kittrell of the Sixty-first District Court issued an official explanation of his actions in the matter and postponed the final hearing on the injunction until next Wednesday. Judge McDonald’s contention that the races should be segregated was sustained by City Attorney Wilson when he stated in the District Court this morning that the City Council would pass an ordinance prohibiting the mixing of races in the reservation which exists under the authority and protection of the municipal government. In the meantime Justice of the Peace McDonald, the sheriff and deputy sheriffs, the constables and deputy constables and the jailors and deputy jailors are temporarily restrained from arresting any of the inmates of the reservation on charges of vagrancy growing out of the mixing of the races. The entire controversy is one that is being watched with interest by the authorities of other cities in Texas who have the same problems to contend with. In his opinion given out today Judge Kittrell deals with the question from a legal standpoint, and it is apparent that he believes that Judge McDonald’s fight is without legal foundation, although he agrees with him as to the moral questions involved. His statement, in part, follows: . . . ‘The city of Houston, by special act of the Legislature, has segregated all the occupants and inhabitants of houses of ill fame in a certain part of the city entitled the “reservation,” and it is admitted in this proceeding that all those parties arrested are residents of the reservation and, I assume, are women plying their vocation in that district. . . . Granting that the applicants and defendants are immoral, and lead depraved and vicious lives, and grant even that they are violators of the law, yet they are women and obscure, and in the main poor and outcasts from society, but they are entitled to fair treatment and to every legal protection the law throws around every citizen, however low or humble or mean he or she may be. If they have not violated the law, and so long as they confine themselves to the reservation, it appears to me that they have not, and I do so understand the magistrate to concede, then they should not have been prosecuted, because there was nothing on which to base the prosecution, and for that reason they were discharged.’”

7/1/1909: “Houston, Tex., June 30. – The contention of Justice McDonald is primarily based in this action on the allegation that negress landladies maintaining houses of ill fame in Houston’s segregated district employ white women, and in today’s proceedings in the Sixty-first District Court it was established by the evidence that negress landladies eat together with the white women who are sheltered under the roofs, and also hackride and otherwise force their white soiled doves to place themselves on an equality with them.”

7/11/1909: “Houston, Tex., July 10. – Judge Norman G. Kittrell of the Sixty-First District Court handed down his decision in the famous Thelma Denton case today . . . . This is the case in which Justice McDonald, Constable Smith and Sheriff Archie Anderson were recently enjoined by an order, issued out of Judge Kitrell’s court, from further molesting the lewd women who reside within what is known as Houston segregated district. Originally twenty-two such women, some of them black and others who are white, were arrested on complaints issued out of Justice McDonald’s court charging them with vagrancy. The women were brought before Judge Kittrell in the Sixty-first District Court and were released on habeas corpus proceedings; subsequently they were rearrested on alias warrants, issued out of Justice McDonald’s court, and again they were released from custody, and a temporary order restraining all peace officers from further molesting them was granted by Judge Kittrell, since which time he has had the case under advisement. The alleged charge that the races were commingling in the segregated district was the reason given by Justice McDonald at the time for their being arrested. It was stated that white and black women were living together under the same roof, that they ate together, and rode in hacks together. Judge Kittrell’s order, in part, which follows, covers the points at issue: . . . ‘The question is not free from difficulty by any means, and the discussion of it has been very elaborate and very able, but after the most patient investigation, I have reached the conclusion that, construing all the laws related to the subject together, that as to those women who ply their vocation only in the reservation the statute against vagrants does not apply, and that they are exempt from prosecution; or, in other words, that their actions and conduct and method of lives as women of ill fame do not constitute an offense against the law when confined to the reservation where they have been segregated in obedience to the legislative enactment; therefore, their acts constituting no offense within contemplation of law, there was no ground or basis for the charges against them. As I have said heretofore in connection with this matter, the motive prompting the magistrate to proceed against them, viz: That white women were inmates of houses of which the landladies were colored women, was most commendable, and it is to be deplored that he can not legally effectuate his purpose, but those conditions did not give him any power to proceed, because the law does not recognize any distinction in colors as to lewd women nor undertake to regulate their associations. I may add here without impropriety that the power is vested in the city authorities under the charter to suppress these conditions, and I have reason to believe that the same will be done.’”