Black History Month: Pleasantville, the first master-planned community in US for African Americans

Rosie Nguyen Image
Friday, February 2, 2024
Pleasantville, US' 1st master-planned community for African Americans
Former Houston City Council Member Judson Robinson III is among Pleasantville residents reflecting on the area's impact during Black History Month.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Tucked in the corner near the East Loop lies the neighborhood of Pleasantville in northeast Houston. A drive through its streets may seem unassuming for the quiet and quaint area, but that's because some don't know about its historical impact.

To understand Pleasantville's significance, we need to go back to the 1940s when redlining and housing discrimination were still in full effect for African American and Jewish-American military service members.

Two builders, Melvin Silverman and H.M. Cohen, partnered with real estate agent Judson Robinson Sr. to create a master-planned community for these two disenfranchised groups. It would be a place where they could safely live, work, and play in the same neighborhood.

Mary Fontenot, president of the Pleasantville Historical Society, explained that until that point, Black Americans could only move into homes used and left behind by white Americans.

"That was the first time (African Americans) actually got to go in and make (their) own decision when they bought a home. That's a big deal," Fontenot said. "We had our own schools, grocery stores, laundromats, and furniture stores. The homes were of better quality and design. Our nickname at one point was the 'Black River Oaks.'"

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Judson Robinson III said his grandfather's vision was to create an equal and equitable community for all families, no matter their backgrounds. The first phase began with apartment complexes, and the second phase brought in the construction of houses.

"He was interested in creating a neighborhood that had safe access to transportation and community resources. He was able to help people build their financial capacity so they could build homes and raise their families," Robinson said.

Fontenot said Pleasantville became an affluent and thriving community, even producing one of the highest voter turnout rates between the 1950s and 1980s.

"Their voter precinct turnout was anywhere between 86% to 100% that was documented. They were recognized nationally for having that type of turnout. You knew that when you turned 18, one of the first things you did was vote. It was instilled in everyone's family and the community," Fontenot said.

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Pleasantville touts a list of residents who became trailblazers in Houston and major contributors to society. Robinson's father became Houston's first Black city council member in 1970 and served five terms. He eventually followed in his dad's footsteps and was elected to council in 1991, serving three terms.

Robinson hopes stories from Pleasantville, like his family's, will inspire future generations to make a difference, no matter what stands in their way.

"Many elected officials, community leaders, doctors, judges, lawyers came out of Pleasantville. Pleasantville is a special place where dreams could come true, and they did for so many people," Robinson said. "All these things we now take for granted, like access to education, it had to start somewhere."

Fontenot said the Pleasantville Historical Society is currently working with community members and multiple organizations to grow an archive of photos and oral history recordings to help preserve the neighborhood's history and legacy.

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