Tanya Debose at work in the community

Tanya Debose

Tanya Debose is a fifth-generation Houstonian.

Since 2005 she has been working to improve the lives of Independence Heights residents — and to preserve the history and integrity of this historic black community.

Ms. Debose has roots in both the historic black town of Independence Heights (incorporated in 1915) and Freedman’s Town (established in 1865 — Houston’s present-day 4th Ward). Both neighborhoods were founded by African-Americans and both neighborhoods now face pressures unique to historic black neighborhoods, towns and settlements. Ms. Debose is the founder of Preserving Communities of Color, the community-development arm of the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, and she serves as the executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council.

download pdf version of this page here.
pdf updated May 2018.

  • Tanya Debose Family Photos in Independence Heights 01
  • Tanya Debose Family Photos in Independence Heights 02
  • Tanya Debose Family Photos in Independence Heights 03
  • Tanya Debose Family Photos in Independence Heights 04

family photos taken in historic Independence Heights ~1940s – 1960s.

Selected Publications

Houston’s historic Independence Heights’ complicated past, present and future with divisive freeways, by Tanya Debose. Guest post on Rice University’s Kinder Institute Urban Edge blog. 2019, June 17.

Aimee Von Bokel with Tanya Debose (and Alexandria Parson, Research Assistant),”History Displaced: Flooding in the First Black Municipality in Texas,” More City Thank Water: A Houston Flood Atlas, edited by Lacy M. Johnson and Cheryl Beckett, University of Texas Press, forthcoming 2021.

Selected Articles about Tanya Debose

2021, Feb 3 Houston Endowment Awards Funding to Independence Heights Redevelopment Council “This support and the investment being made in Black-led organizations signifies a new day and is a path in the right direction toward real change,” CW39 Houston.

2020, August 31 Black Towns Matter, Rice Design Alliance, by Irene Vázquez.

2020, June 19 ‘Black Towns Matter’: Houston celebrates and observes Juneteenth, Houston Chronicle.

2020, April 10 PVAMU Architecture professor nominated to serve on the Harris County African American Cultural Heritage Commission, Prairie View A&M University.

2020, Jan. 9 Harris county supports formation of local African-American Heritage Commission. Bay Area Community Impact Newspaper.

2020, Jan. 6 IHRC submitted 58 pages of formal comments to TxDOT documenting historic Independence Heights, Heights Community Impact Newspaper.

2019, Oct. 11 Texas’ $7 billion plan to remake Houston highways once again targets homes, businesses in communities of color, Texas Tribune.

2019, Sept. 28 Texas Flood Victims Still Unsure of FEMA Aid, The Facts.

2019, Sept. 27 When Highways Threaten Our Legacy, Texas Housers Podcast.

2019, Sept. 25 The first black city in Texas is on the verge of losing its identity, Houston Chronicle.

2019, August 28 Blessings from Above: Local church restores Harvey-victim’s home, The Leader.

2019, August 21 More Highways, More Problems, Texas Observer.

2019, June 11  I-45 Expansion Impact Report May Not Have Considered Independence Heights, Houston Chronicle.

2019, June 7 TxDOT’S Historical Resources Report Omits Houston’s Independence Heights, Lone Star Legal Aid.

2019, June 5 Gentrification in Independence Heights, Adam Zuvanich, The Leader  . . . . .  “We have good relationships with the people who are building within our neighborhood,” Debose said. “It’s just those that come in with the mentality of, ‘We bought it, we own it, we can do what we want.’” 

2019, March 11 Hell and high water: How flooding and buyouts threaten Black history, Laura Thompson, Scalawag Magazine.

2018, Oct. 31 Preserving Communities of Color Conference Nov. 1-3, Houston Chronicle.

2018, Sept 1 Community Leaders of Color Roundtable, Houston Style Magazine

2018, August 21  How Hurricane Harvey Buyouts Hurt Communities of Color, Kinder Institute, Rice University

2018, August 3    Lone Star Legal Aid Supports Historic Community Threatened by I-45 North Expansion Project

2018, June 27    Independence Rising mural at the Independence Heights Whole Foods, “We want to be a voice for people who live here, as well as other stakeholders.” (with City Council Member Karla Cisneros), The Leader.

2018, June 26    Burrus Elementary Students Read Their Way to New Bikes — in partnership with CITGO.

2018, March 15    Widening I-45 through Independence Heights, one of Texas’s first black settlements, Houston Chronicle

2018, January 27    CITGO announces $6M for flood recovery in Independence Heights

2017, May 26    Honoring black history / resisting erasure by renaming Whole Foods  in Independence Heights, (with City Council Member Karla Cisneros), Houston Chronicle

2017, March 10    Working to ensure preservation by stabilizing existing homes — with Rebuilding Together Houston and Lowes, via Lowes Newsroom.

2016, Dec. 16    When Historic Doesn’t Mean White, Houston Chronicle

2016, Nov. 22    Tanya Debose, Honorary Mayor of Independence Heights, Houston Chronicle

2016, Nov. 16    Managing Change Starts with Memory: Preserving Communities of Color Workshop, Cheryl Joseph and Raj Mankad,  Off-Cite: Design. Architecture. Houston, Rice University

2015, July 2    Historic Homes in Independence Heights are Testaments to Black Self-Sufficiency, Houston Chronicle

2014, May 21    Independence Heights Partners with Houze to build 5 new net-positive-energy homes. See more below, under “accomplishments.” Rocky Mountain Institute Blog.

2013, June 1    Community’s Revitalization Efforts Bear Fruit, Houston Chronicle

Selected Accomplishments

2020 January: LISC Award for GO Neighborhood Leaders

2019 Celebrating Our Roots Juneteenth Pop Up Exhibit and Community Reception

2019 Outstanding Texan Award, Texas Legislative Black Caucus, Austin.

2019 Established Community Leaders of Color, a monthly meeting for Houston-area leaders to connect, collaborate, and share.

2018 Envisioned, coordinated, planned, and managed the 2nd Preserving Communities of Color Conference in Houston, Texas.  website.  videos.  conference program.

2018 Partnered with the Houston Housing Authority president Tory Gunsolley to establish The Independence Heights Affordable Housing Apartment Complex, open to residents earning 60% or less than the area median income. This project addresses the goals set forth in our 2010 Community Plan / Quality of Life Agreement, to facilitate community development including safe and secure affordable housing.

2018 Partnered with Citgo to bring in $6M for Independence Heights Legacy Project — to help current residents restore their homes and remain in the community after hurricane Harvey (with Rebuilding Together Houston).

2017 Heritage Square Design Project with architecture professor Juanita T. Jimenez and Prairie View A&M University: Developed designs for commemorative site that honors and shares the history of the Independence Heights (a goal articulated in the Independence Heights Livable Centers study, 2012).

2016 Organized and hosted inaugural Preserving Communities of Color conference in collaboration with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA)

2015 Established Preserving Communities of Color

2015 First locally protected house in Independence Heights (with Carroll Parrot Blue)

2015 Bloomberg Houze

2015 Senior Fellow, American Leadership Forum, Community Development

2014 Established Starkweather Historic District in Independence Heights.

2014 ; 2012 partnered with Microsoft Convergence to build a food pantry, refurbish 7 houses, create community gardens, landscape local churches and the historic portion of North Main Street. Convergence volunteers planted fruit trees as a sign of their commitment and their belief in the community’s legacy. (the technology conference is now called Microsoft Envision)

2014 Independence Heights Zero Energy Initiative (with Houze, City of Houston. Built 5 new net-positive energy homes, established a partnership to sell back electricity…)

2012 Independence Heights Northline Livable Centers Study (with Greater Northside Management District)

2010 North Main Corridor in Corridors: Collaborative Community Design Initiative with Susan Rogers and the Community Design Resource Center at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, University of Houston (2008 – 2010)

2010 Independence Heights Quality of Life Agreement: “Vision: A New Future for Our Historic Community.”

2009 selected participant, LISC Go Neighborhood Challenge  (multiyear place-based initiative for revitalizing Houston communities)

2007 Invited to apply for the LISC Go Neighborhood Challenge

2005  Independence Heights Initiative (Dec. 31, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina)

2001 Independence Heights Super Neighborhood recognized by the City of Houston

Selected Lectures and Presentations

2019 April:  Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Houston

2019 April: National Emergency Summit on Gentrification, New Jersey (invited participant)

2018 October 6: Houston History Alliance 2018 Conference, Houston Women: Agitating, Educating, Advocating

2018 August 10: Invited panelist: Resilience, Ripple Effects and Reflections From Leaders One Year After the Rain, American Leadership Forum Second Friday Breakfast, Briar Club, Houston. (with Stephen Costello, Tonyel Edwards, Jason Ford, and Andrea White)

2016 American Leadership Forum

2015 Creating Community Engagement with Non-Cash Resources, Neighborhood USA Conference

Detailed Biography

Tanya Debose began her work in community development after working for years in the criminal justice field as a parole officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She returned to her roots and connected to her heritage in historic Independence Heights. It is there where Debose learned skills and gained hands-on experience to engage and organize communities for sustainable success. It was also there that she learned the rich history of her ancestors and discovered they were pioneers who helped initiate the first city incorporated by African Americans in the State of Texas.

Through her work in Independence Heights she achieved many goals that include leading a 3-year community initiative that resulted in the first written community plan. She has also secured protection for the first landmarked home in in the community and the first local historic district. Throughout her work in Independence Heights, she has lead various small and large scale community projects and has a track record of getting things done in under-resourced communities.

After more than 25 years of work in social service and community development, Debose developed a desire to share her work and strategies with other communities particularly those with rich historic and cultural assets. Her passion grew after discovering how significantly important these communities were to the fabric of America and how the contributions of blacks to the nation was a rarely told story. Her focus shifted to learning more about other places similar to Independence Heights and how she could use her background and network to assist other communities and build a platform to bring awareness, leverage resources and help others to passionately embrace their own communities through leadership in preservation and revitalization.

In 2015, she began lending her experience and expertise to other local community leaders by helping them organize and build capacity to serve and lead their communities. By working with existing leaders, her intent was to inspire them to the next level while at the same time it helped her gain an understanding of how to effectively work with communities that lack skilled leadership but have rich history, passion and tenacity.

In Spring 2016, through her networks and connections, she assembled a committee of well respected leaders to help spearhead the first Preserving Communities of Color Conference in partnership with the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA). The focus of the conference was to provide networking opportunities, tools and resources to others working to preserve and develop historic communities into inclusive vibrant places and cultural destinations. Debose eventually blended her “on the ground” work in communities with the annual conference and an online resource and information center entitled, “Preserving Communities of Color”. Today, her work spans multiple states and with a team of culturally competent professionals, she works at the local level to help communities preserve and revitalize.

In 2017, she initiated a statewide membership organization called the Texas Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. The THBTSA serves as a state chapter of the HBTSA.

Independence Heights: Community Plans

  1. 2010 Independence Heights Quality of Life Agreement / GO Neighborhoods plan — with LISC (pdf)
  2. 2010 North Main Corridor — with Susan Rogers and the Collaborative Community Design Initiative (pdf)
  3. 2012 Livable Center Study, Greater Northside  (pdf)
  4. 2014 Rebirth of North Main Street, Independence Heights, Houston, TX with Sarah Zwede and Asakura Robinson Planning Firm, LISC, IHRC, and the IH Superneighborhood Council (pdf)

Other unpublished studies include: LISC Marketplace Study and the Social Compact.