October 15, 2020

9 Historic Black Neighborhoods That Celebrate Black Excellence

The first half of the 20th century shaped Black Americans’ identity and influence on the United States. In reaction to racist actions and laws in that period, Black neighborhoods provided a sense of belonging, serving as a space not only to garner wealth, but also to celebrate Black culture in a unique and authentic way. During this time, a Black cultural identity began to emerge, but Black Americans were still significantly affected by key events such as Jim Crow, segregation and desegregation, and the assassinations of key Civil Rights leaders. These events impacted individual livelihoods and the fate of these neighborhoods.

Many of these communities disintegrated because of factors such as gentrification and outright racism, while others continue to rebuild and evolve. However, the history of these neighborhoods have often been hidden and not fully recognized. As a way of honoring Black excellence and their full rich history, the National Trust is exploring nine “Black Wall Streets” across the country where African American businesses districts flourished and served as examples of Black economic self-empowerment.

Learn about these nine neighborhoods:

Greenwood/Black Wall Street—Tulsa, Oklahoma

Black Wall Street Memorial at the Greenwood Cultural Center

photo by: Marc Carlson via Flickr CC By 2.0

Memorial to Black Wall Street at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is home of the Greenwood district, also known as “Black Wall Street.” It is one of the most well-known Black business districts from the early 20th century. The district was a successful, self-sufficient society where clusters of Black businesses thrived. Black Americans created their own community and economy, which included a newspaper, grocery stores, barbershops, doctors’ offices, schools, and more.

The area was a Black utopia with a population of about 10,000 people at the time, until mobs of armed, white residents descended on the community burning down businesses, looting homes, and attacking African Americans on May 31, 1921. The massacre killed hundreds of Black residents and thousands of houses were destroyed. Reconstruction of the district took place in 1922, when around 80 businesses were opened, but by the end of the 1950s, many of them closed due to desegregation.

African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund recipient Historic Vernon Chapel AME Church was one of the few buildings that was left barely standing. Names of the survivors who rebuilt the church are inscribed on the stained-glass windows. And the $150,000 grant (the largest award this year) will help fund the church’s window stabilization project.

Fayetteville St., Hayti, circa 1940

photo by: Durham County Library, NC Collection

Looking down Fayetteville Street in the Hayti District of Durham, North Carolina around 1940.

Hayti District—Durham, North Carolina

The Hayti District, also known as “The Black Capitol of the South” among Black leaders in Durham, North Carolina, became a successful Black community soon after African Americans migrated to the city to work in tobacco factories in the local area of Fayetteville Road. The land where the neighborhood emerged was initially owned by white merchants but was eventually purchased with capital that Black residents earned over time. In its prime from the 1880s to the 1940s, the district was one of the most successful Black communities in the country.

The city was home to the historic North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, Lincoln Hospital, as well as over 200 other Black-owned businesses. Upon his visit to the district in 1911, Booker T. Washington stated that he found a "a city of Negro enterprises" whose citizens were "shining examples of what a colored man may become.”

Harlem—New York, New York

View of the Harlem River and Bridges c1902

photo by: Irving Underhill/Library of Congress

View of the Harlem River and Bridges in New York c. 1902.

Harlem, New York, was the quintessence of Black excellence in the 1920s. From the culture and social activism to the artistic expression and scholarly works that were created, the New York City neighborhood was home to a renaissance that will forever be ingrained in American history. Thousands of Black people from the South and the Caribbean moved to the community, known as the “Black Mecca” during the early 1900s, searching for opportunity and new livelihoods.

That time period (specifically the 1920s) became known as the “Harlem Renaissance” when many cultural, artistic, and literary figures such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker and more, found inspiration and solace in Harlem.

The era birthed art pieces that helped define Black history and are still recognized to this day.The Great Depression had a particularly devastating impact on Black communities, including Harlem. Even so, the community’s political, social, and economic influence has continued to shape the Black experience through the Civil Rights Movement and up until today.

U Street—Washington, D.C.

Exterior view of Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington, D.C.

photo by: Alan Mayers via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Outside Ben's Chili Bowl, a legacy business along U Street in Washington, D.C.

Historically known as “Black Broadway,” Washington, D.C.’s U Street corridor was known as the epicenter for Black excellence and talent at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. U Street was the home of Black social, cultural, and economic prosperity, despite “racial and political tension” in the country. Some of the most prominent entertainers, activists, educators, and artists in the country have walked the legendary corridor, shaping its history into what it is known for today. Pioneers like Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McLeod Bethune, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, and more “found refuge in Black Broadway” to unapologetically celebrate Blackness.

Although Black influence has almost disappeared due to desegregation and gentrification, the memories and stories from the historic district will continue to keep its significance preserved and cherished through some Black-owned shops that have survived over the decades such as Ben’s Chili Bowl and Lee’s Flower and Card Shop. Currently, U Street is known as “Washington’s cultural center” and it is home to many restaurants, clubs, markets, and more.

Tenth Street Historic District, Dallas, Texas

photo by: The Inclusive Communities Project

Along the Tenth Street Historic District in Dallas, Texas.

Tenth Street Historic District—Dallas, Texas

Situated in a white community called Oak Cliff, Tenth Street District grew to become a prominent Black community soon after the Civil War because of segregation. More than 500 Black residents lived in the area by 1900. The strong African American presence in the district is one reason the area grew and prospered. Tenth Street District is home to notable Black figures such as blues artist T-Bone Walker and Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson.

As with other Black communities in the country, the effects of demolition, construction, and integration caused many residents to relocate, taking their cultural influence and impact with them. The district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The area is a great location for preservation work to take place because many buildings with significant African American history remain standing today. The district is also a 2020 Action Fund recipient and is listed as one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Fourth Avenue District—Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Designation Announcement 16th Street Baptist Church

photo by: Mark Sandlin

Exterior of the 16th Street Baptist Church, just one of the landmarks that are a part of the Fourth Avenue District in Birmingham, Alabama.

This southern district became an affluent Black business district during the early-to mid-20th century. It was home to a plethora of businesses including theaters, restaurants, hotels, cafés, mortuaries, and more. Fourth Avenue District was a haven for many Black Americans to be and celebrate themselves in various ways. Not only was the enclave a great retail and entertainment area, but it also served as a location for community engagement and activism.

Some sites include The Colored Masonic Temple (currently known as the Masonic Temple Building), the Carver Theatre, and more. The historic 16th Street Baptist Church was also constructed not too far from the district on Sixth Avenue in 1911. The church was a meeting and rallying point for civil rights protestors and was the site of a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four young Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

Other prominent landmarks near the area include Kelly Ingram Park, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, St. Paul United Methodist Church and National Treasure, A.G. Gaston Motel. A.G. Gaston Motel is currently undergoing restoration to serve as the centerpiece of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which was declared a National Park Service designation back in 2017.

Exterior of Maggie L. Walker's bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia

photo by: National Park Service

Exterior of St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia.

Jackson Ward—Richmond, Virginia

Nicknamed the “Harlem of the South,” Richmond’s Jackson Ward was a cultural, entertainment and economic hub for Black residents. Thousands of Black Americans moved to the area that is now a historic district after the Civil War to create better lives for themselves and to start businesses. The prosperous area was home to many well-known churches and the first Black and woman-owned bank in the country, St. Luke Penny Savings, which was founded by entrepreneur and monumental figure Maggie L. Walker.

Jackson Ward had a successful, self-sufficient economy where Black entrepreneurs established financial institutions, stores, medical practices, and more. Jackson Ward also had a thriving entertainment scene where musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, would visit.

The district began to decline in the 1950s, but its heritage and history is still preserved to this day. The community was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and is also designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Seventh Street—West Oakland, California

Photo from Esther's Orbit Room - West Oakland in 2007.

photo by: Russell Mondy via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland, California. Photo taken in 2007.

Seventh Street in West Oakland became a prosperous area around the time of World War II. Black Americans moved to Oakland by the masses due to war-related jobs and other opportunities, such as becoming Pullman porters. Black Americans created Black-owned businesses for residents to support and buy Black, which in turn laid the groundwork to help the economy thrive.

Businesses such as Sylester Sim’s Overland Cafe, Slim Jenkins Club, Esther’s Orbit Room, The Barn, and The Lincoln Theater helped West Oakland become a cultural hub for Black entrepreneurs and talent during the 1940s. The jazz and blues scenes were so prominent in the area that musicians such as Nat King Cole and B.B. King would travel to clubs to perform, and the West Coast Blues sound began to emerge. West Oakland was the West Coast epicenter for Black Americans, providing them the opportunity embed their Southern roots and talents into the DNA of the city.

Sweet Auburn Historic District—Atlanta, GA

Renaissance Apt. Located on the downtown side of Auburn Avenue.

photo by: Stan Kaady

A view of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dubbed the "richest Negro street in the world," by John Wesley Hobbs, Sweet Auburn was a haven for Black Atlanta residents before the Civil Rights movement. The district’s cultural and social landscape shaped the Black experience in the city, birthing now-historic Black churches, businesses (such as the second largest Black insurance company in the country, Atlanta Life Insurance Company), talent and more. The Sweet Auburn district is also the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. Visitors can take a tour of his childhood home located at 501 Auburn Avenue. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church is also located in the neighborhood.

A prominent hub during its prime, Sweet Auburn declined in the 1980s as social and economic factors reshaped the district. Because of the neighborhood's importance along with opportunities for historic preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Sweet Auburn on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1992, and 2012 before naming it a National Treasure.

The National Trust is currently working in collaboration with Main Street America and Sweet Auburn Works (SAW) to create a model that will help revitalize “the urban commercial core” of the neighborhood and reestablish a strong African American ownership and presence in the area. Earlier in 2020, the National Trust granted SAW $50,000 to lead the Historic African American Neighborhood and District Summit through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Despite disinvestment, urban renewal, oppressive policies and federal intervention, the impact of these communities should still inspire entrepreneurs, innovators, and community leaders of all backgrounds as places of culture, creativity, and influence. Within the past year, current events and the country’s racial climate has influenced the resurgence of support for Black businesses, and today Black Americans are using these neighborhoods as a blueprint to create their own enclaves and ensure their ancestors’ legacy and history continues to live on.

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Brianna Rhodes is a journalist and entrepreneur who writes on various topics, including Black culture, diversity and inclusion, race, and social justice. She is also the founder of a creative agency called Brianna Rhodes Writes. She is a past Fellow of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

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