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Heart of the Community

Photo from Historic Augusta

As efforts to revitalize the neighborhood now known as “Laney Walker /Bethlehem” continue, a brief look back reveals the vibrant community that emerged here in the first three decades of the 20th century. When the Civil War ended, Augustans of all races lived and worked throughout the city. But as racial lines hardened in the late 19th century, and whites created a second-class status for African Americans, “Jim Crow” or segregation set in and neighborhoods, like many other aspects of life, became increasingly separate.

In the 1880s many African American businesses, social organizations, religious and educational institutions were downtown. But a gradual southward shift of both African American population and institutions occurred throughout the 1880s and ’90s, creating not only a new residential area, but in essence, a second downtown. African Americans—from day laborers to artisans, domestics to entrepreneurs, from teachers to CEOs and porters to physicians—called the neighborhood home. In the early 20th century this area became a busy commercial, educational and cultural hub for the black community that earned the moniker the “Golden Blocks” for its core.

As more and more businesses discriminated against or altogether refused African American clientele, black entrepreneurship stepped in. Three types of business became substantial cornerstones for the neighborhood. The earliest was the funeral business. William Dent had trained with Platt’s before opening his firm in the early 1880s. After his death, his wife Julia took over and the company grew and prospered. In the 1910s one of the young undertakers working with her was William H. Mays, who would eventually start his own company.

The next major business to emerge was the insurance industry. As white-owned companies began to refuse coverage to blacks, African American insurers became crucial. Founded in 1898 by the Walkers and Hornsbys, Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company eventually spread throughout four Southern states, always maintaining its home office in Augusta. By the 1910s and ’20s several other black insurance companies had branch offices in the area: Georgia Mutual Guarantee Life, Afro American Life, North Carolina Mutual, National Benefit and Atlantic Benefit all had branch offices in the area. The industry not only offered a needed service to its customers but also provided a path to the middle class for its agents and executives, who in turn reinvested in the neighborhood. 

A third business important to the neighborhood’s development began in 1910 when a group of community leaders founded the Penny Savings & Loan Bank. Its charter, like that of any financial institution, stated profit as one of its aims, but it also revealed more lofty goals: “to encourage the saving and investing of small amounts of money; to aid men and women of small means in securing homes; to stimulate and encourage thrift and industry and the spirit of enterprise among the people by loaning the means to establish small industries and enterprises; and in general to be helpful to those who need help by teaching them to help themselves and be economical.” It was business and it was individual and community uplift.

Small retail businesses also emerged—shoe and clothing stores, grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries and drug stores. In the 1920s successful businesswoman Rachael Roundfield Culbreath was the second-generation proprietor of Roundfield Ice Cream Manufacturing Company founded at the turn of the century by her father. Watchmaker James H. Williams was the only African American jeweler in town. The Music Box on 9th Street offered a variety of gift items, including brown-skinned dolls for young girls to “teach appreciation for the race.” Available services included shoe repair, laundry and dry cleaning, and upholstery repair. Barbers and beauticians offered not only services, but also social interaction. In 1926 John Crimm opened an automobile service station encouraging his customers to “use Good Gulf gasoline.” Artisans included tailors and seamstresses, builders, plasterers, home decorators, blacksmiths, carpenters, brick masons, roofers, plumbers and electricians. Jacob Pope was an expert in horticulture and forestry. Many of these skilled craftsmen had both white and black clients.

Restaurants and other venues provided opportunities for entertainment. The Progressive Club billed itself not as “an eating contest club” but an establishment where a patron could find “a place in the matters of community life where good can be done and at the same time offer some amusement for men who work and would like to spend some leisure afternoons with worthy friends.” Starr’s Hall was a venue for social events such as the Masquerade Dance under the auspices of the Imperial Social Club with music by Eddie Harper’s Jazz Serenaders. Small restaurants like Del Mar’s served the less expensive dining needs of customers.

The grandest entertainment space was the Lenox Theater on 9th Street (now James Brown Boulevard). Designed by Augusta architect G. Lloyd Preacher, creator of many other landmark buildings in Augusta, the theater seated almost 600 on the ground floor and 300 in the balcony. There African Americans could enjoy live performances as well as “moving pictures’’ without having to enter through a Jim Crow door or sit in the balcony unless they chose to do so. The theater was the only place where patrons could see movies with all black casts. The Lenox also hosted fundraisers for charitable institutions and even political meetings.

Leading professionals included doctors, dentists and nurses. Perhaps the best-known physicians were George Stoney, who had served as a regimental surgeon in the Spanish-American War, and T.W. Josey. When City Hospital (later to become University) barred African American physicians, they opened small infirmaries and hospitals in the neighborhood, such as Dr. George Burruss’s Sanitarium and later Bruce Hospital, founded by Dr. S.S. Johnson. Lawyers were also part of the professional elite, including Judson Lyons who served in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations as the register of the U.S. Treasury.

Another crucial component of the neighborhood was education. By 1895 the Mauge Street School had 600 pupils and 11 teachers including the first African American in Georgia certified to teach—Augustus R. Johnson. Public schools offered education up to the eighth grade; further study had to be at private institutions. Miss Lucy Laney, who originally taught in the public school system, established her own school and later moved it to Gwinnett Street. Named Haines Institute in honor of the Northern Presbyterian philanthropist who donated $10,000 for the institution, the school started the first kindergarten in Augusta in 1890 and Lamar School of Nursing for young African American women in 1892. Haines’s high school students received a classical education—Greek and Latin, science and mathematics. Walker Baptist Institute on the corner of 9th and Miller also offered a high school education, as did Paine Institute, which moved from downtown to the nearby neighborhood of Woodlawn. A joint venture of the black and white Methodists, Paine added college work in 1887.

These schools not only offered knowledge to their students but provided intellectual/cultural opportunities to the entire African American community. Each year Walker Baptist Institute hosted a conference for farmers that featured the noted Tuskegee Institute chemist George Washington Carver. Paine College students staged dramatic performances including Shakespearean plays, as well as a top-notch lyceum series that included the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, internationally renowned tenor Roland Hayes and native son pianist Charles Harris, a product of the New England Conservatory and Chicago School of Music. Haines Institute hosted Joseph H. Douglass, son of the great abolitionist, but known in his own right as a virtuoso violinist. Other billings included the New Amsterdam Orchestra and Madame Helen Hagan, concert pianist from the Yale Conservatory and Paris, France. Speakers at Haines included scholar and civil rights activist Dr. W.E. B. DuBois.

The community was rich in clubs and organizations that created a varied civic and cultural life. The YMCA at the corner of 9th and Miller became a very important resource for men of all ages. Among its many programs, the YMCA sponsored lectures every Sunday afternoon featuring community leaders as well as regional and national figures, including in 1917 former President William Howard Taft. The Phyllis Wheatley branch of the YWCA provided education—classes in dressmaking and millinery, photography, flower arranging, cooking, piano—as well as social programs for women and girls.

Organizations to celebrate and advocate African American equality and rights abounded. One of the earliest was the Lincoln League, which each New Year sponsored Emancipation Day exercises featuring a parade, speakers and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1919, 500 African American soldiers from Camp Hancock marched in the parade. Every February the League hosted Lincoln-Douglass Day events, celebrating the births of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1917 an Augusta branch of the NAACP was founded in the home of Lucy Laney to work for an end to oppression and racial discrimination. Established in early 1924, the Augusta Civic League worked for improvements to the neighborhood; one of the first accomplishments was a commitment from the city council for a park.

Throughout the 1920s this and other organizations pushed the Board of Education to build a new school to replace or improve deteriorating and overcrowded schools and pressured the city to pave roads in the neighborhood, especially Gwinnett Street. In 1928 a resident noted that “just at the place where 9th crosses Gwinnett is a hole large enough for the fatted calf killed for the prodigal son.” These organizations also worked for African American voter registration, knowing that only through voting could effective political pressure for neighborhood improvements be brought to bear.

Fraternal organizations in the black community were widely supported. The two largest were the Masons and Knights of Pythias, both of which had auxiliaries for the wives of members. Other clubs and organizations emerged as well. During World War I the community established a Colored Soldiers Club on 9th Street, an early version of the USO. Members of the Excelsior Gun Club practiced shooting, went hunting in the countryside and hosted an annual game dinner.

African American women had their own clubs, often formed around the activities considered appropriate for women at the time: the Royal Embroidery Club, the Idle Hour Sewing Club, the Jonquil Art Club, the Young Matrons Club, to name only a few. They often created arts and crafts that were then sold for charity. In 1927 the Negro Historical Club, a study organization to examine African American history and the plays, essays, poetry of black writers began.

What a small sampling this is of the cultural offerings of this community! Considering that most residents worked 10 to 12 hours daily, six days each week, it is quite remarkable how much activity there was.

Religious institutions too moved to the neighborhood. Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists and others built churches. Regardless of denomination, these groups helped each other in building and improvement campaigns, and they also raised money for charitable causes in the community. In a time when there was no safety net for the poor, disabled, orphaned, the neighborhood was home to important social welfare organizations that struggled to survive and lend assistance to those in need.

Perhaps the best known were the Shiloh Orphanage, founded by former slave Daniel Horton, and the Bethlehem House, founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and closely associated with Paine College. Shiloh was home to orphaned boys and girls as well as some whose families simply could not care for them. On the property they subsisted on food they raised and lived on donations, including contributions from Northern winter colonists. Each year all African American churches and schools held drives for Shiloh often to provide the very basics—wood and blankets in winter, shoes and clothing. Bethlehem House, with support from the Methodist churches, provided programs and services such as their Tuesday afternoon Well Baby Clinic using volunteer physicians and nurses.

The charity of the community was extraordinary. The elite made substantial donations to many causes, but many who had little themselves did so as well. Their generosity not only targeted the needs of those in the Laney-Walker Bethlehem area, but other local, regional, national and even international campaigns: the three private educational institutions, Shiloh Orphanage, the Butt Memorial Bridge, the City Beautiful Campaign, the Colored Red Cross, the Colored Soldiers Club of WWI, the 1920 drive to help the Armenians, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to aid refugees at the end of World War I. Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company bought liberty bonds in World War I hoping that in helping to make democracy safe abroad, they could bring democracy here.

While this cursory discussion fails to address much of the complexity of this neighborhood’s past in the early 20th century, it illustrates just how significant this history is to the neighborhood itself and to the entire city of Augusta. While African Americans lived in pockets throughout the area, it was the Laney Walker/Bethlehem neighborhood that was the commercial and cultural heart of the community. As part of the neighborhood’s revitalization, this story will be told on a Heritage Trail; perhaps this rich past can contribute to a new chapter for the “Golden Blocks.”
                   

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