The Black Business District: West Broad Street
There’s a running joke that if you want to know where any city’s ghetto is, just find Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. But that wasn’t always the case in Savannah. MLK, extending from Bay Street to Exchange Street, was once a corridor of thriving black neighborhoods and businesses called West Broad Street. There was even a black-owned bank, originally called the Wage Earners’ Bank, which was one of the most prosperous banks in the U.S. during its time.
But in 1963, residents and businesses were ordered to leave by the City of Savannah for the construction of I-16, and the housing projects, Kayton and Frazier Homes. Cruising down MLK today, which was renamed in 1990, you’ll find only five black-owned businesses from the boulevard’s beginning to its end. That wasn’t always the case though.
West Broad Street was thriving. It was the hub. That was our area.
Mary Butler Smith
The whole area was black. There was some whites there who wanted to make money and didn’t mind being around black folks. Funeral homes, churches, everything in that area, and my daddy’s tire shop was there too. Across the street, there was a white man who owned a confectionery store, and the building on the next corner was a fish market.
Matthew Fish Market. Prices was different then, of course. The fishermen would bring them and dump them on the stall and then we could select which fish we want. And then they even sold fish head. It was sold separate. They also had the chicken farm store with live chicken. We had two movie theaters, Star and Dunbar.
I went to the theaters all the time. A girl went to Beach High with me, she was in a movie with Harry Belafonte and somebody else. Her name was Marilyn. She was a pretty girl. West Broad Street used to jump. There was a lot of clubs, restaurants, stores.
Yackum and Yackum, that’s where we bought all our clothes. This record sto’, Sam’s Record Store. We had all the black owned businesses. You know Bynes Royall was over there. It wasn’t [just] Bynes, because Frank came out the army and then he went into business with Royall. See the Royall family still has investments, so that’s where Bynes Royall come from. They were on West Broad at one time back then too, where Wendy’s is now, it was up in there.
We had Old Savannah Pharmacy. That was our drug store. Then we had Duke’s, which was on Congress Street.
Every night club was run by blacks. Now the white folks owned the building. We had two tailor shops, which one of ‘em is still in progress. It’s National Tailors. It’s run by Jews. ‘Cross the street you had a shop that used to tailor our clothes. It was also run by Jews. Then we had only one black studio to take pictures. He wasn’t a Jew. He was a Greek or something. And other than that, everything was black.
Where Wendy’s is, that was the Union Train Station. They used to come in from Florida, put you out at the Union Station. A lil further down was the round house. You go there, turn the trains around, go back wherever. The overpass where SCAD don’ built all them buildings, that was where you catch the train in the morning to go to Atlanta and you come back in the afternoon.
In 2015, GPB featured a story called “Savannah Residents Remember Frogtown and Old West Broad Street.” In it, they referred to Union Station as the “pillar of the community and a beautiful work of architecture.” Union Station was yet another source of pride and inspiration for the residents who lived around it and the citizens who patroned the area.
As the saying goes, though, there’s always two sides to a story.
It was a dump. Nothing but greasy spoons and juke joints, but people put a little bit of class on it now. It was historical because that’s where all the black businesses were, you know. If you was a black lawyer, that’s where you were. If you was in real estate and black, that’s where you were. That’s where everybody was at. But it wasn’t no high class place, no fancy place. But that’s where it was at. Every town you went in, it was the same way. When I was travelling in the Air Force, all you had to do was get to the train station or the bus station, find a porter. “Hey man, where’s the place?” And he’d know exactly what you were talking about. He could direct you to the place.
Whether you remembered West Broad as a place of junk or joy, the togetherness, the sense of community could never be disputed. That’s what we’re missing today. There’s no district of black-owned brick-and-mortar businesses in Savannah or black residential areas that can be referred to with a sense of pride for what it is today versus what it used to be.
Where the I-16 exit ramp currently ends, that used to be Frogtown, where a community of freed slaves settled after the Civil War. In the GPB interview, former Frogtown resident, Jestine Winford, drove home how much of a family they were. “Everybody was yo mother, everybody. We didn’t have a telephone, but Mama would know what I did on the hill before I got down on the bottom” (Ware).
Although the interstate arrived in the ‘60s and uprooted many residents, the businesses didn’t leave as quickly. They hung around, though barely, for another 25 or so years, until the ‘90s when ironically the street turned into a boulevard named after the beloved civil rights leader who often visited Savannah. Because it took some years between the flyover being built and the businesses closing, I believe many felt the collapse was due to a lack of support. That wasn’t necessarily the case, however. The Savannah Metropolitan Planning Committee stated that while the intent of the flyover and the housing projects was to simply improve transportation and add affordable housing, they didn’t realize that it would end up disconnecting streets and hindering economic development.
We no longer supported our businesses. Something like the white man’s ice is colder. We started shopping elsewhere like on Broughton Street and all of these places, and eventually they just had to close in.
A lot of them old buildings, old clubs, they still standing, but they all boarded up. A lot of our roots is right here. We owned a lot of stuff, but we was pushed out.
It’s just so sad the way it really deteriorated.
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[Photo Credit: westbroadga]