It’s a story that deserves to be told.
The West Anniston Land and Improvement Company acquired the property that would become the West 15th Street business district in 1887, with hopes of turning it into a residential neighborhood for foundry and mill workers. The economic depression of the 1890s put such plans on hold, however, as Anniston’s commercial and industrial fortunes declined.
Prosperity would not return until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the War Department established Camp Shipp on the outskirts of the city. For the first time in years, Anniston residents looked optimistically to the future, as the streets surged again with activity and commerce. Merchants worked into the night to fill supply orders from the camp. The foundries and mills, many of which had sat dormant during the depression, were once again churning out product, luring workers back to the community.
In the midst of this economic resurgence, the West 15th Street business district sprang to life. Several brick and wood-frame structures were built along the thoroughfare in 1898, including buildings that would eventually house Golightly’s Barbershop and Anne’s Flowers.
Hundreds of African-Americans poured into the city in the early part of the 20th century, purchasing homes and establishing businesses along West 15th Street. The area quickly became the cultural and economic center of black Anniston.
The creation of the West 15th Street business district coincided with the advent of legalized segregation. Throughout Anniston, African-Americans were barred from white-owned restaurants, theaters and hotels and were discriminated against in every facet of daily life.
Such exclusionary practices, however, created opportunities for ambitious men and women in the black community.
Like their brethren in other Southern towns, they established a separate business district to service an exclusively African-American clientele. They opened a variety of grocery stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants and barbershops. They established a handful of entertainment venues, too, such as the Queen Theatre, which opened in 1917 as a “Negro Vaudeville and Motion Picture Theatre.”
Such rapid economic progress led one local physician, Dr. Charles Thomas, who operated one of the largest black-owned pharmacies in the South, to call Anniston “the best city for Negro development in the United States.”
For many, West 15th Street was an oasis — a place far removed from the white-owned shops along Noble Street, where hostile eyes scrutinized every move and gesture. It was, frankly, safer and more practical to stay in west Anniston and patronize stores owned and operated by neighbors and friends.
“Black people were reluctant to go to a white store if there was a black one to go to during the height of segregation,” said one resident.
Between 1940 and 1965, the heyday of the West 15th Street district, the area was a veritable beehive of activity, a vibrant cultural and commercial hub. The Gem Theater, a fixture in the community from 1945 to 1956, featured all the latest motion pictures and welcomed many famous performers to its stage, including Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan.
During World War II, the All Saints Catholic Church helped establish the city’s first all-black USO along West 15th Street. Soldiers from Fort McClellan would escape to the “Colored USO” on the weekends to listen to big band music, dance with local girls and eat home-cooked meals before shipping out. In later years, troops could also stroll down to catch a movie at the Alabama Theater, dance the night away at the Harlem Club, or grab a scramble burger at Jeff’s Barbecue.
Perhaps the most historically significant landmark in the West 15th Street district was the Blair Hotel. Due to Jim Crow laws, African-Americans were barred from staying at other Anniston hotels. The Blair was their only option. In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the hotel and held strategy sessions with local civil rights leaders, like the Rev. N.Q. Reynolds and Dr. Gordon Rodgers.
King’s visit wasn’t the only civil rights-related event to take place in the district. On April 4, 1969, “young black militants,” perhaps influenced by the rhetoric of Black Power and frustrated by the lack of economic and political advancement in the Model City, firebombed four white-owned businesses.
The attacks followed an altercation between Lawrence Jenkins, owner of Jenkins Grocery and Market, and an African-American customer named R.B. Brooks. Reports indicate that Brooks entered Jenkins’ store on the afternoon of April 4, appearing drunk and behaving in a “violent” manner. When Jenkins ordered him to leave, Brooks refused and a scuffle ensued. Jenkins hit Brooks over the head with the butt end of a revolver, causing the weapon to discharge into the floor.
Rumors spread through the black community that Brooks had been killed and police had allowed the offending party to go free. As a result, young black males started gathering on street corners, looking for revenge. Later that night, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through the front window of Jenkins’ store. Other firebombs were heaved at Mundy’s Store, Gus Medlin’s filling station and the Variety Store.
When police arrived, a “sniper” opened fire from the second floor window of Jenkins Grocery. For several minutes, officers exchanged gunfire with the shooter before he disappeared into the darkness. By the end of the night, police had arrested 50 people.
Following the April 1969 firebomb attacks, the West 15th Street district began a slow but steady decline. Several businesses closed or relocated. Hundreds of residents moved away.
Many point to the passage of the Civil Rights of 1964 and the demise of Jim Crow as reasons for the drop off, claiming they gave black residents more shopping and residential options. Others blame the rise of crime and unemployment.
Regardless of the reason, the West 15th Street business district lost its place as the cultural and economic center of Anniston’s black community. Hopefully, the latest efforts to preserve and highlight the district’s history and culture will bear fruit, and the district will emerge again as a point of pride. It would be a shame to allow such a vital and fascinating part of Anniston’s story to fade from memory. We owe it to future generations to protect it.
The West 15th Street mural, part of the Spirit of Anniston’s Civil Rights and Heritage Trail, will be officially dedicated at 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14. The ceremony is open to the public. The mural, titled “A City Within a City,” is at the corner of West 15th Street and Glenaddie Avenue.
Gary Sprayberry is chair of the history and geography department at Columbus State University in Georgia. He is a native of Calhoun County.