Remembering Black Savannah's West Broad Street Corridor
During recent decades, Savannah has become internationally known for its revitalized historic district. Attracting millions of tourist a year, most don't know that Savannah is a majority African-American community. With this in mind, Modern Cities takes a look at the rise and fall of black Savannah's cultural and business hub prior to desegregation: West Broad Street.
Prior to the desegregation and the era of urban renewal, West Broad Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) served as the cultural and business destination for African-Americans throughout coastal Georgia and portions of South Carolina. Situated four blocks west of Forsyth Park, the district originated as an area of Savannah known as Frogtown, due to frogs that would inundate the area after rain storms. Once home to Irish Catholics and Jewish immigrants, Frogtown began to attract freedmen after the end of the Civil War. At the time, Savannah was the seventh largest city in the south behind New Orleans, Louisville, Charleston, Richmond, Mobile and Memphis.
Furthermore, Frogtown had developed as the city’s railroad hub with the establishment of the Central of Georgia Railway’s passenger terminal and railroad shops during the 1850s and 1860s. In 1902, a second major railroad depot was completed on West Broad Street by the Savannah Union Station Company. Four blocks south of the Central of Georgia terminal, the Savannah Union Station was jointly owned by the Southern Railway, the Plant System, and Seaboard Airline Railway. By 1920,West Broad Street between the Savannah Union Station and Bolton Street morphed into the primary epicenter for black owned businesses throughout coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
Black-owned businesses along West Broad Street included movie theaters, markets, grocery stores, funeral homes, shoe repair, tailors, insurance companies and financial institutions. One of the largest businesses along West Broad Street was the Wage Earner’s Savings Bank at West Broad and Alice streets. Under the leadership of Solomon Charles Johnson, Wage Earner’s became one of the most profitable African-American owned banks in the country during the early 20th century. Along with two other successful African-American owned banks, Savannah was considered to be the banking capital of black Georgia during the height of segregation. In addition, rivaling Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn, black-owned theaters along West Broad included the Pekin, the Star, and the Air Dome.
West Broad Street began to fall into a period of decline during the 1960s. The construction of Interstate 16 was one of the most devastating developments to impact the business community along the corridor. In 1962, to make room for the highway, the Savannah Union Station was demolished. When Interstate 16 was completed in 1968, the highway disconnected the neighborhood’s street grid and quickly became an obstacle for additional economic development. At the same time, much of the land west of the corridor was torn down and replaced with public housing projects. Furthermore, West Broad Street’s railroad shops were closed after the Southern Railway’s acquisition of the Central of Georgia Railway in 1963. By 2000, the city’s population had fallen to 131,510 after maxing out at 149,245 in 1960.
The later half of the 20th century saw the transformation of Savannah’s core into a major tourist destination. By the time West Broad Street was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in 1990, the majority of the former Central of Georgia Railway shop buildings had been retrofitted into the Savannah Visitors Center, several museums and Savannah College of Art and Design’s Eichberg Hall.
Estimated to be home to 146,444 residents in 2017, the city’s population has also rebounded to 1960s levels. In recent years, as a result of Savannah’s growing tourism industry, north of Interstate 16’s ramps the former West Broad Street corridor has become a popular location for infill hotel developments. However, the interstate ramps remain a physical and psychological barrier to economic development, pedestrian activity and neighborhood revitalization to the south. Many in the community believe this can be eliminated if a long planned project to remove Interstate 16 is funded and implemented. That project would not only help reconnect the street grid system that a limited access facility severed, it would also open a large amount of land up for infill economic development.