America’s Lost Towns of Black Affluence
Parisian blog The Messy Nessy Chic shares its perspective on America's lost towns of Black affluence.
Desegregation too, ironically played a major role in the loss of affluent Black communities. Take the historic beach community known as “American Beach”, located just north of Jacksonville, founded by one of Sugar Hill’s wealthiest residents, and Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Popular with African-American vacationers during the time of segregation and the Jim Crow era, when African Americans were not allowed to swim at White-owned beaches, Lewis set out to create a refuge for his Black employees to vacation and own homes by the water.
Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and James Brown were among the celebrities that summered there in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, performing at the hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that desegregated the beaches of Florida, would mark the beginning of the end for a place like American Beach.
For all its positives, when desegregation came into affect, while minority populations suddenly had access to White businesses, this wasn’t exactly reciprocated. While people will take their steps upward, those already living in privilege are far less likely to do business, buy homes or travel in those communities.
The former Evans Rendezvous in American Beach.
The former African American resort known as “American Beach” became less and less frequented until it was just a ghostly stretch of sand lined by abandoned houses and neglected beach pavilions left to the elements. Abraham Lincoln Lewis’s own historic home, the first on the beach, was demolished earlier this year. His late great-granddaughter, MaVynee Betsch, also known to locals as the “Beach Lady”, began raising awareness for the declining beach area in 1977. Her efforts were rewarded when the National Register of Historic Places added the site, but the resort has never regained its former glory.
One could probably dedicate a school’s entire curriculum in history class to these kinds of stories, starting with better-known examples, like Tulsa, OK, Durham, NC and Richmond, VA; three American cities that blossomed into what became known nationally as Black Wall Street before the Civil Rights Movement. And there was that time New York City demolished Seneca Village in the 19th century to build Central Park, displacing a settlement of African American landowners in central Manhattan. There was Boyle Heights in Los Angeles too, Paradise Valley in Detroit, and “Bronzeville”, in Chicago.
Miami’s Overtown, the second-oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood after Coconut Grove, once had a thriving art, music and entertainment scene comparable to Miami Beach, where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday stayed when they weren’t allowed to sleep at the glitzy White-only hotels in Miami where they’d been invited to perform. With urban renewal in the 1960s and the construction of several interstate highways cutting right through it, the once-thriving area was left fragmented, its economy decimated and the population slashed by nearly 80 percent. Only affluent or well-educated Blacks would’ve had the luxury to move elsewhere, leaving the poorest behind as local governments went about building freeways through historically Black neighborhoods. Overtown has since been labeled a “ghetto”, ravaged by heroin addiction and gun crime.
The former S.H. Johnson X-Ray Clinic in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.
While some places are more difficult to imagine than others as ever having seen a period of notable prosperity, historical archives can offer some clarity. The Carnegie Museum of Art has a collection of about 70,000 images taken by a press photographer who lived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a group of historically African American neighborhoods, and documented the community between 1935 and 1975. Hill District was a significant cultural centre and home to many prominent jazz musicians until the city built a civic arena. It’s amazing to see what it used to look like compared to the giant park lot it is today. Ever wonder why sports stadiums and highways seem to be located in the “sketchier” parts of town?
Sweet Auburn, Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born, and the Linden Community in Ohio, were normal middle class Black neighborhoods that had freeways dropped on them by government programs and still haven’t recovered decades later.
John Lewis mural on Auburn Avenue in the Sweet Auburn Historic District in Atlanta, Georgia
The list of places, as you might have gathered by now, is long. Almost every city in America has a story where a freeway went through a minority neighborhood and destroyed it. This is what is implied by systemic and institutional racism. And when someone asks “why haven’t Black people lifted themselves out of poverty?”, the answer is, they pretty much did – until it was destroyed, and the evidence got buried under some concrete highway.
If government programs had forced highways through affluent White neighborhoods across the country – surely we would have learned about the aftermath in history class. The disenfranchising of Black communities and People of Color in America is a story that goes as far back as the 1700s, and yet, we focus on reciting what wars and national incidents took place in what years. Perhaps if schools started by focusing on local history first, students could see first-hand the results of it all around them, making the connection and better understanding how relevant it is to the present.
Further recommended reading: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
Editorial originally published on August 21, 2020 at the Messynessychic.com