By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Some businesses have been there for decades. Some for several months. But all are part of the history that makes up downtown Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District, one of the largest commercial sectors for black-owned businesses in Alabama and across the Southeast.
Now, thanks to Urban Impact Inc.—a community- and economic-development agency helping to revitalize the historic Fourth Avenue Business District and the Civil Rights District—the entire area is now getting new life.
“We constantly get people inquiring about wanting to move their business here, [and] we’re seeing a new energy. In fact, the last three or four of the newer businesses are women-owned businesses,” said Darryl Washington, Urban Impact Chief Operations Officer and Director of Programs and Special Projects.
One of those businesses is Ferrill African Wear, owned by Shirley Ferrill and opened in November 2017.
“It’s easy for my customers to find,” Ferrill said of her location at 320 16th St. N. “A lot of my customers do come from outside of the Birmingham metro area—from Gadsden, Anniston, or Tuscaloosa—and this is an area they can find easily. People feel comfortable here, and it’s just a beautiful spot.”
In the next block is the Nelson Brothers Café, which has been in business since 1943. Antrice Nelson, 52, is a third-generation Nelson who works in her family’s establishment at 312 17th St. N., along with her son Elan, 22.
Antrice, who has been at Nelson Brothers for about three years, said, “It’s an honor to still be down here, to still be standing because a lot of black businesses failed.”
The café’s specialty of pork chops, rice, and gravy and its renowned sweet potato pie have helped keep the soul food restaurant in business for years. They serve breakfast all day, too.
The Fourth Avenue Business District stretches along 15th to 18th streets North, and from Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard to Second Avenue North. Among the notable establishments in the area are the Carver Theatre, Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, and the historic Masonic Temple. The latter—a seven-story structure on the corner of 17th Street North and Fourth Avenue that once housed the offices of several black doctors, dentists, lawyers, and other professionals, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—will soon undergo a reconstruction project to preserve the building’s rich history.
Elijah Davis, Urban Impact Strategic Growth Manager, said the mix of older and newer businesses makes the district special.
“Nelson Brothers Café will be celebrating its 75th year in business this year,” he said. “On the block that we’re in, [Fourth Avenue between 18th and 17th streets North], we have the Simpson family’s [New Breed Barber and Styles Shop and Alabama College of Barber Instruction], which has been on Fourth Avenue for 50 years. The Magic City Barber Shop is about 60 years [old]. … Ashley Pritchett—now the third generation [of her family running] the Etheridge Senior Car Wash and Detail, which [has been in business for more than] 20 years—is a young millennial continuing the legacy [of the Etheridge Family].”
Davis pointed out that some of the property owners in the district are related to people who were part of Civil Rights Movement, such as the Shores Lee family, descendants of lawyer Arthur Shores and Judge Helen Shores Lee, who own the former Arthur D. Shores Law Center building at 413 16th St. N.
“The historic Fourth Avenue District is one of the only remaining, intact, African-American corridors in the Southeast and in the nation,” said Davis. “Its period of significance is 1908 to 1941, which is pre-Civil Rights Movement. … Many of the businesses that began with the district are in their second and third generations.”
After the end of the Civil Rights Movement, many of the businesses in the district either closed or moved, leaving a lot of spaces vacant and the potential to create blight. Only three merchants who were there in 1963 remain, according to development officials: Green Acres Café, the Magic City Barber Shop, and Nelson Brothers Café.
After the turn of the century, Jim Crow laws, which authorized the distinct separation of the races and subsequent restrictions placed on black firms, forced the growing black Birmingham business community into an area along Third, Fourth, and Fifth avenues North, from 15th to 18th streets. This locale served as the business, social, and cultural center for blacks, with activities similar to those in the predominantly white districts, according to a marker posted in the district.
The businesses included barber and beauty shops, mortuaries, saloons, restaurants, theaters, photographic studios, cleaners, shoe-shine parlors, and motels. These establishments and their successors continued to do well throughout the 1960s. After the Civil Rights struggle and end of segregation, many black businesses, especially hotels and cafés, suffered because many black patrons did not return to the black-owned businesses, according to a history of the area.
Architecturally, several notable buildings were constructed in the district between 1908 and 1935.
“The cornerstone is the Masonic Temple, which is still owned by the Prince Hall Masons,” Davis said. “A lot of people understand that it’s a tall building, it’s an old building, and it was a [significant] building during the Civil Rights era. A lot of people don’t know it was designed by Robert Robinson Taylor, the first African-American architect.”
Another prominent African-American architect, Wallace Rayfield, designed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and parsonage in 1911.
“We have an unprecedented paradigm of architectural legacy, commercial legacy, and historic legacy in one part of the city center of Birmingham,” Davis said.
The Fourth Avenue Business District is comprised of about 20 or more establishments, including Fly View Showroom Store, an apparel and retail shop; Jazzi’s on Third, an event venue that typically holds events featuring jazz music; Color Me Beautiful, a cosmetics store; and Five Star Fitness, a new gym on Third Avenue North. The greater district area, which includes the Civil Rights District, is also home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the Masonic Temple, Kelly Ingram Park, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, the A.G. Gaston Motel, and several other landmarks. With the help of Urban Impact, the entire area is getting a makeover.
“We take very serious that we are curators of the culture … [and] growing this district into the next century,” said Washington.
The historic Fourth Avenue Business District and the Civil Rights District are located in a part of downtown Birmingham where several significant events in the Civil Rights Movement took place in the 1950s and 1960s. Over the next two years, about $70 million will be invested in efforts to restore and renew the area.
“The Carver Theatre is undergoing renovations and the Masonic Temple will soon start its renovation, which will be a historic preservation project,” said Washington. “Freedom Manor, right across from Kelly Ingram Park, is currently undergoing renovation, [as is the park where numerous Civil Rights demonstrations took place]. … Probably the flagship project is the National Civil Rights Monument, which will be based at the A.G. Gaston Motel [that housed the “war room” of Civil Rights leaders during the height of the movement]. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church probably has about $15 million of historic preservation and renovation projects, as well.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument will tell the story of the struggle for freedom and how the city’s residents became the focus of world attention that led to victories in fair employment and integration at lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains, and other public places.
“One of the unique things about our national monument is it’s not Yosemite park,” said Washington, who talked about a potential interactive Civil Rights tour that would include the National Monument, the Civil Rights District, and the Fourth Avenue Business District, interconnecting all the areas after the monument is complete.
“[The tour will encompass visits to] a series of buildings of significance. One of the outliers is Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, so we’re working on a tourist experience that will incorporate all of that,” said Washington. “Imagine walking with an actual foot soldier and having them tell you their experience. That’s unique. At most places, you get that digitally, and you may get an audio version. But [real-life interaction] with foot soldiers will make our tour unique.”