“Back in the day,” West Broad Street, today Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, was Savannah’s Black Business district.
It was the heart of the black community from the early 1900s to the mid 1960s and it was thriving. Today it is a memory and there is not even a sign on MLK to remind new visitors to the city that West Broad Street ever existed.
When General James Oglethorpe laid out the city of Savannah in 1733, there was North Broad to the North, today Bay Street, South Broad to the South, today Oglethorpe Avenue, East Broad to the east, and West Broad to the west. Blacks settled on the “edges of the city” when African people were enslaved in Savannah. These urban slaves were a skilled labor force and that might explain how the business district developed along West Broad.
By the 1930s, West Broad was were you found the local barber shops, like Charlie Johnson’s and later Leroy Beaver’s. Beaver’s, the next generation, operates on the corner of 42nd and West Broad today. Pressing clubs, like James Collier’s at 1812 West Broad. It later became Porter’s Lounge and the building is still there today. Nearby, in later years, Mrs. Laura Waddell, a skilled seamstress, had her shop, “Laura’s”. The building is there.
Business owner, Abie Futch had his business on the corner of 36th and West Broad.
In the 1930s, six black Funeral homes operated in the city. Royall, which later became Bynes and Royall, was there on West Broad, on the site were the Wendy’s is today.
The Wage Earner’s Bank, built in 1914 as the second largest black bank in America, was located at 460 West Broad. The Guaranty Life Insurance Company would later occupy the building where the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is today. The Law offices of Eugene Gadsden, C. Bobby Mayfield and the local NAACP were also located at 460 West Broad Street.
Across from the Bank building, in the 1930s, was the Dunbar Theater; and a block away on the corner of Gaston and West Broad was the Star Theatre.
The Savannah Pharmacy had three locations in Savannah in the 1930s and one of them was on West Broad Street.
The building also housed Kendricks Shoe Repair, operated by the “lady cobbler” who was featured in Ebony Magazine, in the 1950s, Mrs. Myrtle Kendricks. That building was lost to history.
The local lore is that Singer/Songwriter Johnny Mercer would frequent West Broad Street and listen to “race” music.
The Savannah Tribune, owned and operated by Sol C. Johnson, had its offices on West Broad Street. Today the Savannah Tribune maintains a presence in the historically black community of Cuyler – Brownsville.
The fall of the black business empire on Savannah’s West Broad Street was swift. In the early 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement was focused on desegregating Savannah, the urban landscape began to shift along West Broad Street with the demolition of the Union Station and the building of the “flyover” from I-16, the buildings that housed black businesses along West Broad that were not torn down began to fall like dominoes. Today there are still black businesses that thrive along West Broad Street today Martin Luther King Boulevard, Pinnacle Communications, Diaspora Marketplace, Shabazz Restraurant, Bonzo Reddick’s Law office, to name a few, are there.
The story of the West Broad Street Corridor is still talked about in Savannah’s preservation circles and urban planning meetings because so many buildings on the west side of West Broad, south of Jones Street are gone. There are also plans on the drawing board to remove the “flyover” 2025. The corridor would really come to life if the City would consider putting, under Martin Luther King Boulevard sign, formerly “West Broad Street” then all those great memories of Savannah’s Black Business District could be retold, just as they are everyday at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in its permanent exhibit on West Broad Street.