One of Birmingham’s most popular tourist attractions is its Civil Rights District, an area of downtown where several significant events in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took place. All year long, travelers and local residents alike visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. But no visit to the Civil Rights District is complete without a trek through the Fourth Avenue Historic District.
The History of the Fourth Avenue Historic District
In the late 1800s, Birmingham’s black entrepreneurs opened establishments alongside white businesses in an area of downtown that became the Central Business District. However, at the turn of the century, as the number of black businesses increased and Jim Crow tightened its grip on the state, black businesses were forced out.
Many of these businesses relocated to an area along Third, Fourth and Fifth avenues North, from 15th to 18th streets. The area became known as the Black Business District.
In the early- to mid-1900s, a variety of businesses — including barber and beauty shops, restaurants, cleaners, shoe-shine parlors, saloons, pool rooms, hotels, theaters, photographic studios, mortuaries and more — lined Fourth Avenue North and the surrounding areas.
The Black Business District was not only a place where blacks knew they could shop and be treated with dignity, but it was also considered an entertainment hotspot on Friday and Saturday nights. Crowds of people would flock to the area to visit the restaurants and bars, see a live stage show at one of the theaters, or take an evening walk.
In her book, A Sense of Place: Birmingham’s Black Middle-Class Community, 1890-1930, Lynne B. Feldman explains that the Black Business District was a place of economic and social activity that met both practical and emotional needs.
“As blacks opened businesses and constructed buildings, many African Americans felt a sense of pride at the tangible evidence of their abilities and achievements,” she writes. “They knew that the business district belonged to them and was a place of comfort and familiarity.”
Fourth Avenue Institutions
Along with businesses, important community institutions were also built near and along Fourth Avenue North in the early 1900s. They included the Alabama Penny Savings Bank building, which was later purchased by the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythias and renamed the Pythian Temple.
Construction was completed on a new 16th Street Baptist Church building, located at 1530 Sixth Avenue North, in 1911. The building, designed by renowned African American architect Wallace Rayfield, became as much a hub for social and community gathering as it was for worship. Students participating in Civil Rights protests met at the 16th Street Baptist Church to prepare for the marches of 1963 — the same year that the church became the target of a racially motivated bombing by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four young black girls.
The Colored Masonic Temple, now known as the Masonic Temple Building, opened in 1924 and was built to be a central hub for Alabama’s Prince Hall Masons. However, it also became a social gathering place for Birmingham’s black residents, as well as a location for civil rights strategy meetings.
When it came to entertainment, Fourth Avenue’s Carver Theatre opened in 1935 and became the only theater in Birmingham that would allow African Americans to view first-run movies, as all others were segregated. Carver Theatre is now a live performance venue and home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
The Fourth Avenue Business District Today
After the end of legally enforced segregation in the 1960s, many of the black-owned businesses near and along Fourth Avenue lost customers and eventually relocated or closed up shop altogether. However, some businesses in the area survived and thrived.
Nelson Brothers Cafe, currently located at 314 17th Street North, opened in 1943 and remains profitable on the strength of its soul food cuisine. Nelson Brothers is most known for its pork chops served with rice and gravy as well as its sweet potato pie, though the establishment also serves breakfast, burgers, sandwiches and more.
“There have been a lot of changes down here, and I know that it’s only by the grace of God that we’re still standing,” says owner/operator Antrice Nelson. Nelson Brothers Cafe was started by brothers Daniel and George Nelson, Antrice Nelson’s grandfather and great-uncle. Her father, the late Jessie Nelson, took over the cafe in 1990.
“We actually started down next to the Carver, and when they expanded the Carver that gave my dad the opportunity to buy the rest of the block, so he purchased the block in 1990 and we’ve been here ever since,” Antrice adds.
Another long-time Fourth Avenue dining establishment is Green Acres Cafe. Known for its fried chicken wings, Green Acres Cafe is one of the most popular storefronts of the historic Fourth Avenue Business District and has been in operation since 1958.
Each year, the District hosts the Taste of 4th Avenue Jazz Festival in collaboration with Urban Impact, Inc., the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association and the City of Birmingham. The area is also home to the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, located at the corner of 18th Street and 4th Avenue North. The memorial garden celebrates the Temptations lead singer, who was also a Birmingham native.
The Fourth Avenue Business District is attracting new businesses, too. Shirley Ferrill opened Ferrill African Wear at 320 16th Street North in November of 2017 and sells authentic, traditional African wear for women, men and children. When asked why she wanted to open up shop in this area, she enthusiastically says, “Because it’s the Fourth Avenue District!”
Shirley started helping people register to vote when she was only 14 years old. “Being in the historic black district has special significance for me because I am and have always been an activist,” she says.
Shirley, who grew up near Sylacauga, still remembers coming to Birmingham to the black business district as a young girl with her family in the 1960s. “It was the place to come and shop, the big shopping trip a couple of times a year — maybe Easter and Christmas,” she says. “It was thriving; it was vibrant; and it was wonderful to see businesses operated by black people.”
Shirley was a social worker for 25 years and never planned one becoming a retail business owner. But her mother was a seamstress who cultivated her love for fabric, color and design. That, coupled with her interest in African history and culture, left her constantly searching for authentic African wear. She would even travel to Atlanta and New York to buy pieces. “There wasn’t a [local] space I could go to just to buy African clothing,” she says. “I thought there was a crying need from the community. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find it.”
Today, Shirley considers her shop and the clothing she offers as additional tools for spreading awareness. “African wear is a great conversation starter about black history and culture,” she adds.
The Fourth Avenue Historic District is still recovering from the blight it endured after the post-segregation decline of its businesses, but revitalization is on the horizon.
Thanks to Urban Impact Inc. — a community and economic development agency dedicated to revitalizing the historic Fourth Avenue Business District and the Civil Rights District — about $70 million will be invested in restoration and renewal efforts over the next two years. The Carver Theatre is undergoing renovations now, and a number of other projects are in the works, including improvements to the Masonic Temple and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, as well as the establishment of the National Civil Rights Monument at the A.G. Gaston Motel.
The nonprofit Main Street Alabama has also recently tapped the Fourth Avenue Business District for its revitalization program.
Meanwhile, Antrice Nelson of Nelson Brothers Cafe says she’s busy making small changes of her own, including revising her menu and sprucing up the look of her cafe.
“With times changing, we need to change with it,” she says. “Otherwise we’re going to be left behind.”
All photos by Javacia Harris Bowser.
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