Off Main Street: Black Space, Agency, And Community Building In The Jim Crow South

tags: Jim Crow, African American history, Southern history

Kirin Makker is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. An interdisciplinary scholar and artist, she teaches, writes, and creatively explores histories of community, space, and power.

Dating back to mid-twentieth century, Americans have held a nostalgic view of their small towns and Main Streets, regularly depicted as ‘fair’ spaces. This association is the reason “Main Street” was pitted against “Wall Street” both during the Occupy Movement, and decades before, during 1930s labor fights between railroad workers and owners.[1]  Main Street functions as a trope for the space of the 99%, the everyday citizen’s path to the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A place where everything one needs in terms of social, civic, professional, economic, and spiritual support can be attained: consumer goods, hair and beauty establishments, church, a beer or a meal, a chat with the mayor or civic elders, entertainment, bank loans, education, health care, funeral services, and communications—from the U.S. Mail to telegraph stations to telephone booths.

Through daily participation in the Main Street space and the conversation, society, and communal membership it offered, small town America enfranchised its rural citizens. But we know there is much to question about this rosy image because the period that witnessed America’s small town boom was concurrent with the specter of Jim Crow’s ascent.[2] Between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression, as white wealth fueled the prosperous commercial and industrial development of villages and towns across the nation, white American leadership adopted laws and policies across the country that suppressed access to those spaces by people based on racist concepts of fitness. As practiced, this was legal and institutionalized racism. To Black, Indigenous, Asian, and recent immigrants who did not fit standards of whiteness, Main Street was not a universally accessible space of opportunity. These individuals largely had to produce livelihoods through their own agency. They became sellers, consumers, and makers of goods and services, and cultivated their own social capital to ensure their survival and prosperity. 

Southern Blacks were the largest group of American citizens excluded from the enfranchisement of Main Street during its heyday. Throughout the rural South, only one day a week provided Black people real access to Main Street and that was Saturday, so called “Black peoples’ day.” This market day for Black families was a Jim Crow practice institutionalize by whites, meant to control how and when Black people moved through urban space. Often Saturday night was dangerous. The corridors behind main shopping areas came to be known as Death Alleys due to the many stabbings, beatings, and murders of Black people by whites which occurred in these alleyways. White control over temporal and physical access to urban space, even with Black owned businesses located in the area, served as a means to emphasize White supremacy over everything the urban realm represented—economic, political, and social power. Additionally, the practice of limiting access to those spaces to a single day each week enabled whites to monitor how Black people engaged with such spaces. Whites controlled the kind of surveillance they could do, and when and how it happened.[3] 

Logistically, this meant that Black people had to micromanage their trips to Main Street with extra care. Most of what was on offer in terms of food, water, and public facilities were for whites only. If there was no black restaurant in town, visitors had to pack all their day’s provisions and hope they could find a place to relieve themselves when the time came. Travel by white-owned ‘public’ transportation was always a gamble; many Black folks were forced to walk into town from their farms. Finally, once downtown, where and how Black people were served was restricted by whoever owned the business (Black or White). “You could shop,” says Theresa Lyons of Durham, North Carolina, “but if you walked up and a white person walked up later, they waited on the white person first. I mean, it was just a known that you weren’t going to get waited on. Even when I knew that [something] was it, no matter how bad I wanted it, I wouldn’t buy it. I would leave.”[4]

Read entire article at The Metropole

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