As late as the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for scores of African-Americans to be milling around in a still-bustling section of Cotton Avenue, a part of Macon that, for more than a century, was a booming commercial center for blacks.
After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the area in downtown Macon played a prominent role in the city’s history. Now, a new effort is underway to save some of the historic buildings that once were used as offices for black doctors and dentists, churches, funeral homes, insurance and construction companies, and other black-owned businesses.
Some of the neighborhood’s historic buildings have been demolished through the years, causing concern from some black leaders and an agency that seeks to preserve important structures in Macon.
Cotton Avenue was named to Historic Macon’s latest “Fading Five” list, an initiative that aims to preserve historic structures. The Macon-Bibb County Commission is seeking to have the Planning and Zoning Commission form the Cotton Avenue Historic District, with boundaries from “that area that was historically known as Cotton Avenue, running from College Street and terminating at Second and Mulberry streets,” according to a resolution recently approved by county commissioners.
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“After losing Tremont Temple Baptist Church and the Douglass House and seeing the development pressure, we knew (the area’s buildings) were in danger,” said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon. “(Cotton Avenue) is really fascinating. I don’t think there is another street in Macon that can share and tell so many stories about Macon’s history.”
The history of the street is unknown to many, including some African-Americans who are unaware of its importance, community activist George Fadil Muhammad said.
“Macon is challenged to wake up and take back its history,” Muhammad said. “The people have to step up, and leaders who make decisions have to see the value.”
During slavery, Cotton Avenue was the street that led down to Mulberry Street and the Ocmulgee River, an area where slave and cotton trading was common. Afterward, those former slaves were among those who turned the area into a beacon of black prosperity.
Outside The Medical Center, Navicent Health is a small plaque that recognizes Lewis High School and Ballard and Normal schools for their contributions in educating blacks following the end of slavery. Lewis was destroyed by arson but reopened in the 1880s and became known as Lewis Normal Institute, according to the Amistad Research Center, a black history nonprofit organization on the campus of Tulane University.
A few years later, the school was known as Ballard Normal School after a northern philanthropist donated money to the school. Throughout their history, the schools would become prominent educational institutions attended by blacks.
“These people were extraordinary human beings, coming up a few years after slavery,” Muhammad said.
The schools would educate black leaders, including William Scarborough, who wrote a Greek textbook and would become president of Wilberforce University in Ohio in the early 1900s. Another graduate was Wallace Rayfield, a Macon native who was the nation’s second black architect. Rayfield designed various churches and one of the more prominent buildings on Cotton Avenue, the Knights of Pythian Temple, later becoming known as the Mitchell Building. It was named after a black physician, Muhammad said.
Two Macon downtown churches — Steward Chapel AME and Tremont — became mobilization sites for the boycott of the Macon Transit system during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
“It showed the unity of blacks,” Muhammad said. “They all came together for a cause and stood up for something. They were willing to risk physical harm.”
Steward’s history dates back to the 1860s. Its namesake, T.G. Steward, who authored “Buffalo Soldiers: The Colored Regulars in The United States Army,” was a chaplain who helped organize the church.
Tremont was torn down in 2014 after being sold to a developer, and in its place is a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Which Wich sandwich shop between Pine and Forsyth streets. Also torn down the same year to clear the way for the eateries was the Douglass House that was once home to Charles Douglass, a black Macon businessman in the early 1900s who founded the Douglass Theatre in downtown.
“It’s such a tremendous tragedy the way they destroyed these historic structures,” Muhammad said.
Across the street is Steward Chapel, which has seen its membership dwindle to a point where it could be in danger of its congregation being able to no longer afford to cover the building’s costs. Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas, a member of Steward Chapel, sponsored the Cotton Avenue historic designation measure approved by commissioners earlier this month.
Guest speakers at Steward Chapel have included civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Benjamin E. Mays, Lucas said.
“We’re hoping this will create, spark some interest,” she said about the designation attempt.
Thomas Duval’s great-grandfather Paul Duval founded a business in 1883 that would eventually move to Cotton Avenue and become known as Paul Duval & Son, a popular upholstery shop. Thomas Duval said he remembers as a young child and teenager the scene along Cotton Avenue as people visited doctors and other businesses.
“Cotton Avenue has wonderful history,” he said. “On Fridays in the 1970s there used to be wall-to-wall people.”
Another important building along Forsyth Street is now occupied by H&H Restaurant. It was once home to the Brick Layers Local #4, a union that built churches including St. Joseph Catholic Church and the Southern Trust Building, which is now the Willie C. Hill Government Center Annex in downtown Macon.
The office of Thomas Jackson, one of Macon’s first black attorneys and a judge, also was on Cotton Avenue. The new juvenile justice center on Oglethorpe Street is named in Jackson’s honor. Also, a section of Cotton Avenue was later renamed D.T. Walton Sr. Way to honor the civil rights activist and dentist.
A key to preserving Cotton Avenue is to motivate people to learn about its past, Duval said.
“Kids need to know these historic icons, especially African-American so called at-risk kids,” he said. “We haven’t done a good job of telling our history, and we have a marvelous one in Macon.”
The new historic designation, which will go before the Planning and Zoning Board for approval, would allow for other measures that could save some buildings from the same fate as the Douglass House or Tremont church, Garlington said.
“Our hope is that (the) Planning and Zoning (Commission) will create an additional district specifically for this street and these buildings along that street,” he said. “The goal of the designation is to retain as much of the historical architecture as possible, and where there are changes that need to be made, they have to go through a design and review board.”
About five years ago, a grant helped fund the Cotton Avenue Revival Festival that promoted the street’s history.
“We’re hoping to revive (the festival) and spotlight and draw more attention on this corridor to make sure it doesn’t disappear,” Lucas said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.