By Ansley Walker
Seven-year-old Barbara Thompson would dress in her Sunday best and walk to Hill First Baptist Church for 11:00 a.m. service. At the sermon’s close, she sprinted out of the church doors, raced her three brothers past the magnolia trees outside of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and continued up Washington Street. A block ahead she could see her best friend, Sandy, sitting outside of Morton Theatre. Sundays at the Hot Corner were the backdrop to some of her favorite summer memories. Now 57, Thompson rarely visits the area she once loved, as it’s become unrecognizable.
A place that at one time defined itself with gospel music and family businesses has been replaced by a popular spot for predominantly white students and residents. The patrons aren’t the only change to the area, as minority shop owners are also absent from downtown commerce. The decline of black business owners, and a result consumers, at the Hot Corner asks a louder question: What happened to African American culture in Athens?
Known today for its trendy restaurants and bars, the intersection at Hull and Washington Streets existed as the center for African American culture throughout the twentieth century.
“The Hot Corner was home for so many of us,” Thompson says. “Growing up in this town and watching it change in a bad way, it hits you hard.”
Thompson is not alone in her concern for the changing face of African American culture in Athens. Racial tensions rose last year when minority students spoke out about discrimination they faced at bars downtown.
A shot named the “N*****ita” at Confederate-themed bar General Beauregard’s ignited a national scandal. The controversy gave birth to a new conversation about the discriminatory culture downtown that many African Americans face.
While the African American community has been impacted by racism, many members look past the negatives, and try to celebrate their future.
Homer Wilson has watched the face of African American culture change for half a century. Owner of Wilson’s Styling Salon, flanked by the Manhattan and World Famous, has remained a staple for the African American community throughout its 55 years in business at the Hot Corner.
Wilson understands the frustration behind a change to the Hot Corner culture, and on a larger scale, African American life in Athens. However, he promotes a positive increase in diversity amongst store owners rather than focus on the current absence of minority business men and women.
“Diversity breeds only good things,” Wilson said. “While I’d like to see more black shop owners for my community’s sake, I think diversity in general will bring a stronger economy.”
To understand the ways in which African American culture has changed downtown, look back to the history of black business owners in the early twentieth century. Everything started with the Morton Building.
From the opening of Morton Building in 1910, African American business owners completely controlled the Hot Corner, says Lynn Green, managing director of Morton Theatre. The center of black commerce included the office of Ida May Hiram, the first African American woman to become a dentist in Georgia. The building also housed black doctors, dentists and pharmacists.
The Morton Theatre, owned and operated by African American, Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, hosted infamous stars such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. At the time, it was the major entertainment facility in Athens for the black community.
“The morton has always had a special place in the African American community in Athens,” Green said. “The renovation of the building throughout the 80s and 90s represents past Hot Corner patrons and owners receiving their due.”
Green started work when the facility was in its 87th year. While she missed the theatre and Hot Corner in their prime, Green has been able to identify changes to black business within the past 20 years.
Gentrification is the easy answer concerning the loss of minority business owners, says Green. In the 70s, ownership shifted, and a result rent prices soared. White business owners moved into the upper floor offices in the Morton Building, displacing black business owners to other areas.
For some the move was relatively harmless, like Brown’s Barber Shop that moved out of the Morton to the corner spot across the street. For others, it meant closing down their family’s livelihood.
Today, Athenians are still experiencing displacement due to commercial and residential prices. Thompson grew up on Reese Street, but had to move to a smaller house on Chase Street when the Historic Cobbham district became a popular living area for students.
“It’s like I can’t retrace the steps of my childhood,” Thompson said. “While many parts of my black community remain, important things to myself and my family have been taken away from us.”
With the number of African American store owners and patrons on what seems like a perpetual decline, many residents wonder what can be done to preserve and promote black culture in Athens.
“We honor it [black history] everyday,” Green said.
She observes her heritage every time she steps into her office. The Morton Theatre served as an anchor for the Hot Corner and it still does today, Green says.
The historic theatre hosts concerts, church services, weddings and other private events for the community just as it did in the past. The theatre makes sure to welcome all audiences to honor integration amongst Athenians.
“We proudly share our history as a cornerstone of the African American community,” Green said. “We work everyday to continue the legacy into future generations.”
While multiple community gatherings occur at the theatre every month, one event downtown is recognized for its devotion to honoring black history.
The Hot Corner Festival is a celebration along Washington Street meant to observe and admire the historical significance of African American culture in Athens.
Wilson heads a committee that plans and produces the event. Festivities include gospel and soul music performances, dancing, community praying and spoken word poetry. While enjoying the collective atmosphere, attendees can experience what Wilson calls, the most “authentic and righteous” soul food in the South.
“The festival is used to celebrate the past,” Wilson said. “But also look to the future. We hope that young people will come and hear the history of black business in Athens, and be inspired to start their own shops.”
From encouraging young entrepreneurs to teaching new residents the cherished history of the Hot Corner, the festival is always a “spiritual, good time.”
Last summer was the fifth festival Barbara Thompson has attended. While she remains a self-proclaimed pessimistic about the future of black lives in Athens, Thompson views the festival as a successful event in informing people about the Hot Corner.
“It’s the one day a year my children can understand what my life was like at their age,” Thompson said. “It’s a special day.”
The 16th annual Hot Corner Festival will take place on June 10-11 this coming summer. Expect Wilson to be manning the main stage, Green to be listening to her favorite poets and Thompson to be reliving the days she hopes to see again.