Danville's Black Business District rescued from oblivion

Merlene Davis: New brochure raises the profile of Danville's former black business district

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 19, 2014 

  • To Get a Brochure

    Visit the Heart of Danville Program offices in the Alban Goldsmith House in Constitution Square Park, at Walnut and Second streets.

    If you go

    Meeting of the Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society

    When: 6:30 p.m., March 4.

    Where: Christ the Head Missionary Church, 845 East Main St., Danville.

Michael Hughes remembers, as a boy, leaving the segregated balcony of the Kentucky Theater in Danville and walking with his sister and cousin to his grandfather's parked car down the street.

There, he watched, wide-eyed, all the bustling activity along Second Street until his grandfather returned.

"There were a lot of women going into one building where there was a lodge on the top floor," Hughes said. "Another door would open and you could hear a jukebox playing. And there were white people pulling up on the street, probably buying from bootleggers."

The activity impressed him so much, he couldn't wait until he was old enough to be a part of all that. He didn't realize that he was witnessing the heyday of Danville's black business district, where blacks from Boyle and nearby counties came to spend their money and their time.

When he returned from Vietnam in 1970, change was evident. "When I hung out, it was dying," he said.

Within three years, the buildings that so many people remembered fondly were razed and replaced with Constitution Square Park, a beautifully landscaped park on Second Street.

As with so many other urban areas after World War II, the Urban renewal Program came through Danville in 1973, and much of the city's black business district that had stood for 100 years was demolished.

The federal program was meant to replace older, deteriorating buildings with parks or new construction that would reflect a new start.

Many positives resulted from that program, but a sense of history, neighborhood and unity sometimes occurred as well.

Gone were the black-owned barbershops, poolrooms, restaurants, hotels, doctor and dentist offices, and social and entertainment magnets that had thrived during segregation but had fallen on hard times when integration allowed blacks to spend their money elsewhere. When the money left, businesses failed. When businesses failed, repairs were hit-and-miss.

Hughes, 65, a musician and DJ, has researched the history of Second Street, and the black hamlets and settlements in and around Boyle County that sprang up after the Civil War.

His research was a hobby at first, but in December, it blossomed into the Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society.

"I knew two or three other people who were working on history, too," said Hughes, who is the president. "I contacted them. I thought it could be done much better if we formed our own organization and let it grow from there."

Adding to the renewed interest in Danville's black history was the work of Victoria DiMartile, a Centre College junior and an anthropology major, who interned with the Heart of Danville Main Street Program. It encourages historic preservation and vitality in downtown Danville.

Hughes accompanied DiMartile, who is now studying abroad in France, on several interviews during the fall 2013 semester with residents who remembered how the area used to be.

More than 160 hours of her interviews and research culminated in a brochure produced by Heart of Danville called "You Don't Ever Want to Forget Second Street: A Retrospective Guide to the African-American Business District."

It recounts the vibrancy of the area and its decline beginning in the 1960s.

"From the get-go, we knew we wanted to produce an accessible brochure retelling the story of Second Street, allowing people to relive the difficulties as well as the success of this area, the injustice of urban renewal, but also the perseverance and spirit of the black community," DiMartile wrote in an email.

Fortunately, there are folks who remember the business district firsthand.

Charles Grey, 71, used to be a dispatcher for the Elite Cab Company and was a member of Doric Lodge No. 18 for more than 30 years. He remembers when pool shark Minnesota Fats came through town, hustling games.

For decades, Grey has put together information about the old Bate School, the segregated school in Danville that closed in the 1960s, and he has compiled as much information as he can about the blacks who helped make Danville what it is today. He plans to put the information on a CD and give it to anyone who is interested.

"I feel the need to do this because I see how hard it is for me to find this material," he said. "Generations after me won't even know what to look for."

That's already happening.

Hughes interviewed a 92-year-old woman who remembered working at a restaurant in the district that no one else could recall. Then, while looking at a photograph of the 1939 dedication of the Ephraim McDowell House, he saw the restaurant in the background.

It's because of those kinds of memories, and that kind of history, that a project like this matters.

"I want to inspire other counties to not let their history die," he said. "I want the kids to know the significance of the people."

At least one student knows already.

"This project has made me see cities with new eyes and with a more curious mind," DiMartile wrote. "It has given me social and cultural awareness and understanding beginning right at my front door in Danville."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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