The history of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church — constructed by the city’s African-American community in 1873, two years after the city’s founding — is one of tragedy and resistance. As the story goes, the city’s forefathers condemned the church’s first building, saying its steeple was too tall. In 1963, an act of terror against the second building changed the course of the Civil Rights movement: a Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four young girls, prompting Martin Luther King Jr. to begin the Birmingham Campaign.
Throughout, the church not only kept its doors open but nurtured the surrounding black-owned businesses. Early pastor William Pettiford founded Alabama’s first black-owned and black-operated financial institution to support new business and help black citizens save money. His work planted seeds for a business district that grew during the city’s long period of enforced segregation. Despite urban renewal — which caused displacement among the tight knit community — what is now known as the Fourth Avenue Historic District boasts one of the highest concentrations of continuously owned and operated African-American businesses in the country.
“Part of our founding element was to aid in the economic development of the whole district,” says Theodore Debro, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. “Now, we are major supporters in the rebuilding of the district.”
16th Street Baptist Church is one participant of a community planning process led by Urban Impact, Inc., a local nonprofit which manages the Fourth Avenue District, the 18 surrounding square blocks and the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument. Its goal is to link the Fourth Avenue District with the larger Civil Rights District and the National Monument while supporting new development, business incubation, placemaking efforts and educational opportunities.
“This work is about being a true player in community economic development, historic preservation, and really telling the story of a generation of people who made it against all odds,” says Ivan Holloway, Urban Impact’s executive director.
Though Urban Impact has managed the district since the 1980s, it’s only been the last few years the organization sought to become active in community development. For Holloway, who joined about four years ago, that mission emerged as he noticed growth of Birmingham’s small businesses did not always extend to African-American business owners.
They knew there was untapped potential across the Fourth Avenue Business District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It is part of the larger Civil Rights District, designated by the city in 1992, and includes buildings that make up the National Monument designated by Barack Obama before leaving office in 2017. (One such building is the 16th Street Baptist Church.)
“These are sacred grounds,” says Antonia Martinez, founder of Freedom Line Tours and one of many minority women business owners in the district. “But there’s been disinvestment here, and there’s a perception issue.”
The city is eyeing its own redevelopment opportunities as it formulates a master plan for Birmingham’s city center. The city owns about 20 percent of parcels in the area and the district became an opportunity zone under President Trump. But Urban Impact felt the Fourth Avenue District warranted an extra degree of community engagement.
“The city of Birmingham suffers from planning fatigue — over the years there have been numerous plans from the city center master plan to other framework plans for neighborhoods,” explains Darryl Washington, director of programs for Urban Impact. “One key missing element has been a true community-based approach.”
Over the past year and a- half, Urban Impact led public engagement with a diverse number of community stakeholders in the 18 square blocks of the district. This summer the organization received a boost after Main Street Alabama selected the district for its revitalization program.
Urban Impact’s final proposal, released this November, is called Freedom Walk. It includes retail and other developments along Fourth Avenue North, including a back-alley entertainment space along the corridor and streetscape improvements. The plan also notes several potential buildings in and around the district that could be revitalized for new business.
Signage and wayfinding is one important component, not only to create cohesion between historic buildings but to emphasize their value. The Colored Masonic Temple, for example, was designed by one of the first accredited African-American architect firms and became an important Civil Rights organizing hub, but in 1956 the office doors of the NAACP inside the temple were padlocked after a judge banned the organization from operating in Alabama. The grand Renaissance-Revival building — said to be the largest, most state-of-the-art facility built and paid for by African Americans at the time of its completion — has since fallen into disrepair.
The A.G. Gaston Motel, another National Monument, housed the “war room” used by top leaders of the Civil Rights movement. It was bombed in 1963 while Martin Luther King, Jr., planned the Birmingham Campaign. After years of failed redevelopment schemes, it is finally being restored with an exhibit planned for the “war room.”
Any revitalization or growth, Urban Impact stresses, should not be at odds with the existing business community, which holds about 77 businesses that are 75 percent minority owned.
“Some of our most successful businesses are women-owned minority businesses,” Washington points out. As Martinez, the tour company owner, adds, “This district may have developed by accident during the Jim Crow era, but it’s become a place where people help you have a successful business and keep the rent [affordable].”
Urban Impact has collaborated with business owners like Martinez for one-off events — like organizing a pop-up market with the district’s female business owners — as well as longer term planning, like utilizing the tour company to host investors and teach them about the area’s history.
Urban Impact also plans to support new business in the district by providing educational, training and coaching programming. The organization hopes to open a facility and trade hub to “graduate” African-American entrepreneurs into the district, according to Holloway.
For Debro, of the 16th Street Baptist Church, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the district’s long history of segregation but not be confined by it. “The 17th Street corridor has long served as a boundary, a dividing line” between black and white businesses, he notes. “Part of Urban Impact’s intention is to pull those two areas together, and not have that barrier that has been there for years.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.