AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF)- On this month’s edition of Hometown History, I wanted to honor Black history Month by taking a look at The Golden Blocks. It’s a nickname for the area near Gwinnett and Campbell Streets– know known as Laney Walker and James Brown Boulevards.
There are so many people that made a big difference that I had a hard time choosing who to talk about.
In the end my fascination with Lucy Craft Laney won out. But, the Golden Blocks produced some truly inspiring people.
“This was a cluster of black owned businesses. As far as the eye can see.”
The Golden Blocks rose during Jim Crow under the backdrop of legal segregation. Corey Rogers, an historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History says African Americans in that community decided they weren’t going to let it hold them back.
“And so, African Americans for the most part, said to themselves, ok, there are legal things being put in place to keep us with in certain boundaries. What we’re going to do is create our own industry. We’re going to become our own entrepreneurs,” Rogers explained.
Many of those businesses are gone now.
“From Dr. S.S. Johnson’s pharmacy in the back of his home on Twigg Street, to the famous Lenox Theater. And mind you- it’s not the ‘ len-uhx.’ Those who grew up in this neighborhood will correct you. It’s the ‘Len- OX,’ as they pronounce it. You had the famed Penny Savings and Loan Bank, the first privately owned African American Bank in the Augusta area.” said Rogers.
And some are still around.
“And you had W.H. Mays Mortuary which is, interestingly enough, this is their 100th year. They’re celebrating this year, their 100th Anniversary.”
Lucy Craft Laney was born in Macon, Georgia in 1854. Her parents were former slaves who were able to buy their freedom. The sister of her parents’ former enslaver taught her to read, which was illegal at the time. Joyce Law, an historic preservation activist, says Laney’s impact is priceless.
“The influence of Lucy Craft Laney is immeasurable when it comes to lifespan education, a spiritual philosophy of which there were no limits to what a person could achieve and certainly African Americans,” Law said.
Laney founded the Haines Institute, the first private school for black children in Augusta, in 1883. She was a highly educated woman and over her 50 years as principal of the school, she made sure her students got an exemplary education.
“How will African Americans navigate the new normal? How will African Americans survive and thrive in this new country where four million formerly enslaved people were now free? And so education becomes that vehicle for her,” Rogers said.
Many of Laney’s student went on to do big things. One of those students was author Frank Yerby, who is most well known for his novel “The Foxes of Harrow.”
“But he started writing short stories. And he won the O’Henry Award for his short story ‘Health Card’. He then wrote a novel. His first book, right out the gate. ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ in the 1940’s. ‘The Foxes of Harrow sold over 2 million copies worldwide,” explained Rogers.
20th Century Fox paid him $150,000 for the rights; that’s equivalent to nearly $3 million today.
It made him the first African American author to have a novel turned into a movie.
“There were many noted authors during this time. But Frank Yerby, because of the popularity of the book, and also too, keeping in mind, even to this day, so many of Mr. Yerby’s ardent readers didn’t know that he was African American,” said Law. “So in a way he had a leg up, because he wasn’t pigeon holed as an African American writer. It was just a wonderful story.”
Law said Yerby grew up around highly educated and exceptional people.
“His maternal Aunt Louisa Smythe was in the first graduating class of Haines. All of her siblings followed and they were career educators living in the combined Smythe Yerby household. There is no way that he could not have been a literary prodigy.”
The Lucy Craft Laney Museum has partnered with the Greater Augusta Arts Council to create The Golden Blocks Project.
Pax Bobrow is the project manager for the Council. She said it was created as a way to show more people the history of the Golden Blocks.
“What this project does is it brings the history and knowledge and stories that are housed in the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History out into the street where anyone can see it. You encounter it, you learn and you get to celebrate Augusta’s rich heritage,” smiled Bobrow.
There is an app called Otocast that will take you on a walking tour of the Golden Blocks.
Sala Jeter-Allen is one of the artists. She said being chosen to paint a mural was an honor and she even wrote a song about it.
“This is just one line of the song I decided to include in the mural. Experience and see the Golden Blocks Legacy. Awaken and learn family now it’s our turn,” she sang.
There is so much more to know about these remarkable people in Augusta’s history.
There is also so much to be said for the people coming out of hundreds of years of slavery and heading into Jim Crow, that just refused to be held down and held back. Their drive and determination to be well educated, to be entrepreneurs, to be successful- that legacy can still be felt today.
Hey Augusta– That’s just part of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Reggie Mckie.