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Main Spotlight: Commemorating Black History on Main Street

February 17, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Commemorating Black History on Main Street | By: Marta Olmos, Communications Coordinator at Main Street America | 

This Black History Month, Main Streets across the nation are exploring the power of placemaking to create more inclusive communities. Memorials, signs, public art, and other visible reminders of Black history help to tell the full history and proclaim a commitment to building a more equitable future. The following Main Street Black History initiatives confront painful legacies, celebrate meaningful achievements, and honor the contributions of difference makers.

Tybee Island Main Street

Tybee Island, Georgia can trace its African-American history as far back as the Lazaretto Act of 1767, which designated the barrier island as a quarantine station where enslaved Africans “could be landed, and in case of distempers…be properly lodged and attended” before being taken to the Savannah slave market. Local historians believe hundreds of slaves who became sick or died from the inhumane conditions of the middle passage were quarantined and buried on Tybee Island. For centuries, the history itself was buried as well.

During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, black college students from nearby Savannah State College, a historically black college, protested Tybee’s segregated beaches by wading into the waters on July 14, 1967. The students, including former Savannah mayor Edna Jackson, a young college student at the time, were harassed and arrested.

In 2020, the City of Tybee Island adopted Resolution 2020-10 Promoting Justice and Equality. This resolution has resulted in a flurry of inclusive programming, including a collaboration with Tybee Island Main Street to share the important Black history of the city. Lazaretto Memorial Parklet is in development, and will memorialize the quarantine and the people who suffered and died there after the Middle Passage. A historical marker was installed at the site of a 1967 wade-in to inform visitors of the site’s complex history. Finally, a black history walking trail was created to guide visitors around the island.

Tybee Island Main Street Board Chairperson Sarah Bernzott is excited about local efforts to embrace diversity, and sees it as an opportunity for locals and visitors alike. “Tybee Island Main Street is pleased to continue our partnership with the City of Tybee Island and local nonprofits to acknowledge and address the community’s history of both racism and discrimination.”  she said. “As a committee, we are dedicated to documenting the history of Tybee Island’s citizens and working with city leaders to ensure all visitors and community members are treated with equity.”

By reinterpreting its local history into a more inclusive story, Tybee Island is meeting a rising public demand for more cultural heritage tourism opportunities. Furthermore, the city is creating conditions to attract a more diverse group of merchants and customers to Main Street. “We believe strongly that these steps, in conjunction with the City of Tybee Island and local non-profits, will allow Tybee Island Main Street to maximize its efforts to honor historical knowledge and context, to ensure and maintain economic development for its many small businesses, and to provide appropriate and engaging cultural activities and events for those visiting and living on Tybee Island,” Bernzott said.

Main Street DeFuniak Springs

In early 2021, having identified the need to refresh the old and outdated banners hanging at the time, Main Street DeFuniak Springs unveiled a year-long banner program. Designs included four general banners that can be displayed as needed: an American Flag banner that can be displayed on Memorial Day and 4th of July, personalized Veterans banners to be displayed in November, and Black History Banners to be displayed in February.

For the Black History Month banners, Main Street DeFuniak Springs identified a short list of criteria for the nominees, including a biography of the individual, description of the nominee’s work in social justice and/or civic accomplishment, and obstacles the nominee had to overcome. Along with the application, they requested a high-resolution image featuring the nominee. A committee of community leaders and business owners was assembled to help raise awareness of the program and provide input on applications. “We created an inclusive atmosphere, while celebrating those who significantly contributed to our history,” said Main Street DeFuniak Springs Executive Director Chelsea A. Blaich. “The banner program presents a unique opportunity for promotion of an underrepresented group in our community through storytelling.”

The program was successful, receiving enough qualified nominees to adorn all the lamp posts in the district. Looking at the future, Main Street DeFuniak Springs hopes to expand the program to lamp posts beyond the district to spotlight more individuals. “Give everything you have to programs spotlighting the difference makers in your community,” recommends Chelsea Blaich. “The sense of pride I have seeing the banners displayed and the positive feedback from community-members is heartwarming.”

Beverly Main Streets

For many years, Beverly Main Streets has maintained a rotating art gallery on a red fence on the Lindsey Building Condo Association. Following the death of George Floyd in  2020, Beverly Main Streets hired Amanda Beard Garcia to paint a Black Lives Matter design on their ‘Red Fence Gallery.’ Garcia chose to paint her piece on the same day as the Black Lives Matter Walk in the town. The mural symbolizes the attention being given across the country to social justice and racial equity pursuits. "As a Beverly native and artist of color, it was important to me to support Black Lives in a way I knew how: to visually voice 'we're with you' -- to make a commitment to our community to listen, learn, grow, and take action and hopefully inspire others to do the same,” said Garcia.

The significance and power of the message were immediately apparent, and Beverly Main Streets and the Lindsey Building Condo Association decided to preserve the artwork. They removed the artwork, including the red fence, from its original site and donated it the downtown branch of the Beverly Public Library, where it will stand long-term as a representative of the city’s commitment to racial equity.

History happens every day in our communities. Amanda Beard Garcia’s Black Lives Matter mural is an example of the preservation of a contemporary story. As Garcia said, “while my painted mural was expected to be temporary (as the others have been), I'm grateful that it will find a new home at the library as a reminder that there is always more work to be done."

City of Lawrenceville

The Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition, in partnership with the City of Lawrenceville, Gwinnett County, the Gwinnett Historical Restoration & Preservation Board, and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery, Alabama, will dedicate a historical marker honoring the memory of Charles Hale. Mr. Hale, an African American resident of Gwinnett County, was lynched in 1911 in Lawrenceville Square.

Hale was initially arrested on the accusation of assaulting a white woman. An angry mob then stormed the jail, dragged him out to Lawrenceville Square, and murdered him. “It’s the most documented and most recent lynching that occurred in Gwinnett,” Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition member Steve Babb told the Gwinnett Daily Post. A photograph of Mr. Hale was widely distributed as a post card at the time.

The historical marker is located on the west side of Lawrenceville Square. This important memorial is an open recognition of the difficult history of the city and region. By creating a permanent record of this tragedy, Lawrenceville ensures that future generations will know the full history of their city. The memorial also reinforces present-day Gwinnettian’s commitment to overcoming their difficult past and building a more equitable and inclusive future. As Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said at a Juneteenth ceremony: “as we acknowledge the horrors of our past, I also want to celebrate the journey onward, and the fight of all those who led us to come so far.”

Building More Equitable Main Streets

Memorials, historical markers, public art, and other commemorative placemaking initiatives play a powerful role in making our communities more inclusive. We hope that these examples will inspire you to explore the potential of similar projects based on your district’s Black history. Main Streets should be welcoming, inclusive, and equitable forces for change in our communities and beyond.