Blacks-only business district thrived

Lenox Theatre was inspired by Jim Crowism

In the 1920s, several city blocks along Augusta's Ninth Street came to be known as the "Golden Blocks," a place where black-owned businesses thrived.

 

It began in 1921 with a theater in the 1100 block of Ninth Street. The Lenox Theatre was begun by black businessmen because blacks were frustrated with their treatment in the white theaters along Broad Street.

J. Philip Waring, founder of the Augusta Black History Committee and a retired Urban League executive, in a 1995 interview recalled the efforts of his father, John P. Waring Sr., one of the Lenox founders.

"Why the Lenox?" said Waring, who is now deceased. "Because this was the height of Jim Crowism -- the rule of the day, manifested by black people having to go through the back alley and going through the very back, up the fire escape at the Imperial Theatre. They called it the 'buzzard's roost.' There were all sorts of jokes about it.

"You didn't go to the Mod-jeska," Waring said. "It wasn't open to black people.

"My knowledge about it was going to meetings about it as a little tyke with my father. They had to do a hell of a lot of planning, a hell of a lot."

The strip known as the Golden Blocks ran from the three-way intersection at Wrightsboro Road and Twiggs Street down Ninth Street to Fenwick Street. Where Laney-Walker Boulevard crosses James Brown Boulevard (Ninth Street), the Golden Blocks spread east-west for a few blocks, making that intersection the crux.

"The Lenox was the northern anchor," Waring said. "That's how the Golden Blocks got started, anchored to the south by the Penny Savings (and Loan) Bank on the corner of Ninth Street and old Gwinnett Street -- now it's called Laney-Walker Boulevard."

Along the strip there were restaurants, barber shops, banks, a drugstore, a real estate agency, a bakery, another theater, a meat market and other small businesses, Waring said.

"You had small businesses, you had saloons, barber shops, all kinds of enterprises. ... That was the business heart of the black community," he said.

"There were dozens and dozens of stores ... and insurance companies. My father had a restaurant -- Warings Bros. Restaurant. The biggest thing was the Lenox Bakery and (the) meat market. Then in the Lenox Theatre front there were two offices, one dentist and one doctor.

"On through the 1920s it really moved."

But the Great Depression, starting in 1929, began the long decline of the Golden Blocks.

"As the Depression marched onward, all facets of life ... in Augusta and around the country were hit hard," Waring said. "When the Depression came about, everything went into decline."

The Lenox lasted through World War II and into the 1950s. But the Golden Blocks were fading. The name had long since fallen into disuse.

Later, social change brought other pressures.

"Attitudes -- I mean white people's -- began to change, and new people came to town to new industries. You had a new infusion of people."

The civil rights movement began to affect the economic and retail situation of black people in Augusta. They could go to the stores on Broad Street and get a cup of coffee -- and sit at the counter -- and also purchase goods and services on a much fairer basis.

So eventually, the Golden Blocks merged with the identity of "downtown."

 

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