Organizers have worked for decades to save this historic black neighborhood in Alabama. It’s finally paying off.
The only suburb built specifically for black residents in Huntsville, Alabama, has a rich history that was in danger of disappearing – until a coalition of grassroots organizations and local leaders worked to preserve it.
“Edmonton Heights was a prominent African American neighborhood because there were few other places in Huntsville where African Americans could acquire property and live,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, Director of Alabama A&M. University Community Development Corporation, located in Edmonton Heights.
Before a population boom after World War II, most Black Huntsvillians lived in the inner city of the city, in isolated neighborhoods full of small, shotgun-style houses.
At the time, Huntsville was a sleepy farming town of about 13,000 residents in northern Alabama.
But its population soared to around 144,000 in the late 1960s, after the US military chose Huntsville as the new headquarters for its missile program and NASA moved to town soon after.
Along with the post-war boom, efforts to modernize the city came: Huntsville rulers came up with an urban renewal plan that would use massive federal grants to acquire, clear and redevelop land near downtown the city.
The city’s urban renewal plan called for razing downtown black houses as well as the black business district that was located on Church Street, a thoroughfare leading into the city’s downtown core.
While homes in Huntsville’s black neighborhoods were demolished in the late 1950s and 1960s, so were black businesses. Melvin Sistrunk, a Huntsville resident, later told city conservation advocates that when his father’s barbecue on Church Street was to be demolished, his father dismantled the building plank by plank to salvage what he could. . He then retired after losing his business.
One of the city’s solutions for its displaced black residents was Edmonton Heights, a planned neighborhood north of the city. It was sort of an anomaly in the South at the time; there were few planned suburbs developed specifically for black homeowners. Across the country, as white families fled cities for the suburbs in the decades following World War II, black families were mostly excluded from this migration, due to discriminatory construction practices. and lending at the federal and local levels.
But behind-the-scenes deals between white Edmonton Heights developers and white local and state officials have opened the door for black buyers to access federal home loans for Edmonton Heights in particular.
“Your life will be beautiful”
Local newspaper ads for the new Edmonton Heights neighborhood featured headlines such as “Spacious, Quality New Homes for Huntsville Discerning Negros” and “Your Life Will Be Beautiful in Exclusive Edmonton Heights!” “
The neighborhood billed as “northern Alabama’s most exclusive black subdivision” featured modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom homes on landscaped grounds with brick exteriors, indoor heating systems, and lava connections. -laundry.
Edmonton Heights was soon home to the city’s black middle class. Residents included teachers, nurses, Redstone Arsenal workers, builders, preachers and taxi drivers, according to the neighborhood survey conducted earlier this year and commissioned by the city of Huntsville. Years later, it became popular with professors at neighboring Alabama A&M University.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the night in a house in Edmonton Heights during his 1962 visit to Huntsville. King and Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy remained with the family of Reverend Ezekiel Bell, who was pastor of a local Presbyterian church and chaired Huntsville’s first civil rights organization, the Community Service Committee.
The neighborhood was essentially one of the only places black residents could live in the city. Some residents later told local conservatives hired by the City of Huntsville that mortgages were considered expensive and options were limited.
“The people whose homes were destroyed downtown really had no place to go,” said Lee, “other than Edmonton Heights or public housing.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Edmonton Heights was in decline. The houses in the neighborhood were dilapidated or abandoned; drugs and other street crimes had become major problems.
Lee recalled visiting an abandoned house in the 1990s and spotting police running in the back yard, chasing a suspect.
But local residents and preservation-conscious leaders did not want to see a significant part of the city’s history fade from neglect.
A historic place
Neighborhood residents first turned to Alabama A&M for help in the late 1990s, Lee said. He and others at college began applying for grants and working with the City of Huntsville to revitalize Edmonton Heights and other neighborhoods around A&M.
At the turn of the millennium, conservation advocates helped the residents of Edmonton Heights organize a neighborhood association that met at a nearby church. This association and other local groups lobbied the city – including walking the streets – to meet the needs of the area and recognize its historical and cultural significance, Lee said.
Progress has been slow, but steady. Over the next 20 years, federal and local grants enabled a coalition of preservation advocates, neighborhood organizations and the city of Huntsville to acquire, rehabilitate and sell once-dilapidated homes in the neighborhood. . They turned one of the houses into a community center. The City of Huntsville commissioned a study of Edmonton Heights to seek recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.
Earlier this year, Edmonton Heights secured a place on the National Register, thanks to the work of several organizations, said Lee, including the A&M Community Development Corporation, the City of Huntsville, the Edmonton Heights Neighborhood Association, the Normal Historic District Preservation Association and local black leaders.
“It was a long-term effort and the neighborhood has changed a lot,” said Lee. “I am very happy to see the change in my life, in terms of recognition of African American history and heritage.”
The face of the neighborhood is also changing. Some former residents who grew up in Edmonton Heights have returned, he said. New arrivals participate in the neighborhood association.
Ten years ago, distressed properties were selling for $ 10,000. Today they are going for $ 90,000 or more, Lee said. Huntsville recently became the state’s largest metropolitan area and house prices are rising.
Now, rather than crime, Lee said he was primarily concerned with the effects of gentrification. He said he would like most of the homes in the neighborhood to be owned by residents rather than investors from out of town.
And while the Historic Register designation made Edmonton Heights more attractive to shoppers, he said, it also marks recognition for a part of history that was in danger of disappearing.
“Much of Huntsville’s African American history has been erased,” he said. “But this is the story of Huntsville, and it is important.”
Save places: Around the South, historic districts and important cultural sites are threatened. In some cases, it is because of development. Others simply languished as community members aged and properties fell into disrepair. Still others could be swallowed up by the effects of global warming. In the next few days, we will introduce you to some of these southern places, why they are under threat and the people who are fighting to preserve them.