As Columbia’s downtown 7th Street continues to blossom into a diverse place for successful businesses and bustling pedestrian activity, just a block over, 8th Street lags behind.
Empty storefronts, cracked windowpanes and overgrown vines clinging to vacant dusty buildings are now the sights of a once vibrant area, historically called the Bottom. At one time, the sloping roadway was home to thriving Black businesses and known as a community hot-spot.
In its heyday, East 8th Street was a place full of activity, where Black residents could open businesses, go to church and enjoy local entertainment during an era of segregation.
It was also the site of the infamous Columbia race uprising, making national news in 1946, which set the early foundation for the 1960s Civil Rights movement in America.
More: How a dispute over a broken radio launched a civil rights movement
There is even a rumor, along with photo evidence, that world-famous Olympian runner Jessie Owens was given a star’s welcome, while once paying a visit to East 8th Street.
To visitors today, the district appears to have been put on the backburner, while other areas like West 7th and East 6th streets and even the Columbia Arts District, have evolved with upgraded visual aesthetics, roadway improvements and new opportunities for economic growth in downtown Columbia.
When will East 8th join the fold?
Many in the neighborhood are left asking, when will it be time for historic East 8th Street to join the fold?
Columbia resident and African American Heritage Society board member Andrew Cannon, 69, remembers visiting the area in the mid-1960s — traveling from his hometown of Mt. Pleasant — when the street’s sights, sounds and activity were at its peak.
“Why can’t this street, this side of downtown, match the development on 7th Street. It’s always been different on 7th Street than 8th Street. More money was poured into 7th ,” Cannon said. “East 8th has so much potential. It needs to be revitalized to create economic prosperity. What’s good for 8th Street is good for Columbia.”
Although the area became part of the National Historic Registry in 1983, the revitalization, many like Cannon had hoped for, did not follow.
Now, some community members and city leaders, are working to ensure that East 8th’s chance at a promising future will happen sooner than later.
“There has always been a difference”: Life on Columbia’s East 8th Street
Longtime Maury County resident reflects on daily life on East 8th Street in Columbia.
Mike Christen, The Daily Herald
A plan to rebuild almost happened in 2010 after years of increased crime rates, unemployment and deteriorated structures. However, the original vision never quite came to fruition.
More than a decade later, the same supporters believe the plan is ripe for a revisit.
The Bottom’s thriving past
The rise of the Bottom as a thriving Black business district dates back to 1898, following the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Act, which allowed Black citizens to establish their own pocket communities on a “separate, but equal” basis. This included anything from restaurants to schools, churches and residential neighborhoods.
Local historian and African American Heritage Society of Maury County Director Jo Ann McClellan said the Bottom was chosen, as well as got its name, from the fact it was considered “bottom” land of lesser value at the time.
“At that time, there was basically nothing on this street,” McClellan said. “It was vacant land, and this was ‘bottom land,’ with a trench running behind it. I read in a newspaper article that the sewer system was also not as good as it could be.”
Memories like yesterday
According to Cannon, he remembers East 8th as a “full service street” that provided all of the community’s needs within one central hub.
“These buildings, they contained everything, like a couple of barber shops, beauty shops, beer joints, eating places and pool halls. One of these buildings even contained a theater at one time, the GEM Theater, and at one time there was even a cab company where you could get a ride,” Cannon said. “Then you could go home, change your clothes, come back and go to church on Sunday. It was a thriving Black community, where Black people owned and operated the businesses, because there wasn’t much integration at the time.”
When the struggle for equality was at its height in America, East 8th Street was a place where residents felt safe and at home, which brought a sense of unity to Black citizens.
“It was probably more dangerous for us to go to those other places than it was for white people to come down here,” Cannon said.
More: Letter to Editor: The ‘Bottom’ remembered as bustling business district
Local historians say that the Bottom also has a rich history in education.
“The African American community here built an education system to help train teachers long before they were allowed to teach,” McClellan said. “That’s the kind of history we want to talk about.”
“A forgotten history”: Historians reflect on Columbia’s East 8th Street
Maury County Archives Director Tom Price and Maury County Historian Jo Ann Williams McClellan share the history of Columbia’s East 8th Street.
Mike Christen, The Daily Herald
Maury County Archives Director Tom Price said old photographs show a community full of charm, which is often forgotten.
“There was a lot of diversity in terms of the architecture, like the Masonic hall that was here [which was later torn down], and the corner building [at South Main Street] is still charming as well,” Price said.
“So much of the history here has kind of been forgotten, and hasn’t been talked about a great deal. At the archives, all the time, we are uncovering these stories, about these amazing educators, who were in the Northeast and decided to come back to Tennessee to educate the formerly enslaved here, and create a culture of education. Through segregation and Jim Crow Laws, they navigated that incredibly complex and difficult time to thrive.”
Downfall to present day
The area’s downfall, according to McClellan, was triggered during the aftermath of the integration of schools, when more opportunities for Black citizens and students, arose elsewhere.
“People just didn’t stay here and wanted to experience other things, and thought they had better opportunities elsewhere,” McClellan said. “However, a lot of these properties are still owned by the descendants.”
As East 8th Street eventually became an area synonymous with crime, unemployment and blighted structures. Things came to a head in 2010, when the revitalization plan was introduced and approved by city leaders.
Pastor and Columbia Housing and Redevelopment Corporation CEO Trent Ogilvie remembers the 2010 plan, created to “cut down on crime and create a better, safer place to live.”
“What is to come”: A vision for Columbia’s East 8th Street
Trent Ogilvie, the executive director of the Columbia Housing and Redevelopment Corporation, offers a vision for the future of East 8th Street.
Mike Christen, The Daily Herald
“Crime can happen anywhere, and at that time Columbia was kind of known for that, but East Columbia was sort of a blight because of the crime that exists,” Ogilvie said. “The neighbors and business owners at the time came together to say ‘enough is enough,’ and things needed to get better, that we needed a better relationship with police.”
More than a decade later, many of the major issues in the area remain, such as crime, access to education, unemployment and deteriorating structures.
The 2010 plan’s failure to take hold by the city, Ogilvie believes, was due to a “lack of will” to keep the momentum going.
“The problem was having the will to do it,” Ogilvie said. “The plans the city had for the downtown business district, or the arts district, those plans had a will and a momentum to stick with it to make sure it happened. Whereas, in this district it didn’t. We did have a plan, and so we can’t say we didn’t have direction.”
McClellan also questions why the area hasn’t been given the attention other places like East 6th Street have over the last few years, since the street is part of the National Historic Registry. Despite such a designation, East 8th still doesn’t fall under the city’s current historic zoning district.
“What I think is really important for people to understand are the stories [in Black history, many originating in the Bottom],” McClellan said. “They hear about the atrocities, but they don’t hear about the positive influence that their ancestors might have had on this community.”
Price said he agrees and now seems like the right time to correct that error and give an area like East 8th the kind of care and attention it deserves.
“I know the city has put a fair amount of resources into 6th Street and 7th Street, but 8th Street is a little bit lacking, even today,” Price said. “We’re starting to observe people eyeing East 8th Street and seeing opportunities, and so there are new businesses coming in. We would love to see an African American heritage museum and site here, where we can interpret the incredible African American history in Maury County, that it can really be an anchor site that might spur some businesses onward.”
Road improvements to come
Bringing East 8th Street back to its former glory, could be on the verge of fruition.
For example, a new Mexican restaurant is under construction and renovations are underway at nearby buildings, such as Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church and several residences.
East Columbia has also received multiple approvals for new residential developments.
“That is a positive indicator that there is vitality and a desire to move that area forward,” Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder said.
Plus, upcoming road improvements on 8th Street signify a first step in improving the area. The city’s 2021-2022 budget, adopted earlier this month, allocates funding to the construction of a roundabout to replace the stoplight at North Main and East 8th streets.
Molder said improving East 8th Street, along with much of Columbia’s east side, has been on the city’s radar for at least three years.
“It has been a council objective that the East 8th Street district be on the radar for purposes of revitalization and efforts we can undertake to support that area,” Molder said. “It almost has to be a dual task. We, as the government, can only help do things to incentivize or encourage, but at the end of the day, the private sector is, in a large part, going to dictate vitality in the area.”
Designs for the new roundabout will be budgeted at $80,000, according to the city.
“That’s really the ‘first step’ you will see from us in terms of wanting to lead some revitalization efforts in that district, and there’s more to come down the pike,” Molder said.
City Manager Tony Massey said the budgeted funds are for design and preliminary engineering work.
“There will be a cleanup to the aesthetics just by getting rid of the light, the poles and all of that at the intersection,” Massey said. “The roundabout will also be a nice gateway to the core of downtown.”
Molder also said the city has a “strong interest” in pursuing renovations to the historic A.J. Morton Funeral Home as a museum/park space with “storyteller markers” displayed. The project, originally conceived by the AAHS, would allow people to learn the East 8th Street story, the origin of the 1946 race uprising and its significance as a Civil Rights landmark. Though no formal plans are in place at this time.
“A stronger Community”: Barber shares experience of East 8th Street
Finishing Touch Barbershop owner John T. Davis talks about owning a business near Columbia’s East 8th Street.
Mike Christen, The Daily Herald
Owner of Finishing Touch Barber Shop and Columbia native John T. “Tee The Barber” Davis has operated the popular business for 21 years at Woodland and 8th streets. He said he’d like to see other businesses thrive like the ones on 6th and 7th streets. He also hopes revitalization would bring the city’s cultures together in one spot.
“Just two streets up on 6th, you see sidewalks and fountains and everything,” Davis said. “You don’t see that over here. It would be nice to see the same energy over this way … I want to see people get along. I am very passionate about that, trying to bring both cultures together. That’s a strong factor in building a strong community.”
Molder said he is hopeful.
“[Prospective new development] is leading to a little bit of an uprising,” Molder said. “If you think about downtown, and the areas of growth, East 8th is the next natural progression for revitalization. We want to be a part of that, want to help facilitate that.”
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