SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Savannah has had a Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard for nearly three decades now. Prior to that, it was called West Broad Street, serving somewhat as a western edge to downtown.
It was 1991 when the name change took place, and if you look hard enough, you can still find a few old West Broad Street markers. To those that lived near or visited the area, it offered more than a way to get around. West Broad Street was considered the hub of the black community, or what was once called “The Main Drag.” It was a place for many black businesses, with a sense of belonging, in the days of segregation.
“I think of a promenade," said Vaughnette Goode-Walker. "A place where you could go and see the Black Businesses, and be proud of what you saw, and not even know that there was another part of town, because during segregation, this was it. We didn’t go into the stores downtown and be treated the same way you were treated here on West Broad Street, the ‘Hoppin’-Poppin'' part of town, that’s what I like to talk about.”
“Community, a wide community that ran deep," said Leon Spencer. "Family, a real extended family. People knew each other, they supported each other.”
Spencer’s grandmother ran Madame Freeman School of Beauty Culture. There were theaters, restaurants, and other businesses. Many of them thrived as the passenger trains would empty out of the old Union Station. While it was a thriving place for black business, it was more than just one culture thriving.
“Here, you had immigrants from Jewish, Greek and Chinese descent, who settled along this street," said Goode-Walker. "Imagine getting off out at the Union Station and coming along West Broad and feeling like you’re in this international area.”
National Tailors has been around since 1915 and has still survived through all the changes. There is no one reason why West Broad Street lost its lofty status. Segregation was coming to an end. In 1963, Union Station was coming down to make way for that new route to the west: I-16.
“So for all of that to change, it took a part of our world away which was very special,” Spencer said.
The businesses lost the passengers getting off there, and the overpass built at that site cut through the district. The area is now just a memory of what it once was. A center of life for some, and an education for many.
“You learned about having pride in oneself," said Spencer. "You got the best in you reinforced.”
You can still visit the hey-day of West Broad Street. The Gilbert Civil Rights Museum has an entire room devoted to West Broad back in the day, with numerous photos from the Georgia Historical Society.