From the perspective of those living in the twenty-first century, a community reinvestment plan that entails the destruction of the focus neighborhood seems to be a contradiction in terms. How can new life be brought into a community through revitalization if its housing, enterprises, sacred spaces, and cultural touchstones are destroyed?
If urban renewal holds the reputation of demolition of neighborhoods such as East Greensboro…what exactly were planners and politicians of the era thinking?
East Greensboro was the first target community of urban renewal in the city. By the 1950s, it held a deep sense of history that represented both the accomplishments and inequities of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras in which it was created. Names of prominent Black leaders such as Zephaniah Mitchell, James Dean, James Dudley, Jacob Nocho, and Daniel Cato Suggs were remembered through road names, commercial buildings, houses, and churches. These places were landmarks to Black empowerment and resiliency. In contrast, the majority of the neighborhood was composed of high-density housing that was built by Black and white landowners at a time when African Americans’ residency was legally restricted. Further, community reinvestment was further hampered in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a network of white realtors and lenders who deemed East Greensboro a “high risk” investment through a system known as redlining.
In East Greensboro, the accomplished and the modest lived side by side. Wealthy and influential citizens often maintained residences along busy streets, as was traditional in the early development of Greensboro. Zephaniah Mitchell and James Dean had well-constructed residences in the 1100 block of East Market Street. In the early twentieth century, Susan and James Dudley erected a spectacular Queen Anne house on Dudley Street. Mamie and Daniel Cato Suggs maintained a fine frame house at 406 East Market Street.
Nearby, wood frame duplexes and shotgun houses were rented in back streets such as Doggett’s Row, Dixie Alley, Gilmer Alley, and Washington Alley. Interspersed among these houses were prominent buildings such as the Suggs Block at 505 East Market Street. Built in 1910, it was said to be “the finest negro business block owned by any individual of his race in the United States.” It was designed by Lawrence B. Jeffries, Greensboro’s earliest documented Black architect. Later it was known as Odd Fellows Hall. The Providence Baptist Church at 811 Baptist Street was built in 1876. It was thought to be the first brick-and-mortar structure built for a Black congregation in the Piedmont.
Urban renewal was born by the signature of President Eisenhower through the Housing Act of 1954. It amended national housing law and provided new legislation to address aged and substandard housing in America’s inner cities. As cities sprawled to suburban enclaves in the Pre-War Period, older central neighborhoods witnessed disinvestment when property owners retained increasingly obsolete residential buildings as income properties. The result of disinvestment was reduced health and safety conditions for properties occupied by low-income residents. Roxbury in Boston MA, Society Hill in Philadelphia PA, Southwest Washington DC, and East Greensboro were increasingly defined as areas of urban blight, also known through antiquated terms such as “slums” or “ghettos.”
The content of the new act was based on recommendations by Eisenhower’s Advisory Committee on Housing, and it sought to address these disinvestment issues through “urban renewal.” The program was initially a one-two solution that included federally subsidized acquisition and destruction of communities that were to be replaced by new publicly owned or market-rate housing. Market-rate housing could be subsidized using FHA-insured mortgage programs. Renewal programs were also to be used to upgrade aging infrastructure such as utilities and crowded thoroughfares. In many cases, it incorporated large-scale destruction of residential, commercial, and even religious structures.
Urban Renewal Comes to Greensboro
The first reference to the term “urban renewal” here in Greensboro was December 16, 1953 when the Greensboro Daily News produced an article entitled “’New’ Housing Program Given To Eisenhower.” It described the Advisory Committee’s recommendations as “A massive 52-point blueprint for a ‘new and revitalized’ housing program, emphasizing industry’s responsibility to shelter low-income families.” The article detailed key points, including “continued public housing; also direct federal loans and grants for slum clearance, through a new ‘urban renewal’ program.”
The federal initiative arrived in Greensboro less than a year later when Mayor Robert Frazier prioritized passage of enabling legislation necessary to participate in the urban redevelopment program.
By 1955, Mayor Frazier described several initiatives for the city, from a new downtown plaza for helicopter landings, to a new auditorium and increased water reserves. He also detailed his interest in redevelopment by stating “Urban redevelopment simply means condemning slum areas, clearing them and selling the land to private developers. We have at least two spots in Greensboro that need the treatment terribly. That is not a socialistic scheme. Our enlightened realtors in Greensboro have strongly supported the idea. That is the only possible way that we can clear a slum area completely. In addition to that kind of slum clearance, we need more urban renewal. We have not kept up on that. In Greensboro in the thirties, we were leading in urban renewal. Urban renewal is keeping houses in repair under supervision of the law. All the public housing, all the urban redevelopment we could possibly provide is not sufficient to keep people housed properly. Urban renewal is essential.”
The areas in which the mayor referenced likely included blocks east of downtown along East Market Street, named Cumberland. These areas were densely populated due to white governing policy and laws. Collectively called Jim Crow Laws, they disenfranchised Black citizens through a doctrine that stated races could be treated equally though separately. “Separate but equal” treatment had widely negative implications on the lives of African American citizens as it institutionalized racism to create government-sanctioned neighborhoods of substandard housing. Substandard issues were defined at the time as structural soundness, hot and cold running water, complete bathrooms, safe electric wiring, and a “decent” kitchen.
A previous approach to better housing standards included the creation of publicly owned housing, including the $6 million Morningside Homes that was constructed in 1951 for Black residents.
Though publicly owned housing provided new affordable communities, it did not address substandard housing in older neighborhoods. A report commissioned by the city in 1959 of the 80-acre East Greensboro neighborhood noted that it held 530 dwelling units, 68% of which were substandard. The study noted that 16% of the residents of the neighborhood owned their homes. Statistics on those who owned the remaining 84% of income property were not recorded. It is likely a majority were built and owned by white landlords.
In addition to private residential disinvestment, public investment in services also fell behind. Eighty-three percent of the streets in Cumberland were not paved. The only children’s playground was on the grounds of the C. H. Moore School. Water and sewer lines were found to be inadequate.
Greensboro Moved Forward With Plans
“Market Street Sector Is Urged For Renewal” stated the headline on the front page of the Greensboro Daily News on December 14, 1955. “The Greensboro Planning Board designated the East Market Street area as the most desirable section for urban renewal,” the article stated. Planning Director Ronald Scott told the board “the East Market Street section not only was the highest concentration of population in the city, but it offered the best opportunity for resale and renewal after the land is cleared of substandard buildings, most of which are used as living quarters.
By 1958, over 250 cities across the nation had taken action to apply for urban renewal funding. “America’s aging, slum-ridden, slum-blighted cities are still riding a nightmare” warned an AP Newsfeatures article in the Daily News. “Starved for cash…riddled with decay…they are battling for survival against the stranglehold of the suburbs they created…” In North Carolina, Greensboro was far ahead of all other cities. “Greensboro city officials yesterday began preparing material for a petition for federal funds in rehabilitating an East Market Street area,” reported the Daily News on February 22, 1958.
As early as 1957, social concerns were raised about the impact of urban renewal on residents. A national article in the Daily News on December 1, 1957, profiled that “Religious leaders are increasingly concerned over what they regard as one of the most crucial and urgent challenges in this country-the threatened decline of the city church.” The article quotes Maryland Governor Theodore R. McKeldin who stated, “urban renewal must include the reinvigoration of city churches.”
A path forward was presented in the same article, using Miami, Florida as inspiration. There, eleven churches were included in a master plan for the Carol City development, where Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches sites were selected by the Greater Miami Council of Churches. Greensboro, too, would include new church sanctuaries on land allocated for urban renewal.
The East Market Street area in Greensboro held one of the highest concentrations of churches in the city. Churches included Bethel A. M. E. Church, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, United Institutional Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Browning Chapel Methodist, Providence Baptist, Bishop Temple Christian, and Trinity AME Zion. Many of these churches, some historic, would be threatened by destruction, relocation, or replacement.
Early surveys of the neighborhood revealed that approximately 37 properties between Regan and Dudley streets that were owned and occupied by Black residents were in sound condition. These houses were to be maintained and improved. Surrounding housing considered substandard was to be demolished and replaced with modern single-family homes. Other existing sites such as Bethel A. M. E. Church (established in 1869) and Episcopal Church of the Redeemer (1906) were to be retained and incorporated into the development plan.
In 1958, the Atlanta NAACP called into question the social injustice of the federal urban renewal plans. “Racial Injustice was listed by the Atlanta NAACP today as one reason for its requesting that federal officials “deny approval” of the city’s [Atlanta’s] multi million-dollar urban renewal plan.” J. H. Calhoun, president of the NAACP’s Atlanta branch, was quoted on the front page of the Greensboro Daily News’ on April 8th stating, “The request follows on the heels of local Negro group studies of the project and their objections to it basically because Negroes had not been consulted in the planning.”
In May 1958, the Urban Renewal Administration of the Housing and Home Finance Administration approved $1,030,000 for expenses and an advance of $60,626 for “slum clearance” in the Cumberland neighborhood of Greensboro. An editorial in the Daily News quoted city statistics of overcrowding and substandard conditions. “The crowded area, “said the paper, “with its flimsy, frame buildings, has long been termed a hazard by firemen.”
By 1959, the Greensboro city council sought to prioritize the urban renewal program in the city using seven categories of governmental action. These included 1) enforcement of a standard building and housing code; 2) planned neighborhoods with community centers and public transit; 3) a housing inventory to prevent blight from occurring; 4) urban renewal activities that are coordinated to make the city a better place to live; 5) city must direct revenues and resources for improvement; 6) quality housing for all income groups through new and rehabilitated residences; and 7) public support and participation for renewal.
On January 19, 1960, the Greensboro Redevelopment Commission made its first property purchases in the Cumberland Redevelopment Project area. The process of land acquisition was expected to go on for about eighteen months.
Still, criticism of the urban renewal process was voiced by Council member E. R. Zane. Zane was often cited as a bridge between Black and white citizens during the Sit-Ins of 1960. He opined “a strict enforcement of city laws with respect to the erection and maintenance of buildings would have prevented the slum area in the first place. It was a shame, he said, that the taxpayer was now being required to pay for the greed of property owners who had exploited residents of the area for many years.”
Perhaps such social criticisms drew the attention of Redevelopment Commission Executive Director Robert Barkley who stated in 1959 “Experience in many cities has shown that the accommodation of displaced people is the most critical phase of the entire redevelopment program.”
To address displacement, the Redevelopment Commission sought to work with the Greensboro Housing Authority to relocate 200 families from the Cumberland area. Several of the Redevelopment Commissioners were concerned about the impact of the project on displaced residents. Members Elizabeth Bridgers, a UNCG psychology professor, business owner Mack Arnold, and school principal Vance Chavis saw a greater need that expanded to over 100 low-income families throughout the city.
As a Redevelopment Commissioner, Chavis also sought to monitor other relocation challenges, including protests by area businesses. Members of the Greensboro Negro Merchants Association threatened action, including Ezell Blair, Sr., a schoolteacher, who stated publically “the redevelopment plans are pushing us too far…but we have ways of striking back…call it a threat, if you like.” To open new business opportunities, the Redevelopment Commission planned a new retail shopping center between East Market and East Friendly Avenue, as “an outstanding opportunity to set a precedent in the Southeast.”
By the winter of 1962, the city staff reported “…there has been not one objection following relocation. Many have experienced better business and in one case, a business man said his business had trebled.”
Area students, however, continued pressure on officials. An October 10, 1967, article in The Carolinian student newspaper from UNCG reported “Urban renewal, as it is presently administered, is not the answer to ghetto revolt. This was the consensus of Thursday’s Black Power panel, which met in the Alexander Room of Elliott Hall before an audience of approximately two hundred. Panelist James Turner called urban renewal ‘irrelevant to us unless we can sit in on the secret meetings.”
Robert Frazier, alum and trustee of Guilford College and former mayor of Greensboro, was the focus of an incriminating article published in the Guilfordian newspaper. The article criticized Frazier as a lawyer and a substandard investment property owner who represented other owners to benefit financially from sales of property in the target area.
In a letter to fellow Guilford trustee Edwin P. Brown, Frazier privately rebutted “what these well-meaning but poorly advised students cannot see is that to the poor people any landlord is better than none at all. I think that Whitney Young brought that idea out in his article in the Readers’ Digest, in which he named the federal government as the greatest enemy of the negro people because of having destroyed 400,000 negro housing units, in the interest of “slum clearance”, euphemistically calling “urban renewal”, while replacing only 100,000. The federal government’s program of “urban renewal” has destroyed so many housing units that not much more damage could have been done if we had been victims of major air-attacks in a world war. The negroes have been the chief sufferers. ‘Slumlords’ seem to me to be the principal champions of the negroes’ right to live in whatever quarters they can afford.”
Frazier argued that the urban renewal program was a solution to an issue of substandard housing brought on by disinvestment by property owners. It was a tool to address the quality of low-income housing, not as a means to remove Black populations from their communities.
Some Cumberland property owners pushed back and challenged the forced sale of their properties. In 1960, the estate of Jack Milton, owner of a property at 719 East Market Street, refused to sell based on concerns of the constitutionality of redevelopment. The project was deemed constitutional in court. Almeda and Sylvester Bell of 321 Percy Street challenged the fair market value of their land and were awarded an additional $8,800. Olive and Doncie Lee settled on an undisclosed compensation for their property on Dudley Street. Many other challenges were made by property owners, many were settled out of court.
A primary result of the Cumberland Project was the introduction of Federally subsidized housing for low-income families. This was achieved through a new public-private partnership that resulted in the construction of modern one- and two-story garden-style apartments named Cumberland Court. The private developer, Southeastern Development Company (SDC), was represented by Gene Gulledge. Gulledge came to the project with the experience of having constructed moderate-income housing in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. With Cumberland Court Apartments, SDC built 95 units that rented between $60 to $77.50 per month.
The partnership was considered innovative at the time. Barkley of the Redevelopment Commission stated it was “the first of its type and is expected to serve as a model for other cities seeking to build low-rent private housing.” As the first construction phase neared conclusion in March 1963, 135 applied for the 95 apartments. An additional 87 units were begun in 1965.
A Greensboro Daily News article of May 3, 1962 proclaimed “Financing of the project is being done through the Federal Housing Administration and is the first of its kind being built in a redevelopment area by a private enterprise. A nonprofit corporation has been set up to build apartments, which will be in the central portion of the Cumberland Redevelopment Project…”
Not all older residences in the Cumberland area were destroyed and replaced. Roughly 30 houses were retained, and 18 were renovated.
In 1964, The Redevelopment Commission upgraded the old Rufus Rainey homeplace at 210 North Regan Street. Rainey (1866-1914) was a sexton at the First Baptist Church. The fine house, built around 1910, was not in poor condition when it was refurbished by the Commission. Original windows were replaced, the porch was removed, and Victorian trim was stripped from the façade. It was sold to Ressie Grant Johnson (1892-1980) who lived there until her death in 1980.
Next door, the Emma and William Thomas Wallace House at 212 North Regan Street is another example of a residence that was retained during urban renewal rather than destroyed (image, right). Wallace (1875-1940) was a mail clerk. He owned this two-story frame house, built around 1912. Like the Rainey House next door, the Redevelopment Commission removed original Victorian details from the facade.
The Foursquare-style residence at 223 Beech Street saw little alteration. Likely erected by Joseph H. McConnell (1868-1936) in the 1920s, his home with Mount Airy Granite foundations was among the most valuable in the neighborhood, valued at $10,000 shortly after construction. McConnell was employed by Atlantic Bank and Trust Company, and the North Carolina Bank and Trust Company. His daughter, Ruth, was a teacher at the Washington Street School and remained in the house after his death.
In addition to new and refurbished residences, infrastructure was significantly upgraded. Much of the pre-existing road network was abandoned and new roads included two primary north-south thoroughfares (Murrow Boulevard and Dudley Street), and two east-west thoroughfares (Lindsay and East Market streets). New curvilinear residential streets with sidewalks mimicked those of the suburbs. Parking lots were located to the rear of Cumberland Court apartment houses and grassy greenswards threaded with pedestrian walks to link the fronts of buildings. Major thoroughfares were designed to accommodate high traffic counts with multiple lanes and turn lanes.
Commercial and retail space was developed between East Market Street and East Friendly Avenue through the development of the $1 million Cumberland Shopping Center. Attorney Kenneth Lee orchestrated the investment group that built the twenty-two-store center that included an A&P grocery store, a dry cleaner, and “Black’s restaurant.” The Commission staff noted, “the center would be unusual in that to a large degree it will be operated and staffed by Negroes.”
Additional projects complemented the commercial area including a medical building developed jointly by Dr. F. E. Davis, physician, and Dr. W. L. T. Miller, dentist. The American Federal Savings and Loan opened an office on adjacent land at 701 East Market Street in 1971. The Savings and Loan was North Carolina’s first federally chartered minority-owned thrift.
A portion of the redevelopment area was reserved for the job-creating light industry, and Greensboro won approval for a $5 million postal distribution center that was located on an 11-acre site south of East Market Street. It was estimated 800 employees would work at the postal center, most relocated from other sites in the city.
Other institutions in the redevelopment area engaged with renewal in different ways. The Hayes-Taylor YMCA remained in its 1939 location adjacent to North Carolina A&T State University. Through a realignment of Dudley Street its grounds were expanded to the west. The university’s campus was expanded by the relocation of East Market Street to the south.
The Commission worked with some larger and established churches to retain their presence in the community. Bethel A. M. E. Church was included in the redevelopment plan in 1962 and the church won a bid for additional land. Construction on the new church at 200 Regan Street began in 1964 with a sleek and modern design by prominent architect W. Edward Jenkins. The $160,000 fellowship hall was completed in 1967 and the sanctuary was completed in 1975.
The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer at 901 East Friendly commissioned a new sanctuary that was designed by architect William A. Streat, Jr. (image, right). Its triangular roof form and stained glass presented an architecturally progressive façade to East Market Street when it was completed in 1967.
Nearby, the historic Providence Baptist Church declined the appraisal offer from the Redevelopment Commission. The case went to trial in Guilford County Superior Court and a final price of $39,346 was decided to compensate the congregation for their 100-year-old home. The sanctuary, built in 1876 of hand-made brick, was vacated in April 1964 and its cornerstone was re-installed in the congregation’s new sanctuary on Tuscaloosa Street. Callously, the fire department set the historic structure, billed as the oldest Black church constructed of brick in the Piedmont, aflame. The site became part of the new postal distribution center.
Though the oldest church in the neighborhood moved away, a new church moved to the area in 1963. The Redevelopment Commission sold a tract of land at the corner of East Market and Dudley streets to the United House of Prayer for All People. The sanctuary remains a landmark today.
By 1965, with the Cumberland Renewal Project well underway, the Greensboro Daily News published an aerial view of the progress, stating “A remarkable transformation from blighted slum area of decaying business structures and miserable living quarters for several hundred families to modern commercial buildings and spacious apartments is taking place in the East Market Street section…over all the improvements amount to $10 million.”
Ken Lee, Greensboro’s iconic Civil Rights leader, and attorney felt much different than the Daily News about the East Market Street redevelopment. In his 2008 memoirs entitled No Way! he stated, “Instead of displaced being able to repurchase the land, almost all the land in the Washington I project was obtained for the purpose of building a new main post office and one of the largest regional mail terminals that had ever been constructed. Of the 104 black businesses displaced, only two had been able to relocate in the Cumberland project, and these were two funeral homes that had been displaced.” He continued “One ugly fact remained; 80% of the black businesses that Greensboro had formerly had were gone for good.”
The city continued additional urban renewal efforts, launching the Warnersville plan in 1959 and the Washington Project in 1961. The Cumberland project was closed out in April 1966. The Redevelopment Commission defended their work by stating “Cumberland and Washington I projects will never be the same—they were designed that way. Knowledge of what causes blight was used to eliminate those causes. All of families now living in the two areas are living in clean and adequate housing. Some of them lived there when Cumberland was known as the “bull pen.”
The perceptions of the urban renewal process remain bitter for some in Greensboro, especially for citizens who are old enough to remember the experience. Historian Otis L. Hairston, Jr. shared his perceptions in his 2003 publication entitled Greensboro North Carolina by stating “Market Street had been the focal point of Black life since the 1930s….[statistics] reflect the almost impossible task of successfully relocating to an area away from the area it had served clients for generations past.”
Pre-1960 East Greensboro held a deep sense of place with numerous touchstones to African American leadership, some predating the Civil War. Their names held associations with streets, commercial buildings, houses, and churches that were monuments to Black accomplishment and resiliency. Few of these landmarks remain standing today. Mitchell Street and Deans Alley were bulldozed. The Suggs Block, once known as Oddfellows Hall and as one of the most impressive buildings by a Black owner, was destroyed around 1963. The homes of the Mitchells, Deans, Suggs, and Dudleys have all vanished. The stately Providence Baptist Church no longer stands.
There are lessons to be learned from the urban renewal process in Cumberland. Some see urban renewal as a chance to begin a new slate, sweeping away the poor infrastructure and substandard housing that was prolific in African American communities during the Jim Crow Era. Others lament the lack of community engagement and loss of historical touchstones that told of resiliency and accomplishment that occurred in Greensboro’s Black community despite racism.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás (1863-1952)
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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