The Oldest Free Black Neighborhoods in the South

Cuyler-Brownesville and Metropolitan neighborhoods in Savannah Georgia were originally planned and established after the Civil War as free Black neighborhoods. Since Blacks could not access schools, hospitals, stores, restaurants or essentially any institution owned or frequented by Whites, Black business people and professionals made their homes here and it became the center of the Black middle class of Savannah. The communities were largely self-sufficient.

Most of the info and pictures in this post is from an article by Mike Walker, a grad student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). I recommend a read. He has been documenting the architecture and unique characteristics of these communities, because like most places in the U.S., they are becoming gentrified and losing their character.

There were corner stores on just about every residential street, usually grocers, with the unique feature of a doorway cut in diagonally. Most are no longer operating; as car ownership increased, it was no longer imperative to have a corner grocer on every block. As efforts increase to become a less car dependent society to address climate change, I wonder if we will see a re-emergence of corner stores. In cities that have good public transportation, they still exist.

Many businesses in Cuyler-Brownesville had hand-painted commercial signage, a creative tradition in the South especially prevalent in African-American neighborhoods. Lettering on such signs is calligraphic or in the style of hand-lettering used by graphic designers for poster and print work prior to the advent of digital desktop publishing, The signs are large, colorful and often includes drawings related to the business at hand—such as scissors and a blow-dryer for a beauty parlor or crabs and lobsters for a seafood shop. (Williams, et al; 204–205)

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