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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

"Magic City" by Lula Lunsford Huff

Marcus Garvey wrote that a people without knowledge of their history, origin, and culture are like a tree without roots. My family has a rich history. I am blessed to have been taught that knowledge of the past is one of the foundations of freedom. I was raised to be proud of who I was first, as a child of God, and second, as a Lunsford. What you learn, no one can take from you. You can enslave the body, but not the mind.

Denied access to literacy for centuries during slavery, generations of black families and communities shared black history by word of mouth. They also shared through the buildings that still stand as testimonies of a people who achieved and excelled through education, pride, determination, skill, vision, venture, passion, artistry, and talent. The Liberty area of Columbus, Georgia, was a community of black people that provided all they needed to be happy and successful in a country, state, and a town where inequality of access and opportunity defined black life. Blacks were seen as inferior regardless of their status as a maid, a physician, a teacher, a nurse, a dentist, a business owner, a music teacher, or a pharmacist. While the laws and customs defined black laborers and professionals as inferior to all whites, black people claimed the Liberty area as their “Magic City” of hopes, dreams, and success that centered around its own “Magic Corner” at Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.

Although blacks were woven into the very fabric of the streets of downtown Columbus, segregation and discrimination masked the Magic City’s significant contributions to downtown. Fourth Avenue served as a racial divide, yet the Liberty area intertwined with what is now Uptown Columbus. This was not a dismal city. It teemed with cleaners, grocery stores, shoe repair shops, watch shops, restaurants, billiard parlors, a taxi stand, pharmacies, drugstores, and ice cream parlors that were located downstairs while the owners/tenants lived upstairs.

The original Spencer High School was located at Tenth Avenue facing Eighth Street. Outside its entrance gates were columns housing time capsules that held Spencer’s golden history from its first graduating class to the succession of its illustrious alumni. The school was destroyed and its history lost because no one was there to tell its story and save it.

Many black churches still anchor this Magic City, but the shotgun houses where their members resided are long gone. The same is true for the first and only USO/YMCA built in this country, and many say in the world, for black soldiers. It was a two-story structure built in the 1940s of brick and mortar funded entirely by a black woman. Today, only a slab remains to honor the many black soldiers who passed through those doors, and, with gratitude, departed for their next post.

Although much of the Magic City story has been removed as buildings have been destroyed, many structures still remain to tell of its people’s legacy and history. The building that housed the first black bank still stands across the street from the Pierce Building which was next door to the USO/YMCA. The Pierce Building, still located on the Magic Corner, housed an auditorium on the Third floor that featured top entertainers. The second floor had a dance studio, haberdashery, and doctor’s office and, on the first floor, a restaurant, drug store, and taxi company.

Ma Rainey, the nationally renowned blues singer, lived around the corner going south. Her home still stands. Around the corner from her resided the first Superintendent of Colored Schools, William H. Spencer, who lived on the corner in a house that still stands, just six blocks from the school that was named in his honor. The old Tom Huston (Houston) Peanut Company is across the street from the old Spencer High School. George Washington Carver, the famous botanist and professor, visited the Huston Company and met with Columbus government, community, and business leaders, both black and white, at Spencer High School.

There is still life that breathes in the walls of those buildings still standing. There is a calling in the wind that beckons forth the story of their origins and the culture of their people and mournfully prays that they not be sacrificed to hard cold rock and cement. Our children must know the struggles, sweat, tears, and lives given for them. They must know their fore parents understood the past and had a vision for a brighter future. Each generation sacrificed to ensure the successful evolution of excellence and achievement. The generations of the 21st century must take their turn.

Today, while a once dismal downtown has come alive, the Magic City lies dormant with its houses and businesses confiscated by city government. The promise of revitalization lies in the shadows like a dream deferred. The barren land waits for seeds of growth to be planted. Historic buildings wait for the streets to be filled with the sounds of children’s laughter, music, and honking car horns. It waits for lofts to house businesses as people cross the Fourth Avenue racial dividing line—some on foot, others by bike—perhaps go white water rafting, to a concert at the River Center, or a play at the Springer Theater, to classes at Columbus State University, or a concert at the Civic Center, or for softball at South Commons, ice skating, or a hockey game.

I envision a vibrant “Magic City.” As Fourth Avenue gave way to Veterans Parkway, so does a door open to a multi-purpose work/play environment with green space, lofts, homes, and entertainment. With proper nurturing, the Liberty District can once again rise like the Phoenix and grow strong like Uptown Columbus. It will complement Uptown Columbus as it did in the past.

Still, it has its own history to tell. It has an origin and a culture to preserve so that it may once again become a place where the history of people of color can be proudly displayed and shared. I have a responsibility to preserve the past and impart knowledge to a younger generation that they too might add to and share a rich legacy! We all share this responsibility to build for the future by honoring the past. It is my passion to make this happen.

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