The only way this counts as an interesting picture is if you use Andy Warhol’s definition of a successful photograph: In focus, and of someone famous. Wynton Marsalis, performing here in Savannah tonight as part of a local music festival, spoke at a brief ceremony for the unveiling of a plaque in honor of King Oliver, who died here. The event was at 514 MLK Blvd. — which used to be West Broad Street, and, apparently, was the center of jazz activity here at one time. This is what I gathered at the presentation, anyway. A number of older local musicians were on hand. I have to say, Marsalis was impressively gracious. Plus he wore an excellent suit.
I ran into our friend John Stoehr, a writer for the local paper, at the envent; he was shooting a bit of hand-held video that he posted on his blog.
King Oliver died here in Savannah in 1938, and the adjective that is invariably used to describe his condition at that time is “penniless.” Words like “unknown” or “obscure” often get used as well. I believe he died at 408 Montgomery Street, although the paper says 308 Montgomery.
One of the interesting things about the Marsalis appearance was the attendance of a handful of older guys who were apparently local jazz players here back in the day. We’ve only lived here since October, but it was news to me that there was any local history like that at all, frankly.
Stoehr also posted this bit regarding another speaker at the event, a man named Walter Evans. He’s a local businessman involved in redeveloping Savannah’s MLK Blvd. “It would not have been unusual for someone like King Oliver to have settled in this area, because this is where all the entertainment was,” Evans remarked. Apparently making the area an “entertainment center” again is part of his thinking.
Another Savannah Morning News writer, Bill Dawers, later wrote about West Broad Street vs. MLK, noting that “I don’t recall any of the half dozen or so speakers use the street’s current name, Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard.” He continued:
From the conversations I have had with longtime Savannahians — white and black — there clearly would be broad support for changing the name back to West Broad Street.
However, none of the people I spoke with wanted to be quoted on that.
The current name is certainly an honor to Dr. King and an acknowledgement of the importance of the civil rights movement in Savannah and in the country as a whole.
But losing the identity of West Broad Street also had the effect of cutting the strip off to some degree from its storied history.
West Broad Street was laid out by General Oglethorpe. It was the first paved street in the city. It was the home to the train station where thousands upon thousands of immigrants and visitors got their first views of Savannah.
West Broad Street was the cultural center for black Savannah — with black-owned banks and other businesses, movie theaters, jazz clubs, churches, doctors and pharmacies. (As a child, Johnny Mercer even sneaked over to West Broad Street to hear records by black singers that he couldn’t find anywhere else.)
The Web site for the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum includes this interesting tidbit: “According to [Savannah civil rights leader W.W.] Law, West Broad Street was once known as the Wall Street of black America because of the number of banks located on it.”
Some cite integration as a factor in the decline of traditionally black business districts, but I think there was a much bigger culprit in the decades-long decline of West Broad.
The destruction of the train station, the removal of the trolley, the rise of the automobile, the advent of suburban living and the creation of the Interstate 16 flyover doomed any businesses that were created to meet the needs of a densely populated urban environment.
Here is an earlier set of Savannah, GA, MLK BLVD images.