Once segregated, this Georgia neighborhood finds new life by welcoming new communities

Charlayne Hunter-Gault for the PBS NewsHour


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has a story on how a once-segregated pocket of a small Southern town is making a comeback.

It’s part of our Race Matters series.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The city’s historic African-American business district, known as the Hot Corner, helped foster commerce in a place once steeped in segregation.

Athens native Homer Wilson, who owns a popular barbershop, explains how the Hot Corner developed in the Jim Crow era.

HOMER WILSON, Owner, Wilson’s Styling Shop: It was all-black from — we call it the bottom, all the way down. We’re just black business.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What type of businesses?

HOMER WILSON: Funeral home businesses, dentists, lawyers, motels, you name it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That was essential for the black community, which had few other choices and could not use the then white-only businesses uptown.

Fifty-six years ago, when I was one of first two black students at the University of Georgia, I couldn’t come into Athens and go to a movie theater like this. I couldn’t even take bowling because the bowling alley was here, and it was segregated.

But after flourishing, many Hot Corner businesses moved to malls farther out during the ’70s or died. Homer Wilson held on to his family’s property, home to Wilson’s Soul Food, for three decades.

And then:

This is your place here?

Forty-one-year-old David Eduardo came knocking, in search of a place to rent for his restaurant he calls The World Famous.

DAVID EDUARDO, Owner, The World Famous: The Hot Corner is a great place to do business.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What drew you to it?

DAVID EDUARDO: The fact that there was a restaurant there before that had a strong 30-plus-year run of success was very encouraging. They a had great reputation, and we could only hope to be half as successful as they were.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, you went to Mr. Wilson and said?

DAVID EDUARDO: And begged him for the opportunity to open up shop next door.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what did you think about that, Mr. Wilson, the white boy coming in?

HOMER WILSON: Well, you know, he wasn’t the first one.

(LAUGHTER)

HOMER WILSON: So, we had a lot of great chances to rent it to a lot of people, but David was more persistent.

DAVID EDUARDO: The fact that it is so coveted is not lost on me. I know that with that space comes tremendous responsibility and history. So, we have to be good stewards for the community. I’m very, very happy that the Wilson family gave us the green light.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A green light to gentrification, a turnoff to those who helped build this area, but the spreading of the welcome mat to people from new communities.

DAVID EDUARDO: We have cuisine from everywhere around the world, our live entertainment. On any given night, you can find hip-hop, comedy, singer-songwriters. We want to be a place for everyone, not just anyone.

HOMER WILSON: This end of town is coming back to where it used to be, where we had all this that would go on, on our corner.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Both men agree the Hot Corner, rich in history, good and bad, is a special pace.

HOMER WILSON: There is a spirit that hovers over this place makes things, people mix and mingle different down here than they do other places. This togetherness, it can work if we can learn to supply the right information to people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like what?

HOMER WILSON: It’s all right to be white. It’s all right to be black.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID EDUARDO: Amen.

I would encourage folks to just get out of their comfort zone. Folks from all cultural backgrounds, gender, socioeconomic classes, they gravitate to this side of town. It’s a very welcoming environment, I think.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Where once people were kept from mixing, now the Hot Corner has become a hot spot for all.