Redevelopment threatens historic black community in Bowling Green

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Brittiny Moore

The sun sets on vacant buildings and dilapidated homes that now rest along the north end of State Street in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The area known as the Shake Rag Historic District – once a bustling section of town and a thriving African American community – is desolate and laden with the tarnish of edifices that have long sat unused. To the farthest north extent of the district, the Southern Queen Hotel, although closed, still stands with white tables and chairs sitting idly on the wrap-around porch. Across the street, the old State Street High School gymnasium, once serving an all-black school, stands as a blemished brick structure that is now empty on the inside. On the same street sits 136 State St., the home of sisters Vivian and Harriet “Baby Love” Hampton.

The Hampton sisters, 80 and 82, were born and raised in the Bowling Green Shake Rag community that is nestled between the Bowling Green’s downtown area and the River Front. They once lived in a house with their mother on 2nd Avenue, but were asked to relocate during early redevelopment efforts in the 1960s by the City of Bowling Green. Grave Gilberts Clinic and The Medical Center at Bowling Green now sit where their mother’s home used to be.

The sisters sat on their covered porch, joined by long-time friend, Marvin Young Jr., 64 of Bowling Green, watching the sun slip behind the horizon as they reminisced about crowded football games and dances on every block of the street. The group have all lived in Shake Rag their entire lives.

“It was packed every night,” Young said of State Street before city redevelopments.

“It was rockin’ wasn’t it?” Vivian Hampton added.

On the opposite side of the north end of State Street, a plot of land rests unoccupied, except for a developed foundation. Three or four black households were demolished to make way for more development that was never followed through, Harriet “Baby Love” Hampton said.

The group now sit on their State Street, covered porch every night watching their neighborhood disappear, a neighborhood that hasn’t been the same for the sisters and Young since Bowling Green’s urban renewal plan, Young said.

Much of Shake Rag has been banished by a succession of urban renewal and gentrification attempts – resulting in the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses that were once a part of this historic black neighborhood. Now as part of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district, that includes downtown Bowling Green, the already nearly gutted neighborhood continues to be wrought by redevelopment that may eliminate it entirely.

Founded on land donated for use as an African American public square, the Shake Rag district, named for the women who would shake their “rags” on laundry day, was developed by black members of Bowling Green in 1802. The community began on 201 State St., also known as Lee Square, and quickly expanded with the construction of the State Street Baptist Church in 1873, the State Street High School in 1885 and the State Street Southern Queen Hotel in 1906.

The Shake Rag community grew after the Civil War and by the 1940s residents were sustaining their own businesses, including a “colored” health clinic and beauty shops, to be used by the black community and black travelers during Kentucky’s racial segregation. According to the African American Museum in Bowling Green, Bowling Green and Warren County began to flourish in the beginning of the 20th century with access to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad making the town a major commercial stop between Louisville and Nashville. The booming city began to develop, including the African American community, which at the time comprised 23 percent of the Bowling Green population.

Another black community, Jonesville, was founded by free slaves in 1881 after the civil war as a housing community for the black population of Bowling Green, according to documents from the Kentucky Museum Archives. Jonesville, a community that paralleled the life in Shake Rag, was replaced during an expansion of Western Kentucky University; and like Jonesville, Shake Rag is slowly disappearing without a promise for survival as part of the Bowling Green TIF district and continued urban renewal plans.

Similar redevelopment efforts began to target the Shake Rag, too. The land where Shake Rag was developed became increasingly desirable due to its proximity to the U.S. 31-W Bypass. Developed in the 1940s, the Bypass attracted business and slowly began to grow into a commercial strip of road.

Maxine Ray, a Bowling Green historian and co-founder of the African American Museum, remembers growing up in her large wood frame home in the Jonesville community. The community was very close knit and every Sunday morning the pastor would ring the bell in the church tower at 9 a.m., Ray said. By 9:15 a.m. everyone in Jonesville would walk to church together.

“To us, it was the perfect place to be,” Ray said. “It was home to everybody.”

Named after Grandma Jones, a large property owner in the area, 65 shotgun homes with large yards were established in Jonesville. The community prospered, developing resident owned businesses, apartments for black students and Mount Zion Baptist Church. According to Ray, approximately 4,500 black home owners lived in Jonesville.

During the 1950s the Urban Renewal Commission designated the Jonesville area, 30 acres of land where Western Kentucky University’s Diddle Arena and L.T. Smith Stadium are now located, for urban renewal. Homes situated in Jonesville were classed as sub-standard housing and were set for removal.
According to the documents, 41 non-white families were displaced during the 1950s after the Jonesville area was purchased by the city of Bowling Green to be sold to WKU. Most of the home owners did not receive fair value for the purchase of their homes, and some struggled to relocate. Money was low for most families during times of segregation, and the older generation, like Ray’s grandmother, had no jobs, making it harder to obtain loans to buy new houses, Ray said.

“You thinking, during that time it was 55, 60’s, and integration had not reached Bowling Green,” Ray said. “You couldn’t walk into bank because you were black.

“It was just terrible,” Ray added.

The Jonesville community members fought for the retention of their property, and although the community supported the university, feelings of mistreatment were felt and ultimately the community was torn apart, Ray said.

“It wasn’t a community anymore,” Ray said.

By the 1960s, the Shake Rag district and its location near the Bypass, and the L & N Railroad, became an area of interest for further commercial development. According to Manuscripts & Folklife Archives at the Kentucky Library & Museum at Western Kentucky University, State Street became designated as a federal highway, and the neighborhood soon became intermixed with small industrial and commercial structures. The most significant development, one that would drastically change and decrease the community, was the relocation of The Medical Center of Bowling Green and Graves Gilbert Clinic into the area.

The shelves of the library were lined with black and red binders engraved with gold foil letters that each read Bowling Green Planning Commission. Several printed maps rested on the wood table, surrounded by large maroon chairs. According to Rachel Hurt, planner for the Bowling Green Planning Commission, Shake Rag is recognized nationally as a historic site, but this recognition carries no weight when making local development plans. The black fitbit on Hurt’s wrist slouched down her arm as she pointed out the Shake Rag district, contained inside the red-dashed border lines of the TIF district, on one of her many maps.

The remaining remnants of Shake Rag are now encompassed in an area designated as the Shake Rag Historical District. The district was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2000 as a result of work for nomination by a group of folk studies graduate students at WKU. Although a historical district, Shake Rag receives no protection in the preservation of what remains of the historical black community.

“There is nothing to prevent anyone from redeveloping the entire area,” Hurt said. “Nothing prevents anyone from demolishing the entire block.”

Hurts voiced echoed in the nearly empty library as she described the city’s desire to redevelop city areas currently in disrepair.

“The hope is for new businesses to get downtown going again,” Hurt said. “The vision is to connect River Front and campus and make downtown a destination and restore the energy.”

Placing her left hand on a large white binder containing the guidelines for redevelopment in the TIF district, an area that encompasses all of Shake Rag, Hurt explained that the downtown revitalization has been a continual learning process, and while certain plans have provided obstacles overall the vision is coming together “one block at a time.”

Anticipated redevelopment of the Shake Rag neighborhood has gained the attention of historic preservationists, including the New Era Planning Association, who have made attempts to protect the remaining fragments of African American history in Bowling Green. The organization has concerns of homes and long-term businesses being purchased, demolished and replaced by new businesses and expanding medical facilities. If the community vanishes, the values of the neighborhood will also be lost.

“It’s like taking a sledge hammer to the community when the government starts new programs,” said Dr. Pam Johnson, professor for the School of Broadcasting and Journalism at WKU and co-founder of the Bowling Green’s African American Museum. “The community breaks up.”

Like Jonesville, Shake Rag is slowly disappearing and will soon be gone, Johnson said. Ray also believes in the possibility of Shake Rag finding the same fate as Jonesville.

“It’s not the Shake Rag that it was,” Ray said. “It would worry me if I was there.

“But, if it does, like Jonesville, we will keep the memory of it alive.”

Johnson blames the lack of an African American voice in Bowling Green for the dismantlement of both historic communities.

“If you don’t have that voice, then you don’t have anyone to say it isn’t right,” Johnson said. “It happens to black communities all over.

“When you don’t have enough black leaders, it’s hard to have control.”

Johnson said it takes the presence of all economic levels in a community in order for the community to thrive, unbroken. Unfortunately, for many historic black communities, an abundance of economic diversity didn’t exist, making it easier for governments to buy land and force residents to relocate.

“What do they care of a little square, ugly building in a field,” Johnson said. “They just follow the money.”

Life in the Shake Rag had prized the values of school, family and church and in some ways it still does.

The State Street Baptist Church serves Shake Rag’s remaining residents as a community center. Many of the church’s members still travel to the church from surrounding cities.

At the southern end of State Street, stands the massive brick structure known as the State Street Baptist Church. The years are vivid on the faded brick and discolored white paneling. A concrete sign is placed at the front of the building, etched with “First Colored Baptist Church,” the church’s original name.

On a recent Sunday, inside the church, the morning light shown through the stained-glass windows, painting the pews with bright purples, blues and yellows. The green, leafy upholstery of the wooden pews shimmered in the sunlight patiently waiting for congregation members to fill the chapel. To add to the shine, golden chandeliers are strung from the tall, wood paneled ceiling and dangled high above the chapel.

Church members congregate in the hall outside of the chapel where they can greet other members as they walk through the door. They greet with embraces and speak to one another as though they have spent many Sunday mornings together.

Members trickle into the chapel, sparsely filling their seats, after they have met even the new comers to the church. Younger member dressed mostly in jeans and button-ups, older members in dresses and suits. Children wrestled in the pews and women applied last-minute make-up.

The chapel becomes alive as members begin to sing from the pews, “lord have mercy, have mercy on me.” Others join in praise and the church erupts into a choir of the old fashion hymn. Shouts of support and encouragement continue to ring out. “Sing it, sister,” is heard over the singing voices.

A call for worship begins from a member of the congregation. “Amen,” a member shouts. “Thank the Lord,” is heard in response.

“Father we want to thank you for letting us come out to worship one more time,” is the line shouted that receives the greatest praise.

The church seems to be a pinnacle of the Shake Rag community, yet the pews in the chapel are emptier than anticipated here, in a church in a neighborhood that is also emptier than it once was.

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