Typical Early 20th Century African American Urban Street, Jackson, Mississippi
Typical Early 20th Century African American Urban Section, Jackson, Mississippi
100 Block of Leonard Street, Jackson, Mississippi
Rarely surviving are “historic district” quality, old wood frame dwellings and residential buildings in areas that were historically African American. Segregated by social standards and often even policy, blacks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often located in less desirable areas of urban and semi urban neighborhoods of cities. In the American south, these neighborhoods were often dense clusters of wood frame buildings ranging from shotguns to bungalows. New houses of this sort were often built for sale to families, but even more commonly were “rent houses”—probably owned by upper middle class whites.
While northern and east coast cities often had an upper middle class African American population by the late 19th century, these were few and far between. For instance, in Washington, D.C., it was not unknown for a black government worker and/or tradesman to buy a row house or even rarer freestanding house if in the right neighborhood. This was paramount to settlement and social norms even in more liberal cities.
The images shown in this post depict a section of Jackson, Mississippi—a less liberal town in comparison to larger northeastern cities, but probably more progressive in terms of racial issues than other cities that were not state capitals. Nevertheless, the African Americans of early 20th century certainly had their limitations on where to live and quality of life. North of West Monument Street, and adjacent to Mill Street and one of the larger railroad hubs of Jackson, was an acceptable habitation and/or neighborhoods for blacks, as being close to railroad tracks and industrial areas in southern cities was not necessarily where whites preferred to build their own houses.
We photographed this “court,” Leonard Street (near Mill Street), because of the rare, high degree of physical integrity of the entire street. These houses, probably rentals to begin with, were most probably occupied by African Americans since their construction. The buildings in Leonard Street represent a typical working to middle class bungalow of Mississippi. While not high style in its architectural detail, the buildings are certainly distinctly craftsman. Built just a few feet apart, the houses are situated in a detached row house manner and to suit this arrangement the front-gabled, main roof extends over the front porch—supported by sloping or battered wood on brick plinth supports. Given the national influence of small house types in the craftsman style, a guestimate on date of construction would be as early as 1905 through the 1920s. However, historic records shows that the development of Leonard Street took place in the 1920s. These homes were probably all built by the same specular, contractor, or even, more probably a landlord—as they were all rent houses and still are to this day. Roughly 22 identical bungalows exist today.
The street was designed to be very narrow and to accommodate the maximum number of dwellings, as was intended to maximize the rents. As we would have guessed, the area was always home to an African American population with their business district at the east of Leonard Street, running along Farish Street—some of which has been revitalized or, at least, restored today. Leonard Street housed the usual rental market—working class, in this case black, citizens. For example, at No. 109 Leonard Street, Willis Jones, a 30 yo African American porter at a service station, paid $20 per month in rents for the small house (see photo) that he shared with his 32 yo wife Viola and their 3 yo son Henry. At No. 111, John A. Thomas, a 26 yo African American hotel porter, supported his wife Mary, his mother (also) Mary, and collected rents from a young couple—Frank and Alvina Pickens. Bottled between Mill and Farish Street, in addition to the 22 extant bungalows were several other distinctly individual, small wood frame houses—several extant. At the termination of the like-bungalows, the house numbers increase dramatically. For example, a slightly older and stylistically different house survives at No. 835 Leonard Street—at which, in 1930, was rented for $10 per month to Charley (a laborer for a carpenter) and Mary Bracey—both 21 yo African Americans. With both the 22+ like-bungalows and the dissimilar buildings at the east end of the block, the street accommodated roughly 30 residential buildings and, in 1930, roughly 114 individuals—all African American and most living in houses with at least one boarder, if not, two families.
With no where near that kind of population today, the houses stand relatively in tact. However, while the houses have not been modified, we are sure to say that no one, even in Leonard Street, is paying $18 to $20 in rents today!!!