Black businesses once thrived here. Is a revival coming?

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GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) – There wasn’t much reason to leave the neighborhood. That’s what people remember about Soria City, one of Gulfport’s historic Black communities, during the mid-20th century.

There was a taxi stand, a hotel, a movie theater and a laundromat. There were restaurants, nightclubs and grocery stores, nestled among bungalows, churches and schools.

One of the grocery stores stood at 1801 Kelly Avenue. People called it the Broadmoor, for the adjacent neighborhood, which was all-white. Members of both communities shopped at the store just on the border of the two neighborhoods.

Today, the two-story building at 1801 Kelly Ave. appears to stand empty, a symbol of the decline of American mom-and-pop commerce, including in Soria City, since the 1970s.

But when Ronnie Matthew Harris looks at 1801 Kelly, he imagines a future not unlike Soria City’s vibrant past. Harris, who grew up in the neighborhood, bought the property in 2019. He’s now talking with community members about what they would like to see there – it might become a cafe, a bed and breakfast, or some other kind of “third place,” where people can gather outside of work and home.

“This will not be a successful campaign or project if all that happens is that I gather enough resources to develop my property,” he said. “This will be successful by the extent to which it is a catalyst for development on Kelly and moreover, a catalyst for transforming worldview perspectives in this neighborhood that’s been hurting.”

For Harris, the project he calls “reStore the Broadmoor” is a chance to do good in the neighborhood where he was born and raised, where residents have been advocating for years for more recreation spaces for children and small businesses like the ones that defined Soria City a generation or two ago.

It’s also a lens on the past and possible futures of two historic Gulfport communities.

THE BIRTH OF ‘GULFPORT’S HARLEM’

Soria City’s history begins in 1901, when the land was purchased by a lumber executive named J.R. Pratt. He and business associates A. L. Thornton and J.R. Hill divided it into lots, and three of the neighborhood’s streets are named for them.

But the real estate developers were not in the business of construction. People who bought the lots mostly built their own homes, bungalows and shotgun houses common on the Coast. With Turkey Creek, founded by formerly enslaved people in 1866, and The Quarters a mile west, Soria City became one of Gulfport’s Black neighborhoods.

While construction was booming in Soria City by the mid-1920s, a new planned community was opening just across Kelly Avenue to the east. The Broadmoor Place subdivision was hailed as “modern” when the houses went up for sale in 1925, for purchase by whites only.

The neighborhood became a suburb for Gulfport’s white professional class, including lawyers, doctors and government employees. (One such employee was Harmon R. Johnston, an entomologist who became a world-renowned expert in protecting lumber products from infestation by insects, particularly the ambrosia beetle.)

Under residential segregation, many white-owned companies in the South refused to operate in Black neighborhoods. Small, independent Black-owned businesses of every kind thrived across the region.

Soria City was no exception. In 1947, it was home to eight different grocery stores and meat markets. The neighborhood’s nightclubs drew jazz and blues musicians who were traveling the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of establishments where Black residents could hear performances from some of the country’s greatest artists, like Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton.

“I characterize it as Gulfport’s Harlem, where the who’s who lived, worked and played,” Harris said.

BLACK BUSINESS OWNERS, BLACK ACTIVISTS

Most Black Southerners worked for white businesses or families, and risked being fired and blacklisted if they participated in civil rights protests or organizing. But independent business owners didn’t have that concern. They could afford to lead and financially support civil rights demonstrations.

Today, Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr. is well-remembered as the physician who led the wade-in demonstrations that led to the desegregation of the Coast’s beaches. But he also owned a Biloxi pharmacy.

“Pharmacists represented an economically independent class of black businessmen who might have been thought difficult for the white establishment to control,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Before beginning the wade-ins, Mason and several Gulfport activists drafted a petition seeking beach access. After the petition was finished, they held a mass meeting at a field in Soria City, where attendees voted to present the document to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.

GROWING UP IN SORIA CITY

Harris was born in 1969, just a few months before Hurricane Camille. He rode out the storm not two blocks from the Broadmoor, where the owner – a white man named Louis P. Doleac, whom everyone called Buddy or Mr. Buddy – was staying with his son.

Percy E. McClendon Sr., 60, remembers it as a place where kids respected every parent in the neighborhood.

“After school, get your homework done, after that, go to the park, play ball ’til dark, the lights come on, head to the house,” McClendon said.

“Everybody kind of knew your name,” Harris said. “And if they didn’t know your name they would say, ‘Boy, who is your people?’”

The Broadmoor grocery store was part of the close-knit community. Harris’s aunt remembered Doleac’s wife giving her a piece of candy when she couldn’t afford it. McClendon worked there as a teenager, sweeping the floors and restocking the drinks.

Because of the location between Soria City and Broadmoor, there were “a good variety of people coming in and out of the store,” he said.

Venus Espey, who was born in 1971, remembers specifically the lemon cookies and the hard bubble gum she and other kids would buy at the Broadmoor.

“We all would walk to the store in the neighborhood and buy some candy, cookies, before it was time to go home, because we was hot and thirsty after playing at the little park in the center,” she said.

NATIONAL DECLINE IN BLACK-OWNED BUSINESSES

By the time Espey moved home from Chattanooga in 2010, the neighborhood was transformed. The Broadmoor, which had survived Camille and withstood Katrina, never reopened after the latter storm. The businesses had closed.

The city closed the community center that gave Soria City kids a place to get homework help and play games after school.

Espey’s two kids had a very different upbringing in Soria City.

“They didn’t have a playground to go to out here,” she said. “I felt that, you know, it was safer for them to just play in the yard or play in the house where I could see them.”

The loss of independent businesses, and the sense of a close-knit community, is in part a national story. The rise of suburban sprawl, development designed for drivers, and the strength of superstores like Wal-Mart (and now e-commerce giants like Amazon) have squeezed small, neighborhood establishments for decades now.

Businesses by and for Black Americans have been particularly hard-hit, in part because the end of segregation allowed Black people to move to other neighborhoods.

East Biloxi’s Main Street was home to a famous movie theater, barber shop and cafes that drew Black tourists who could find places to stay nearby in “The Negro Motorists Green Book.” Those establishments began to decline in the 1970s, and today Main Street has just a handful of shops.

The wealth gap between Black and white Americans is as wide today as it was in the 1960s. Many Black-owned businesses didn’t reappear outside of historic Black neighborhoods, but simply ceased to exist. During the 1980s, there were 50 Black-owned insurance companies. Just two remain today. Even from the late 1990s to 2014, the number of Black employers per capita declined by 12%.

When Harris looks at 1801 Kelly Avenue, this history is top of mind. After attending the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he served in the military, lived abroad, got a master’s degree in community learning and development, and founded the Chicago-based nonprofit Sacred Roots, which focuses on building economic opportunities in marginalized communities of color.

Harris quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking to the actor Harry Belafonte shortly before he was assassinated: “I have come upon something that disturbs me deeply. I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

Harris sees the effects of integration without economic inclusion in Soria City.

“I agree with King that one of the ways, the most effective way in my mind, to respond to the racial inequity, racial tension, and racial violence is to do something about economic isolation,” he said. “Economic isolation: if you respond to that, you respond in a way that I think brings about a radical change, and so that’s what this project is about.”

‘THAT HOUSE STOOD UP’

After Katrina, a team of urban planning students from New York University worked with Soria City residents, including long-time advocate Dorothy McClendon, to come up with ideas for the neighborhood and to try to get funding for new projects. But residents today describe many of the same problems they were dealing with then.

Percy McClendon has spent all but eight of his 60 years living in the community. He has bought, rehabilitated and constructed several properties in the neighborhood, and now he sees other people like Harris taking the same approach.

“We’re trying to bring the community back,” he said. “It’s on a hike right now because other people are seeing what’s going on. I think they are beginning to adopt the process, apply it to their own structures.”

So far, Harris has cleaned up the property and started talking with neighbors and community members about what they would like to see there.

Espey, who went to high school with Harris, found out he had bought the old Broadmoor spot when she drove past while he was working there one day.

“It’ll bring jobs,” she said. “Just to put something up there, I think it’ll bring more income into the neighborhood.”

Other neighbors have been less enthusiastic. Harris said he frequently hears some version of the question, “Why don’t you tear it down?”

“I know the feeling relates to, it’s just been in such disrepair for so long,” he said. “So I get it.”

Still, he is optimistic. Amtrak could return passenger rail to the Coast as early as next year, bringing more visitors to Gulfport in search of walkable destinations.

And Soria City and the Broadmoor boast proximity to the beach and hundreds of historic homes in distinctive local styles. Those assets would make them desirable neighborhoods almost anywhere in the country.

When the building survived Hurricane Zeta with minimal roof damage, Harris felt vindicated. One of the people who had suggested demolishing 1801 Kelly passed by the day after the storm.

“He said, ‘That house stood up!’” Harris recalled. “Yes she did, yes she did.”

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