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Danville, Virginia Celebrates Its History as a Mecca of Black Business

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North Union Street in Danville, VA has been an overlooked gem of history and culture for decades.. A recent national grant opportunity will shine a spotlight on the area to the tune of $150,000.

The grant that will provide rehabilitation funds for reconstruction and improvements was originally going to be directed toward one of the many other historic sites in Danville, such as the High Street Baptist Church.

Cashiers conduct business with customers at First State Bank on Union Street in Danville. Contributed photo from History United

After some research and analysis, including a building-by-building site review, the choice was made to make the push to put Union Street properties 206 and 208 up for the national voting campaign. It was Union Street’s storied history as a mecca of black business and cultural prosperity and growth that helped it gain enough momentum to secure the votes needed.

A woman works in the safe of First State Bank on Union Street in Danville. Contributed photo from History United

“The $150,000 is great and will definitely be very helpful for what needs to happen there. It’s also going to take additional investments,” Schwartz stated.

Emma Edmunds is one of the historians with History United who helped coordinate the campaign in conjunction with the city. She along with Karice Luck helped research and market the street’s history and potential.

“I’ve been working on the civil rights movement in Danville, and there’s a lot of it that’s centered on Union Street,” Edmunds commented.

She identified the headquarters of the Danville affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where many of the demonstrations and protest movements were coordinated, as being located on Union Street. There was also a doctor’s building that housed offices of black doctors and dentists. Other cultural entities like a movie theater and restaurants were found there, as well.

First State Bank, founded in 1919 on Union Street in Danville, remained for decades as Virginia’s only surviving black-owned bank. Contributed photo by History United

Additionally, the historic First State Bank founded in 1919 remained for decades as Virginia’s only surviving black-owned bank.

Bankers there were known for bailing out jailed protestors during the civil rights movement and for being openly critical of the racist and segregationist quality of life in the community.“I think Union Street represents for African-Americans this amazing entrepreneurship and initiative during a time that was during segregation,” Edmunds commented.

Edmunds remarked that the preservation of such an area would be an asset for the community in its representation and respect for the city’s history and particularly the contribution to that history of African-Americans.

“There aren’t many cities that I know of where they have so much of that African-American historic business district intact physically,” she stated.

The Merritt Building on Union Street once housed offices of dentists and doctors, a large room for dances and events (top floor), a drug store/pharmacy (street level) and the office of the civil rights groups during the 1963 movement (street level). Contributed photo from History United

Making sure the stories of all the buildings and the people who passed through Union Street are preserved can help foster growth for the future, too.“I think you can tell a lot about the present and understand the present better by understanding some of the past of Danville,” Edmunds said. “I think all African-American children should know about it.”

Luck likewise agrees. Her research produced previous tenants in the building located at 206 and 208 Union St. as including a shoe maker and repair shop in 1906, a billiards parlor in the 1920s, a barbershop and later a furniture store in the 1950s and most recently a shoe shine shop in the 1960s to 1970s.

In Luck’s view, First State Bank is arguably the greatest cultural prize of the neighborhood for its nearly 100 year history. Beyond being a pillar for the community, it was one of the only sources of loans for black community members allowing them to purchase houses. Yet every block on the street has history worth preserving, she said.

“North Union Street has so much rich history, even the buildings have a story to tell,” Luck stated. “Once the tobacco warehouse district, decades later it became the center of black businesses.”In the 1920s, workers at the large Dan River Fabrics mill on Memorial Drive would pass through Union Street to reach food and commerce destinations it offered.

The street also managed to sustain business operations while much of the rest of downtown Danville fell into economic decline. The street also is home to one of the oldest stores in Danville still in operation, Abe Koplen Clothing.

The grant, which is funded by American Express in conjunction with Main Street America, Delta Airlines and National Geographic, will see to it that as much as possible of the site is restored and repaired without replacing. The buildings will be leased, but the future tenants have not been announced yet. Interest is developing but first much work is to be completed by the grant’s summer 2019 deadline.

 

Source: GoDanRiver.com

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