Off Main Street:  Black Space, Agency, and Community Building in the Jim Crow South

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a three part series by Kirin Makker exploring Black community building in rural towns during the Jim Crow era. You can find Part II here and Part III here.

By Kirin Makker

Dating back to mid-twentieth century, Americans have held a nostalgic view of their small towns and Main Streets, regularly depicted as ‘fair’ spaces. This association is the reason “Main Street” was pitted against “Wall Street” both during the Occupy Movement, and decades before, during 1930s labor fights between railroad workers and owners.[1]  Main Street functions as a trope for the space of the 99%, the everyday citizen’s path to the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A place where everything one needs in terms of social, civic, professional, economic, and spiritual support can be attained: consumer goods, hair and beauty establishments, church, a beer or a meal, a chat with the mayor or civic elders, entertainment, bank loans, education, health care, funeral services, and communications—from the U.S. Mail to telegraph stations to telephone booths.

Through daily participation in the Main Street space and the conversation, society, and communal membership it offered, small town America enfranchised its rural citizens. But we know there is much to question about this rosy image because the period that witnessed America’s small town boom was concurrent with the specter of Jim Crow’s ascent.[2] Between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression, as white wealth fueled the prosperous commercial and industrial development of villages and towns across the nation, white American leadership adopted laws and policies across the country that suppressed access to those spaces by people based on racist concepts of fitness. As practiced, this was legal and institutionalized racism. To Black, Indigenous, Asian, and recent immigrants who did not fit standards of whiteness, Main Street was not a universally accessible space of opportunity. These individuals largely had to produce livelihoods through their own agency. They became sellers, consumers, and makers of goods and services, and cultivated their own social capital to ensure their survival and prosperity. 

African Americans on the main street of Roxboro, North Carolina. Jack Delano, 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Southern Blacks were the largest group of American citizens excluded from the enfranchisement of Main Street during its heyday. Throughout the rural South, only one day a week provided Black people real access to Main Street and that was Saturday, so called “Black peoples’ day.” This market day for Black families was a Jim Crow practice institutionalize by whites, meant to control how and when Black people moved through urban space. Often Saturday night was dangerous. The corridors behind main shopping areas came to be known as Death Alleys due to the many stabbings, beatings, and murders of Black people by whites which occurred in these alleyways. White control over temporal and physical access to urban space, even with Black owned businesses located in the area, served as a means to emphasize White supremacy over everything the urban realm represented—economic, political, and social power. Additionally, the practice of limiting access to those spaces to a single day each week enabled whites to monitor how Black people engaged with such spaces. Whites controlled the kind of surveillance they could do, and when and how it happened.[3] 

Logistically, this meant that Black people had to micromanage their trips to Main Street with extra care. Most of what was on offer in terms of food, water, and public facilities were for whites only. If there was no black restaurant in town, visitors had to pack all their day’s provisions and hope they could find a place to relieve themselves when the time came. Travel by white-owned ‘public’ transportation was always a gamble; many Black folks were forced to walk into town from their farms. Finally, once downtown, where and how Black people were served was restricted by whoever owned the business (Black or White). “You could shop,” says Theresa Lyons of Durham, North Carolina, “but if you walked up and a white person walked up later, they waited on the white person first. I mean, it was just a known that you weren’t going to get waited on. Even when I knew that [something] was it, no matter how bad I wanted it, I wouldn’t buy it. I would leave.”[4]

Officially, every sort of facility, from restaurants to water fountains to barber shops, could be controlled through state and local Jim Crow laws. These statutes restricted Black use of public and private facilities between roughly 1880-1965. The first 35 years of this period were small town America’s most prosperous. As brick and mortar storefronts flew up, new businesses opened, Main Street solidified into one of the country’s most ubiquitous and iconographic cultural landscapes. Yet it was an exclusive place coded in Whiteness that used laws to maintain white power. If you were black, it was illegal for you to walk into a library and check out a book in Texas; play pool with a friend in Alabama; bury your relative in Georgia near the graves of whites; make a phone call in a phone booth in Oklahoma; or go to the theater in Virginia.[5] 

These are just a few of these types of statutes. State laws like these, as well as those passed by counties and local municipalities, severely restricted Black citizens’ access to small town America. In some states, such as Mississippi, racial segregation was deeply embedded in everyday life—so much so that the state had fewer official Jim Crow laws on the books. The racial code, enforced through laws or ingrained through racist habit, separated Blacks from Whites in all kinds of spaces meant for social gatherings, including weddings, funerals, public facilities, courtrooms, and the many businesses of Main Street such as restaurants, stores, banks, beauty salons and barbers. Any white business owner could put up a sign excluding Blacks. Compounded with other forms of systemic racism and racial terror casually practiced by white landlords, business owners, and community members, the space of Main Street was often hostile in its exclusion, reinforced segregation, and reinforced white privilege and supremacy.    

Main Street in Crawford, Texas, Carol M. Highsmith, 2014, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This history conjures a chilling reality-check to the romance popularly associated with Main Street. Laws on the books during the period show that as small town America entered its most economically and culturally prosperous period, Black people were excluded, harassed, policed, and assaulted on all fronts—political, social, educational, and economic—by policies and people trafficking in white privilege and power navigating white space. Self-enfranchisement was largely achieved through the cultivation and production of Black space. This space was both physical, in the form of town districts, and social, in the form of networks supported by collective organizing, all of which helped ensure access to economic and social basic needs, opportunity, and security. Within cities, there were Black business districts and organizations that helped to support them such as the Negro Business League, started by Booker T. Washington in 1900. There were all-Black towns, such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and Eatonville, Florida, both founded in 1887; novelist Zora Neale Hurston was born in the latter. Finally, there were general “uplift,” member-based organizations that offered a variety of financial, health, and educational services and social opportunities to the rural and scattered Black farmers in the South. These included churches, mutual benefit organizations, newspapers, and fraternal orders.

Small town America isn’t and never was a space of possibility and prosperity, of fairness, offering a fair shot at the American Dream for all Americans. Despite this, African Americans found ways to prosper, even at the height of Jim Crow. Despite impositions and threats of violence, they still made trips to town to do business. Overwhelming discrimination did not discourage Black people from fighting for their own space, economic opportunity, and social capital. Often creative, socialist, and entrepreneurial, these projects and programs were supported with shoe-string budgets, hard work, self-reliance, and community spirit. They figuratively crafted space for black Americans on Main Street when Jim Crow did not. 


Kirin Makker is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. An interdisciplinary scholar and artist, she teaches, writes, and creatively explores histories of community, space, and power. She is currently working on two major projects: a participatory arts and activism piece called The Womb Chair Speaks (www.wombchairspeaks.net), and a 200-year history of planning and preservation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for the Library of American Landscape History. Her Instagram (@kirinmakker) is the best way to see what she and her students are making and her linktree (https://linktr.ee/kirinmakker) will lead to more about her other projects and free downloads.

Featured image (at top): “National Negro Business League Executive Committee,” Bain News Service, circa 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


My research at the Texas Collection archives at Baylor University was funded by the Wardlaw Fellowship Fund and I am grateful to that family and the Collection for their generous support. 

[1] Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, Main Street, not Wall Street: A Reply to the Railroads’ Demands for a Wage Reduction, (Cleveland: Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, 1938), https://hdl.handlenet/2027/mdp.39015021131076. During his 2008 Presidential election, President Obama repeatedly referred to Main Street as a location where Americans could get a ‘fair shot and their fair share’ of the American dream. 

[2] The 1880, 1890, and 1900 Censuses deemed places “urban” if they had minimum population sizes of 8,000, 4,000, and 2,500 inhabitants. Beginning in 1910, the minimum population threshold to be categorized as an urban place was set at 2,500. “Urban” was defined as including all territory, persons, and housing units within an incorporated area that met the population threshold. The 1920 census marked the first time in which over 50 percent of the United Sates population was defined as urban.

[3] Raymond Gavins and Robert Korstad, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. (United Kingdom: New Press, 2011), 308. Curtis Lee Wilburn, interviewed by James M. SoRelle and Bettie Beard, Oct. 27, 1984, in Waco, Texas, Baylor University Institute for Oral History, wacohistory.org/files/show/1323.

[4] William H. Chafe, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (New York: New Press, 2001), 2. 

[5] National Park Service, “Jim Crow Laws – Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park (U.S. National Park Service)” https://www.nps.gov/malu/learn/education/jim_crow_laws.htm, Apr.l 17, 2018. Women, of course, were also significantly constrained by oppressive forces in laws and social customs. This essay will not parse out the unique struggles of women under misogyny. 

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