Jefferson Street Commercial Historic District

jefferson street

Brownsville’s history, for the most part, has been shaped by the relationship between the local white and black community.   The town’s pre-Civil War past was defined by cotton and the role plantation slavery played in the success of the industry.  In 1860, over sixty-percent of Haywood County’s population was black, the overwhelming majority slaves.  The end of slavery ushered in new relationships, with cotton at the center.

In 1909 Booker T. Washington delivered a speech in Brownsville’s city square as part of his tour of the state.  He encouraged those in the African American community to establish their own businesses.  A chief proponent of the New South, Washington spurred the growth of African American identity in Brownsville that over the following decades saw the birth of black-owned businesses in the community.

Racial segregation dominated the lives of blacks throughout the South from the late 19th century to the mid-1960s.  Brownsville was no different.  Jim Crow laws made it legal for white businesses to refuse service to African American citizens and to create separate public institutions, such as schools and hospitals.  In Brownsville, a curfew existed every night where the town’s black citizens were ordered off the streets after 10 p.m., and African Americans could only shop downtown on Saturday.

The buildings on E. Jefferson Street and Jackson Avenue southeast of the public square were home to the segregated businesses serving the African American community.  During the 1920s, the newly constructed commercial buildings housed black owned businesses, such as restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, pharmacies, barber and beauty shops, offices and a funeral home.  Between 1940 and 1960, the African American entertainment district extended across E. Main Street, north on Jackson Avenue to include the Gem Theater, owned by African American businessman Charles Allen Rawls.

Hardin Smith – Woodlawn Baptist
Haywood Street
Golden Circle Insurance Company