Title image: "Downtown"

Various photos of the Downtown Retail District in Columbus, Georgia as featured in "Columbus, Georgia": The Place with the Power and the Push.

As early as the 1850s, Columbus had four known businesses involved in the sale of enslaved people; two - Harrison and Pitts, and Hatcher and McGehee - had slave depots located on Broadway [1]. Broadway and the surrounding downtown area were the heart of business in the growing city of Columbus, and the sale of enslaved people was a lucrative trade.  In 1858, documents show that the sale of enslaved people at depots located at 59 and 61 Broad Street amounted to $102,000 [2]. Post WWII, businessmen envisioned the downtown area as a profitable shopping center, where restaurants, and entertainment venues flourished. However, the rise of the shopping mall in the 1970s led to a decline in business in Downtown Columbus, and efforts were made to restore the area [3]. Today, ‘Uptown Columbus’ is a thriving entertainment center, and the development of Columbus State University’s Uptown campus has escalated the ‘rebirth’ of the area [4]


Postcard of 1011 Broadway

Exhibition Item

Prior to desegregation, most of Columbus’ Black-owned businesses, patronized by the Black community, were located south of the downtown area. Because of this, we can assume that the downtown area, chiefly Broadway, was populated with businesses owned by and for the white population of Columbus. After desegregation, patronization of the black-owned businesses declined as more of the Black population began shopping at these downtown businesses [5]. While people of all statuses and backgrounds now enjoy the dining, entertainment, and shopping available on Broadway, the street has been, and remains, a gathering place to recognize and battle inequality. In 1975, the Spencer High School Band marched on Broadway and 12th Street in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; they carried signs with them with quotes from Dr. King about injustice [6]. In 2020, Broadway was where multiple Black Lives Matter marches were held [7].

The structure at the corner of 11th Street and Broadway, now called the Iron Bank Coffee Company, has been there since before the Civil War. Construction paused during the Civil War and was completed after its end [8]. In the early 1900s, the building functioned as the First National Bank of Columbus. The bank was nicknamed “the white bank” due to its white fabrication on the front. Today, part of the original vaults remain preserved in the building, while it functions as a coffee house [9].

Liberty District

Page 2 from Columbus Georgia: The Place with the Power and the Push features a map of Downtown Columbus, Georgia, Bibb City, Georgia and Girard and Phenix City Alabama. It lists and locates 1. Post Office, 2. Court House Square, 3. Church Square, 4. City Market, 5. Y.M.C.A., 6. Library, 7. City Wharves (Head of Navigation), 8. Dillingham Bridge, 9. 14th Street Bridge. The map also features sections of Columbus, Georgia entitled "Beallwood", "Rose Hill", "East Highlands", "Wynnton".

Columbus’ Liberty District was the center of black entertainment, with the Liberty Theatre, opening in 1924, being the heart of the neighborhood. The Liberty saw many famous performers pass through its doors, such as Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Columbus’ very own, Ma Rainey. As a result of segregation, the community grew around the theater, seeing a rise in black businesses and homes. The neighborhood the district covers began as the East Commons, which housed black workers who supplied materials for the Civil War. However, the area would not become known as a Liberty District until the 1990s [10].

The district saw years of prosperity as Black people moved to enjoy the same opportunities Jim Crow would have denied them in white business districts. In 1917, the first black bank, Laborer’s Savings and Loan, opened under the Sconiers family, who also owns the Sconiers Funeral Home, the oldest black business in Columbus today. The same location is the home of Columbus’ newspaper for the Black population, the Columbus Times [10].

In addition, the community gave black soldiers from Fort Benning a place to feel welcome when stationed at the base.

In a Ledger-Enquirer article, Jerry “Pops” Barnes recalls... 

“When I was stationed here, one of the things that I always heard was the reverence for this area as far as African-American history and heritage is concerned,” he said. “I made it a point, within a week after I got sent here, to come to this area because of the significance of the African- American presence here [11].” 

In 1973, the Liberty Theatre closed, and the people and businesses that made up the community began to leave the area. Desegregation and suburban planning led to businesses and neighborhoods moving outward, drying up both the Downtown and the Liberty District. The theater reopened in 1996 and has remained the heart of the district over the decades despite facing hardships. Today, the city and community members recognize the need to preserve the history of the district. Efforts continue to be made to protect the houses and buildings of those who contributed so much to Columbus' history and culture [10].

A shining example of how architecture can reveal peoples' stories is that of Charlotte Frazier. Charlotte was born in Columbus and was a lifelong advocate for the historical preservation of Black history in our area. Among her work was advocating for preserving the Spencer House, the Liberty Theatre, and The Ma Rainey House (pictured above). Mrs. Frazier's passion for Black history preservation was known statewide when she was awarded the Governor's Award in Humanities in 2004 [12].


[1] Howard, S. (2015, December 4). Reader Seeks Info on Slave Depot in Columbus, GA. Auction Finds https://myauctionfinds.com/2015/12/04/reader-seeks-info-on-slave-depot-in-columbus-ga/

[2] Lassiter, John R. “Muscogiana Vol. 4 Summer Numbers 1 & 2.” Full Text of "Muscogiana 4(1&2) Summer", THE MUSCOGEE GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY, 1993, https://archive.org/stream/Muscogiana412CSU/Muscogiana412CSU_djvu.txt.

[3] Whitehead, Margaret Laney, and Barbara Bogart. City of Progress: A History of Columbus, Georgia. Cosco Press, 1979.

[4] Peebles, Virginia T., and Elizabeth K. Barker. This Place Matters: Columbus, Georgia. Historic Columbus, 2016.

[5] Traylor, A. (2016, May 6). Jim Crow in the City: Spatial Segregation in Columbus, Georgia, 1890-1944.[Master's Thesis, Auburn University]. AUETD. https://etd.auburn.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10415/5193/Jim%20Crow%20in%20the%20City.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

[6] Alexander, A. (January 15, 1975). King Celebrants. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. p A-6.

[7] Gibson, J. (May 31, 2020). Peaceful Protest Held on Broadway in Downtown Columbus. WTVM. https://www.wtvm.com/2020/05/31/peaceful-protest-held-broadway-downtown-columbus/ 

[8] The Columbus Area Bicentennial Committee. (1976). Historic Preservation in Columbus, Georgia: An official publication of the Columbus Area Bicentennial Committee.

[9] Iron Bank Coffee Company. (n.d.). Iron Bank: A history as rich as our coffee. https://ironbankcoffee.com/iron-bank-coffee-history/

[10] Causey, V. E. (2001). The long and winding road: School desegregation in Columbus, Georgia, 1963-1997. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 85(3), 398–434.

[11] James-Johnson, A. (2017, July 13). Memories of bustling black enclave inspire vision for Liberty District’s future. Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, GA). https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/1659F57EB4EC1498.

[12] Historic Columbus. (2021, March 11). Charlotte Frazier: Champion for the preservation of African American resources in Columbus. https://www.historiccolumbus.com/post/charlotte-frazier-champion-for-the-preservation-of-african-american-resources-in-columbus