Memories of bustling black enclave inspire vision for Liberty District’s future

Looking Back: Robert Anderson discusses challenges facing Liberty Theatre

Robert Anderson, chair emeritus of the Liberty Theatre board of directors, talks about some of the challenges facing the theatre in this short video. These are excerpts from the Sunday Interview with Anderson.
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Robert Anderson, chair emeritus of the Liberty Theatre board of directors, talks about some of the challenges facing the theatre in this short video. These are excerpts from the Sunday Interview with Anderson.

The glory days of the Liberty District remain etched in the minds of people who lived, worked and played there.

Tax Commissioner Lula Huff remembers what it was like back in the ’50s and ’60s when the district was a bustling, black enclave with residents, restaurants, professional offices and entertainment.

It was home to the first black United Service Organization in the world, she recalled, and her father started a taxi service to transport black soldiers to and from Fort Benning.

Huff shared those memories at a Liberty District Master Plan Update Meeting held Tuesday at the historic Liberty Theatre on Eighth Avenue. The gathering, which drew about 25 people, was the second of three meetings held this year concerning the district’s future. The first was held May 30 at the Government Center Annex on 10th Street.

In his opening remarks, City Manager Isaiah Hugley told the group that he envisions the Liberty District being an extension of Uptown, with mixed-use development to included housing, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment.

“... There’s not much property in the boundaries of Uptown left, and so this is where it needs to happen,” he said.

The Liberty District is bounded by Victory Drive to 11th Street and Veterans Parkway to 10th Avenue. At the meeting, Hugley showed a rendering of the block where the Liberty Theatre is located, redeveloped with buildings, landscaping and bustling streets. He said city officials would hold one more informational meeting and then form a committee to work on plans for the area. But the community still has to decide whether to stick with a 2003 master plan, tweak it, or develop another one, he said.

Huff, who opposed the city’s plans to bring a Columbus Housing Authority complex to the area four years ago, said everything Hugley described is already in the 2003 master plan.

“I don’t see us starting all over again, brand new, when we already have something that is in existence,” she said. “And in the plan it says that it will have to be updated, and that over a period of time, things would change. It is designed the way it is to be adaptable, so that as change occurs, you incorporate those changes.”

Huff said the city missed several opportunities to revitalize the area, including making it the location for the new the new Spencer High School and the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts now on Macon Road. She said the art school would have tied in well with the nearby RiverCenter for the Peforming Arts, Springer Opera House and Three Arts Theater.

“Here, the Liberty sat right in the middle of it, and you could safely from one area to the other area,” she said.

J. Aleem Hud, of Project Rebound Inc., said he sees the Liberty District as being an extension of the Historic District as opposed to Uptown, and would like to see the history preserved.

“What took place down here inspired other parts of African American Columbus,” said Hud, who grew up in the city. “And I think the reason why we have this northside/southside economic and sociocultural divide is because there’s no brain area, so to speak. There’s no catalyst area, incubator area, to inspire, and then have it grow out from there.”

Hud said he would like to see an off-Broadway-type movie theater come to the area, as well as ethnic food markets and eateries like those that exist in other cities.

“I think right now, we’re kind of bland,” he said of Columbus. “I think this district should bring some flavor of the heritage.”

Also in attendance were Councilors Jerry “Pops” Barnes and Judy Thomas.

Barnes said he recalled visiting the district as a young solider and he wants the history preserved.

“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.”

Thomas said she grew up in Columbus during segregation and knew nothing about the Liberty District back then. She would like to see the area become a magnet for people of all backgrounds so they could learn of the rich history.

“The only African-Americans I ever saw were down on Kinfolk’s Corner, when we would go down to take the woman who did our ironing to catch her ride home,” she said. “So I didn’t know that this area even existed. I was an adult before I heard about Ma Rainey, before I heard about Dr. Thomas Brewer, before I heard about Primus King.

“So whatever we do here, my vision is that this will not just be a place that our African American folks come to,” she said. “But that it will be a place where we all gather, where we all go to eat dinner, where we all go to the art theater. ... And we can do that.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter