Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District is home to one of the highest concentrations of continuously owned and operated Black owned businesses in the country. The District is also home to the 16th Street Baptist Church, a landmark in American history. Most know that in 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls. What is not as well known is the hand this congregation has played in the survival of Black business in the city’s history, a role the church is still playing today.
Nextcity.org recently reported on the rich history of the congregation, which was originally constructed in 1873. The city quickly condemned the congregation’s first building, saying its steeple was too tall: terror attack number one. The church resisted in the form of commerce, encouraging the growth and sustainability of the Black businesses surrounding it. Pastor William Pettiford founded Alabama Penny Savings Bank, the state’s first Black owned bank, to support Black owned companies in the area and encourage saving. The bank grew to become the largest Black owned bank in the country.
The 16th Street Baptist Church is a key collaborator in a community planning process to revitalize the area. The process is being led by Urban Impact, Inc., a local nonprofit with oversight over the Fourth Avenue District, the 18 surrounding square blocks and the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument. The current goal is to link the Fourth Avenue District with the Civil Rights District and the National Monument, along with other developments. Of chief importance is how redevelopment will impact the businesses currently in the area, 75 percent of which are minority owned. After all, there is a long and dark history of “redevelopment” adversely impacting Black communities — from the construction of interstates to modern day gentrification, the record is clear.
The 16th Street Baptist Church’s history is both a narrative of vulnerability and power — vulnerable to terrorism and yet powerful enough to undergird an entire Black business district. The vulnerability today for Black churches and businesses manifests when outside interests desire to invest in historic Black communities. It remains to be seen whether the Fourth Avenue District will experience a new renaissance and if so, who will be the beneficiaries. What is clear, however, is that without the unwavering support of Black people, Black business districts will not survive.