“I made a two on the ACT. I wanted to be a registered nurse, but I didn’t know what I had to make on the test. I didn’t know what was possible. I got the rejection letters and realized it was going to be harder for me to become a nurse. I couldn’t get into the University of South Alabama, so I went to a junior college and transferred to South. I tell young people there is more than one way to do anything in life. When I took my state boards to be a nurse, I made more points than I needed. I later became nurse of the year. The ACT doesn’t dictate what you can or can’t do, that is up to you. It was heartbreaking to get the rejection letters, but I knew I could be a nurse. If it is for you to have, you are going to get it.
I grew up on Dauphin Island Parkway, nowhere near Davis Avenue. Locals called it ‘The Avenue.’ I was caring for a patient and something told me to write a history of The Avenue. I didn’t know anything about it, but my patient gave me a list of people to talk with. That was Dec 16, 1988. The notes I took from the interviews became the book ‘Avenue.’ I wanted to write about it so another generation could understand what It used to be. I put in as many pictures as possible to show the places and faces. At that time, people didn’t feel like the history of Davis Avenue was important.
The Avenue started as a dirt trail in Mobile and became one of the few areas that Blacks could live. They moved here from rural Alabama, such as Clark County. When the government announced that slaves were free, they weren’t able to read or write. They left with no idea where they were going. Word got out that Mobile was the best place to go for opportunities and jobs. They came to Mobile with ‘please don’t rain’ suitcases. They were suitcases so cheap that the rain would destroy them.
Families came one person at a time, but so many people came to Mobile that there was a housing shortage by 1904. Hundreds of them built homes on the city dump using tar paper, cardboard, tin and pieces of wood. They worked together and survived on what the garbage trucks brought in. They cooked food over a fire and sold the metal, paper and glass. They ran clotheslines between houses. Some dressed up at night and went to Davis Avenue to have fun. The city later forced them off the dump and moved them into housing projects such as Orange Grove.
Some Blacks settled in Chickasaw, but white men told them to move. They moved their houses from Chickasaw to The Avenue area. There were a lot of shotgun houses. They were easy to make but one woman said the houses were so close together that you were washing dishes in your neighbor’s face.
This increase in people also created a shortage of jobs. Many women went into domestic work, washing clothes and keeping children for white families.
When people lived in rural Alabama, they packed the churches because they believed in spiritualness inside. They brought that to spirituality to Mobile and filled the churches here. If you didn’t do anything else, you went to church and made your children go. God was number one, you minded your mama and respected your elders.
People were excited about going to school. There was pride in getting an education because education has been illegal for slaves. Mobile was also new and different. The King family brought vaudeville and other entertainment to Davis Avenue.
I interviewed teachers and doctors and people from all walks of life. They remembered when the train unloaded cows and the cattle walked through Davis Avenue to Pritchard.
I also interviewed pimps and prostitutes. There were a bunch of whorehouses and hit houses in the area. People said they had to make money. Pimps said school teachers had pimps because they wanted fast money, too.
In the 40s, soldiers came to Mobile with money to spend. One woman said she couldn’t keep good help on The Avenue because the women married soldiers and left Mobile.
There is one group people don’t talk about, those who worked in turpentine. They were called the turpentine negroes and everyone mistreated them. They made the lowest salary on the totem pole. Turpentine is a medicine you got from pine trees.
Davis Avenue was 24/7 and gambling and crime came along with it. There was a story of a woman who laughed at a man at a club. He went to the store and bought gasoline, then came back and threw it on her. There were a lot of people who came to The Avenue who didn’t live here and were up to no good.
Once the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, people moved to the North as soon as they could. One lady said they were leaving Mobile by the bus load. The Avenue also went downhill after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. People marched on The Avenue and threw firebombs and destroyed businesses. Now you can’t recognize The Avenue for what it used to be. Young people have heard of it, but they have no idea what it was.
The people I interviewed are deceased and I couldn’t write this book now. But I want people to know the faces and stories of the people who fought for us to have the education and lives we have today.
I also wrote a book about Booker T. Washington and churches in Mobile. I have puzzle contests that grow each year. I provide the puzzles and prize money and door prizes and gift bags. No one walks away empty-handed. My friend makes great pralines and I put them on the table. Last year the winner finished a 500 piece in an hour and 30 minutes. I also have a lock contest to see how fast teams can unlock 20 combination locks. I like to do unusual things in the community and make Mobile a little better.”
This is from an interview with Paulette Horton for the story “Life on Davis Avenue” that is now running in Lagniappe. It is the third part of the series “Buried in Oaklawn.” Here is the link: https://lagniappemobile.com/the-story-of-mobiles-harlem/?fbclid=IwAR1_TgX8_Ao4ujby1FTcUMmzeXZethMjUQFcHffwvy7bLcLyrrHdVMZ-Rd8
You can learn much more about Davis Avenue from Paulette’s book, Avenue: The People, The Places, The Memories from 1799-1986.
There will be more stories from Davis Avenue on Our Southern Souls. Nicknamed The Avenue, it is now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Mobile.