“Things were booming on Davis Avenue. Clothing stores, blue singers, and three movie theaters. There were restaurants, beauty shops, shoe stores, hardware stores, paint stores and parks. We had Central High School, Atlantic Seafood, Butler Grocery Store, Mary’s Grocery Store, a car lot, a service station and Finley’s Drug Stores. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Nat King Cole, and Bobby Blue Bland played here. Babe’s Hotdogs were the best in town. Everything you needed was on The Avenue.
All of these stores also gave folks credit. When your mother sent you to the store, you had better get what she asked for and nothing else. She knew if you were lying. There was also the vegetable man, watermelon man, and milkman selling from their trucks or delivering on The Avenue.
Half of our parents couldn’t read or write, but they knew Jesus. They had faith in God. John 14:26 says, ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’ God shall teach you all things, even if you only have a second-grade education.
Racism was bad in Mobile. There were black and white bathrooms and water fountains. We had to ride in the back of the bus. Our parents would let us only go so far because there was so much hatred out there. We were just kids and didn’t understand.
On Davis Avenue, we could be ourselves. You would walk at night and the street was so lit up with neon lights that we called it Little New York or Little Harlem. There was money made here.
My dad was Nathaniel “Snook” Wilder and he owned The Wilder Place. Some people called it Snook’s Place. It was close to Lafayette Street and I grew up cleaning, stocking boxes and taking out the trash at the club. People dressed sharp as a tack on The Avenue. They had a nice time and danced to music on the Rock-Ola, our jukebox. There was self-respect and no trouble or violence.
If someone had a problem, My dad had connections and tried to help if he could. If someone got too drunk, we made him sleep in the back and had a family member come get him. Everyone looked out for each other.
My dad is buried at Oaklawn Cemetery with the name “Snook” on his headstone. Half of the people buried at Oaklawn were powerful folks. The funeral processions went up Davis Avenue to the cemetery. When people saw it pass, they stopped what they were doing and took off their hats, no matter who it was. It was respectful.
Mr. Besteda was our teacher but he also made suits. Everyone went to him. Mr. White helped a lot of Blacks with his barber college. If you went to jail, Mr. White would honor your license when you got out. Yvonne Kennedy had the sense to combine all of the colleges into one college at Bishop State on The Avenue.
A lot of the black community is too young to remember The Avenue, but we had a good time. My friend worked for a funeral home and we would go drinking and riding up and down The Avenue in the funeral car.
Things changed. When the malls came, people left The Avenue. They tore down the houses. A lot of them were shotgun houses. We tore down my dad’s club. There was more crime and violence. People still come here looking for The Avenue or Babe’s Hotdogs, but they aren’t here anymore. It is just empty lots. There is no action. The sidewalks aren’t filled with people walking up and down the streets. It is just dead. People who didn’t live it don’t know what they missed.
Too much is still about the color of skin. We have to love each other to make it right like Jesus did. He can turn lives around because He did that for me. If a man is hungry, I will feed him. If he needs clothes, I will give him mine. Loving others is about action. That is what God requires of us.”
This is from an interview with Charles Wilder and Gary Adams 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
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