OBITUARIES: Decatur | Shoals | Huntsville
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A Northwest revival
Historic label fuels dreams of district growth
By Tiffeny Owens
The Decatur Daily

Gary Cosby Jr./Decatur Daily photos
Peggy Allen Towns stands outside the historic First Missionary Baptist Church on Vine Street in Decatur. Towns was instrumental in getting a section of Northwest Decatur listed in the National Historic Register.

Charles Rogers remembers as a youngster walking down bustling Vine Street Northwest, a Decatur street once packed with cafes, shops and offices.

The retired Decatur school teacher enjoyed watching train cars coming in and out of the L&N depot, each loaded with manufactured goods and commodities, and wondering where they had been and where they were going.

The 81-year-old remembers his neighborhood as a proud one, where black-owned businesses flourished and students in segregated schools competed for top honors in academics and athletics.

“Many black residents had successful businesses: doctors, lawyers, dentists, beauty shops, grocery stores. It was all there, and we were proud of it,” Rogers said.

Because of its history, Northwest Decatur — Old Town East and Old Town West — recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The designation identifies the area’s significance as the epicenter of Decatur’s African-American community.

Rogers believes having Old Town East and West on the historic list may help the depressed residential area remember its heritage. He hopes it will inspire new growth. Northwest Decatur has lost many of its homes dating to the early 1900s to fires, city demolition because of unsafe conditions or private demolition for new homes.

City officials hope having historic districts on both side of the railroad tracks will unite the Northwest and Northeast neighborhoods and spur economic development downtown.

“My hope is that we’ll see more businesses come up in the Northwest community and that they will be successful,” Rogers said.

Old Town East and West join Decatur’s other national historic districts of Albany, Old Decatur, New Decatur and Bank Street.

A handful of historic churches remain in Northwest Decatur, with the landmark First Missionary Baptist still thriving on Vine Street. The brick church with stained glass windows was built in 1921 and designed by W.A. Rayfield, the country’s second formally educated, licensed African-American architect. Rayfield also designed Birmingham’s landmark 16th Street Baptist Church that Martin Luther King Jr. made famous during the civil rights movement.

Northwest Decatur’s historic designation comes after a two-year, “painstaking and tedious” process, filled with intensive research, community meetings and board reviews, said Wylheme Ragland, a former pastor of Northwest Decatur’s King’s Memorial United Methodist Church on McCartney Street.

“This is recognition for all the historical richness this area holds, and it’s important to remember it and preserve it,” said Ragland, a history enthusiast.

Former Decatur historic resources coordinator Melinda Dunn, now president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, used $18,250 in two Alabama Historic Commission grants to apply for the historic designation. One grant paid for Nashville-based firm Thomason and Associates to survey Northwest Decatur. With the help of residents, the firm dug up information about the properties and recorded architectural details and historical data, Dunn said.

Morgan County archivist John Allison, Rogers, Ragland and lifelong resident Peggy Allen Towns, another history buff, among others, added their historical acumen, Dunn said.

A second grant was used to transfer the information into a submission. The city decided to split the area into two “mini-districts” because of the presence of new homes at its center that would have disqualified it, Dunn said. The Alabama Historical Commission review board was wowed by the product when Dunn made the presentation in September, she said. The state board approved the plan, allowing the city to apply for the national register.

“They were really impressed that the city chose this location, with all this wonderful potential, and for identifying resources that could be potentially lost forever,” Dunn said.

First Missionary Baptist, Garner Memorial and Wayman AME Chapel are listed on the state’s historic register, while the nearby Dancy-Polk and Rhea-McEntire houses are also listed on the national register.

Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or towens@decaturdaily.com.

Video: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

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