Community Still Grieves Loss Of Triangle District, Once The Center Of Black Music And Culture
In the mid-20th century, Charleston, West Virginia, was a major stop for black musicians traveling to Baltimore and D.C. on what was known as the “Chitlin' Circuit.” Improv jazz masters like James Brown, Cab Calloway and others are said to have stopped in Charleston’s historic Triangle neighborhood to play informal gigs late into the night, or have a drink of moonshine in some of the illegal bars and brothels that operated in the neighborhood.
But in 1974, following a series of development projects, the neighborhood was demolished, and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of residents were forced to relocate. Some even left the state. It was one of many predominantly black communities across the nation that was decimated by urban renewal and the interstate highway system.
It pitted black families, civil rights groups, neighborhood alliance groups, and War on Poverty groups against officials from the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, the State Road Commission, and former Governor Arch Moore. This story in state’s largest city had national implications and resulted in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some residents say Charleston has never truly reckoned with this history and the underlying racism that led to so many being forced out of their community.
Center of Black Culture
The Triangle District sat on a coveted spot in the state’s capital city, on prime flat land in the heart of downtown. The area was known as the Triangle District because of its three borders: the Elk River on one side, Slack and Capitol streets on another, and Washington Street on the third.
Jazz musician Bob Thompson moved to Charleston in the 1960s. He recalled in a StoryCorps interview with Mountain Stage host Larry Groce that musicians often stayed up all night playing b-bop and improv jazz at many of the clubs throughout the Triangle. He said those clubs were integrated, as well.
“There was a constant flow of great players. As always, music brought all kinds of people together,” Thompson said.
Danny Jones, the city’s former mayor who grew up in the city, visited the Triangle District often and worked in a popular neighborhood restaurant called The Sterling.
“The Triangle was a neat place. It had a lot of character. I was so happy I got to know some of those folks and waited on a lot of them at The Sterling,” Jones said.
He acknowledged the Triangle was known for prostitution, gambling, and lots of illegal drinking. There wasn’t a law on the books that allowed bars to sell liquor by the drink. There was an understanding, though, that clubs would operate illegally in neighborhoods like the Triangle. Many restaurants, like the one Jones worked at, were open late.
According to some residents, the police would make a show of being tough on crime in the Triangle during election years. But once the election was over, things would return to normal.
By the 1960s, Charleston city officials decided to redevelop the Triangle, partly as a way to shut down Red Light businesses for good. The Charleston Urban Renewal Authority wanted to see new shops and businesses located in this area, according to a report compiled by CURA in 1977.
The decade was a dizzying time for the Triangle: The state’s Public Service Commission gave West Virginia American Water permission to build facilities in the neighborhood, and in 1966, 200 houses were razed to make way for them. Interstate highway project officials, faced with limited choices, sought connections for Interstates 64, 77 and 79 that went right through the neighborhood.
Emmerson Reed, one of the main activists in the fight to stop the demolition of the Triangle District, said these projects were routed through the Triangle neighborhood as a convenient way to displace black residents and push them out of the city. As the interstate system made its way across the country in the 1950s and ‘60s with the promise of connecting people, it also disrupted or displaced many communities in its path, often poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods where most of the residents were black or Hispanic.
“An interstate shouldn’t go through a city,” he told a reporter at a public meeting in the late 1960s. He pointed to a former plan for the interstate that would have routed it through Kanawha City, a plan ultimately rejected by city and state officials. “It was rerouted to save hills around capitol. It’s going to be rerouted around Logan County. And if he can look out for the poor, white farmers, he can look out for the poor angry black folk in the Triangle District.”
Then in 1968, the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority finalized a plan to redevelop the area for businesses and housing: It allowed for the demolition of 471 out of 483 structures.
Residents protested to stop the demolition. According to a document compiled by the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) the Triangle Improvement Council sent letters to both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators. Another letter made it all the way to President Richard Nixon.
Sense Of Loss
Since most of the people who were pushed out of the Triangle district rented, they had to find landlords who would give them leases in other areas. But there was a housing shortage and some landlords didn’t want to rent to black families.
In 1967, a housing advocate named Berley Geiger led a march to protest unfair housing conditions. He and others marched for the many low-income residents across the city who lived in rental apartments or homes. They said there were often roaches in rentals, they were poorly maintained, and white landlords often discriminated against black tenants.
A report from the redevelopment project said the plan was intended to tear down a “blighted” neighborhood and remove houses that were “dilapidated.” CURA also supported the plan to route the interstates through the Triangle District.
Most of the residents of the Triangle neighborhood did not. Residents said they had no input in the process once the government began buying-out their landlords and condemning homes to make way for construction.
Part of the problem was housing. The people being shoved out of their homes didn’t have anywhere to go.
“We didn’t have the resources — or the houses to accommodate that many people. Y’all moving us, we ain’t never getting back here. We ain’t going to never come back, and y’all are just destroying lives,” said Carl Foster, a protestor who later took a job with CURA to help people find homes.
To protest the lack of housing for the displaced residents, Reed organized a demonstration along the Elk River in an encampment they called “Tent City.” He said he camped out there for six months with about 75 others.
Reed and the group of residents who protested the demolition, appealed to the Federal Bureau of Public Roads — today’s Federal Highway Administration — which temporarily put a halt to the construction of the interstate. But it was on a temporary fix. West Virginia Governor Arch Moore defended the plan to demolish homes in the Triangle district.
As the interstate plan was debated and reassessed by various government entities, residents marched, rallied, and even stood in the way of bulldozers to try to prevent them from demolishing homes.
In 1968, changes to The Federal-Aid Highway Act said states had to ensure that residents that the highway displaced would have help from the government to relocate. The government didn’t necessarily have to give them a new place to live, but there had to be a plan in place. There was never a detailed workup of this plan, and some units of low-income housing they promised were built, and some were not.
By 1970, the debate over the displacement of the Triangle had been going on for several years. Similar situations and protests over interstate projects occurred across the country. That same year a New York Times article featured Charleston’s Triangle district and the citizens’ fight to save their homes and community. That fight made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But by 1971, it was over. The Supreme Court decided not to hear the case regarding the Triangle neighborhood, ruling that the amended Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968 did not apply to this case, in part because the interstate project was already underway by the time the 1968 amendments were made.
When the actual demolition began, some residents didn’t know what was happening until the bulldozers arrived.
“Some people were still asleep in their homes when the bulldozers came in. These people didn’t know what was going on until it started happening,” according to Carol Tillman, a former Triangle resident.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 383 homes and 107 businesses were torn down in the Triangle neighborhood. Only 12 buildings were spared. HUD has no official count of how many people it displaced.
‘Subtle Kind of Racism’
Reverend Ronald English moved to Charleston in the midst of the Triangle controversy. Before moving to West Virginia, he traveled throughout the deep south working as a preacher and a civil rights leader. English said the way the black neighborhood was pushed out of the city, gets straight at the heart of the type of racism there.
He said the city of Charleston told the black community essentially to wait and see how the redevelopment could help them by bringing more economic prosperity to the city. More than four decades later, he feels many African Americans are still waiting for these developments to pay off.
Reflecting on the destruction of the Triangle district, English said the examples of racism he saw “were not expressed in brutal forms. There was a more subtle kind of racism. which I think is still around.”
By 1975, the Triangle District was gone. Some people say Charleston never really reckoned with this history. Reverend English said emotions still linger over the loss of the Triangle because former residents never got the chance to grieve together for their loss.
Recently, city officials gave Court Street the honorary title of “Martin Luther King Jr Way.” This road ran through the heart of the Triangle District.
Faith leaders and community organizers say they would like the city to do more to help African American families who are still left in the city. Many of them live now in the part of the city known as the West Side, about a mile across the Elk River from where the Triangle neighborhood once stood.
Zander Aloi helped engineer and mix the audio for this story. Suzanne Higgins was the editor.
Thanks to everyone who helped collect interviews for this segment: Nathan Tauger, Alex and Erik Abrahams, Reverend Paul Dunn and Reverend Matthews Watts. Trey Kay, who hosts the Us and Them Podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage.
Also, thanks to Anna Sale, of WNYC, whose research into the protests against the urban renewal project in the Triangle was the subject of her bachelor’s thesis, which helped us put our story together.