I grew up in Pensacola and as a grade schooler and would spend each February studying the lives of such figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Harriet Tubman and Madame C.J. Walker. Those stories made an impression on me, but, in all my hours in the classroom, I don’t recall ever learning about the rich history in my backyard. That’s a shame because Pensacola has quite a story to tell.
Over the last five centuries, the city has welcomed immigrants from all over the world, each of whom have contributed to the city’s unique cultural milieu. Among these waves of settlers, some of the earliest were of African descent, many of them brought here as slaves. Pensacola’s African-American community endured the horrors of the Antebellum and Jim Crow eras and went on to produce some of the region’s most influential and respected leaders. That legacy is on proud display in the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, located on the western fringe of Downtown Pensacola.
The historically black neighborhood — known to locals as “The Blocks” — came to prominence during the early 20th century, when segregation and mounting racial tension pushed the city’s black residents out of the city center. The neighborhood, clustered around the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets, became a thriving commercial hub. It was also a prominent stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit — a network of mostly black-owned entertainment venues that sprung to life during segregation and nurtured the careers of some of the biggest names in American music.
The Blocks were home to a number of musical venues. One of the biggest was Abe’s 506 Club, which hosted such legendary musicians as Aretha Franklin, Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. Abe’s, like the rest of the neighborhood, began to lose business after desegregation — with many of Pensacola’s black residents eager to exercise their newly won economic freedom elsewhere. The club closed it’s doors for the final time after a New Year’s Eve dance in 1981. When the money and music flowed out of The Blocks, crime and blight began to move in. Today, that trend has reversed, and a new generation of business owners, investors and residents are working hard to reclaim their community’s rich history.
Local black artist Carter J. Gaston is one of these people. If you take a drive through The Blocks today, you will see Gaston’s work everywhere. His brightly painted murals, completed during the first Back to The Blocks Festival, in 2015, depict many of the area’s most famous residents and landmarks. The self-proclaimed “world’s best live portrait artist” spent a week painting local African American leaders including Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., the nation’s first black four-star general; Dr. John Sunday, a trail-blazing legislator; James Polkinghorne, Jr.; a Tuskegee Airman and World War II hero; and F.E. Washington, editor and publisher of Pensacola’s The Colored Citizen. Other signs of revival aren’t hard to find.
Just across the street from Gaston’s mural is the Belmont-DeVilliers Building. The brick structure, built in 1911, housed a saloon, a grocery, a furniture shop and an upholstery store before becoming Gussie’s Record & Variety Shop, in 1968. WBOP radio — one of the first African American radio stations in the area – was housed on the second floor and churned out a steady stream of R&B and gospel. Today, the station and record shop are gone, but the music is not. Five Sisters Blues Cafe, located on the first floor, serves up live blues, jazz and classic soul food year round.
The people of Belmont DeVilliers continue to reimagine their community, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds. Maybe one day someone will rebuild Abe’s, and Aretha Franklin will return to The Blocks to play one last gig. In the meantime, though, you may see me at Five Sisters, enjoying some soul food and humming about “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” By Charleigh Kennedy