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For most of the 20th century, Charleston’s Triangle District was home to much of the city’s African-American community, immigrants from the Middle East, and Jews who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe. The Triangle’s name was derived from its three primary borders: Elk River to the northwest, Slack Street to the north, and Washington Street to the south.

Before the Civil War, The Triangle area was largely swampy farmland. Afterward, it became Charleston’s segregated section of town, home to many slaves freed locally (in 1860, prior to West Virginia’s statehood, 13 percent of Kanawha County’s population was enslaved) but also quite a number of African-Americans from the Deep South, particularly Virginia. As Charleston’s population ballooned in the early 20th century, immigrants arrived from Syria/Lebanon, Greece, Italy, and Turkey, among other countries. Many settled in The Triangle.

Especially before automobiles, each region of The Triangle was like a town unto itself, which helped preserve various aspects of its culture, particularly music and food. For African-Americans, the center piece of their neighborhood was The Block, a roughly 25-acre section near the present location of the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences. In a segregated world, The Block had an uptown cachet that attracted white residents for certain events, particularly when top-notch musicians passed through town. The Block had its own churches, restaurants, drug stores (including The Gem, which many remember for its hot dog sauce), hotels, and theaters. Anecdotally, The Block was also associated with illicit activities, primarily prostitution and illegal liquor sales.

The figurative business capital of The Block was the Ferguson Hotel, established by Gurnett “Cap” Ferguson, who’d been one of the first African-American officers in World War I. Intimately familiar with the difficulties Black businessmen had in finding good overnight lodging during their travels, Ferguson built the 72-room hotel for $200,000 in 1922. It was designed by John C. Norman, West Virginia’s first licensed Black architect. In addition to rooms the Ferguson also contained a theater, a dance hall, barber and beauty shops, a restaurant, a pool room, and office space. Since many segregated hotels in the South tended to be downscale, the Ferguson stood out as a welcoming architectural masterpiece that attracted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Louis. The success of the Ferguson Hotel attracted more businesses to the area.

In August 1958, the Charleston chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) successfully integrated all restaurants on Capitol Street—the city’s main white business thoroughfare—with one exception: The Diamond, Charleston’s largest department store, which didn’t integrate until May 1960. The integration of downtown Charleston businesses, however, took an economic toll on The Block and on The Triangle generally, as Black businesses couldn’t compete with the prices and selections of the larger stores and restaurants on Capitol Street.

In the mid-1960s, Charleston began demolishing older buildings that were considered fire hazards as part of its Urban Renewal movement. The Charleston Gazette, in a contemporary article, derogatorily referred to The Triangle as the “city’s worst slum.” Over the next decade, most of The Triangle’s buildings fell to the wrecking ball, theoretically to improve the quality of Charleston’s buildings, make way for the new interstate highway system, and create, much later, a Super Block (including all of where the Charleston Town Center now stands). While the city defended the move based on fire-safety concerns, many still view Urban Renewal as a thinly veiled act of outright discrimination against African-Americans and poor white residents.

Residents of The Triangle were left with few choices. Some left town; others moved to different sections of Charleston, as many white former residents of those areas relocated to the new suburbs.

Today, only a handful of original buildings remain from The Triangle’s glory days. In many places, all that’s left is grass growing through cracked parking lot pavements. In the early 2000s, Charleston’s Anthony Kinzer headed an effort to name The Block to the National Register of Historic Places. The district, however, was ineligible because so little was left of the original area. In 2011, the Charleston Historic Landmarks Commission named The Block to a “local district” of historic places.

This Article was written by Stan Bumgardner

Last Revised on August 04, 2020


Sources

Suzanne Higgins, Roxy Todd, & Eric Douglas. Community Still Grieves Loss of Triangle District, Once the Center of Black Music and Culture. Inside Appalachia, 2 July 2020.

Anthony Kinzer. “The Block”. Goldenseal, Volume 43, Number 1, Spring 2017.

Billy Joe Peyton. "Glenwood Chronicles—Part One: The Peculiar Institution: Putting a Face on Slavery in the Kanawha Valley," https://www.marshall.edu/graduatehumanities/files/Peyton-PowerPoint.pdf. .

Maria Sisco & Stan Bumgardner. ’Cap’ Ferguson: A Black Trailblazer. Goldenseal, Volume 43, Number 1, Spring 2017.

Cite This Article

Bumgardner, Stan "Charleston’s Triangle District." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 04 August 2020. Web. 29 October 2020.

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