The History Behind the African American Downtown Festival
Fri, 05/31/2019 - 2:05pm by hmorse
On Saturday June 1, 2019, Ann Arbor residents will gather for music, dance, food, crafts, and local business wares at the African American Downtown Festival. The festival was founded in 1996 by community leader Lucille Hall Porter (1917-2007). It celebrates the vibrant history of black-owned businesses and community organizations located on East Ann Street and North Fourth Avenue throughout the twentieth century.
In its early years, the festival was sponsored by Porter’s nonprofit, the Community Leaning Post, which operated out of 209-211 N. Fourth Ave. The building used to be owned by the Colored Welfare League, and before that by several different African American hoteliers, including heavyweight champion Hank Griffin. In 1966, Porter’s brother J.D. Hall purchased the building, recognizing its history as a cornerstone of the Ann Street Black Business District. By the mid 1980’s, Hall’s Barber Shop was the only black-owned business left in the once-thriving district.
Now the Ann Arbor Cultural and Community Events Coalition puts on the African American Downtown Festival, but the event’s location remains central to its mission. For most of the twentieth century, dozens of barber shops, shoe repair shops, dry cleaners, restaurants, pool halls, and blues bars anchored Ann Arbor’s black community, until police crackdowns and redevelopment pushed them out.
Some of the best-remembered black-owned establishments on E Ann St include Henry Wade Robbins’ Barber Shop (1911-1916); Sanford’s Shoe Repair (1928-1965); George Whitman’s Pool Room (1934-1952); Easley’s Barber Shop (1934-1962); David Keaton’s Midway Lunch (1941-1962); and Johnnie Rush Barber Shop (1964-1976). Now local artisans and black-owned businesses participating in the festival carry on the district’s legacy.
For more information about the district, including a list of black-owned businesses from 1879 to 1999, see the Ann Arbor District Library’s Guide to the Ann Street Black Business District.