Located at the intersection of Washington and Hull streets, “Hot Corner” has been an important professional, social, and commercial hub for African-American residents since the mid-20th century. It is centered around the Morton Building, a building complex which houses the prominent Morton Theatre and which has historically housed many black-owned businesses. Hot Corner has been integral in promoting African-American entrepreneurship in the downtown area. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s especially, blacks owned or managed the majority of professional practices and family businesses there. Two such establishments, Wilson’s Styling Shop and The Manhattan Cafe, are still in business today. In addition to its economic significance, this district served as a vibrant meeting place for the black community of Athens and Northeast Georgia for decades.
“Hot Corner” is a historically black
business district1 located at the intersection of Washington and Hull Streets
in downtown Athens, Georgia. It originated in the early 20th century
and can be linked to the naissance of the Morton Building in 1909. This large,
four-story, brick and marble-faced building complex was the creation of prominent businessman, politician and former
slave Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton2. It houses the Morton Theater, originally a vaudeville theater which opened in 1910. It was the first of its kind in the United States to
be built, owned, and managed by an African-American2. The Morton Building is
now listed in the National Register of Historic Places3. Over the span of about
three decades4, the theater saw the likes of renowned African-American performers such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway5. This
site established a prominent African-American music and entertainment scene in Downtown
Athens that was otherwise non-existent during the Jim Crow era.
Building also housed multiple businesses, historically owned by
blacks. Such businesses included drugstores, doctors’ offices, barbershops, and
pool halls6 as well as the dentistry practice of Ida Mae Hiram, the first black
woman to pass the Georgia dental board exams5 and the office of Dr. Blanche
Thompson, Athens’ first black surgeon7. Athens’ first drugstore owned and
operated by an African-American, E.D Harris Drug Store, opened here
before relocating to the Samaritan Building1, also on Washington street. In
the 1990s, all businesses besides the restored theater left the Morton Building
as it was converted into a complete performing arts facility4.
Numerous black-owned businesses separate
from the Morton Building crowded Hot Corner from the 1950s through the 1970s. Some even considered this district to be the Mecca of Northeast Georgia for black professionals6. Many of these were family businesses. The Manhattan Café, now Manhattan Bar,
was owned and run by the Wade family for decades6. During the early 1960s,
civil rights demonstrators would stop by Hot Corner for free lunch and a safe
place to unwind10. Wilson’s Styling Shop as well as other businesses became gathering
places for the black community to discuss current events. Politicians and pastors would often stop by to give word about local elections or
other news6. In the late 70s and 80s, many black-owned businesses at Hot Corner started to move to booming shopping malls outside of downtown6.
M.C. Wilson and his family made a
particularly lasting impact on Hot Corner. M.C. Wilson, a railroad worker from Madison
County, GA who cut hair as a side job, went into partnership with
Otis Wade in 1963, acquiring the barbershop of Ed Gillum6. This same
building once housed The Athens
Republique5, an independent black newspaper that was in print from 1919
to 19234. In 1968, Wilson bought the building outright and renamed the
barbershop “Wilson’s Styling Shop,” transforming the establishment into a more
versatile salon for both men and women6. M.C. and his wife Elizabeth opened Wilson’s
Soul Food8, in 1981, purchasing the space adjacent to their hair salon.
The restaurant was open until 2011 and is now the site of The World
Famous12. All the children of M.C. Wilson have been closely involved with
both businesses over the years, including the eldest son Homer Wilson, who
would go on to take over his father’s styling shop in 20089 and to help
found the Hot Corner Association in 20146.
The Hot Corner Association puts on an
annual festival at the intersection of Washington and Hull streets. Its goal is to celebrate
the contributions of African-American residents to the city of Athens7 and
to promote black-owned businesses downtown6. This lively event includes gospel and hip-hop music, street vendors, and
soul food11, gathering the community to acknowledge the past and look towards
a future of diversity and entrepreneurship.