The only suburb built specifically for Black residents in Huntsville, Ala. has a rich history that was in danger of vanishing – until a coalition of grassroots organizations and local leaders worked to preserve it.
“Edmonton Heights was a prominent African-American neighborhood because there were few other places in Huntsville that African Americans could acquire property and live,” when it was built in the late 1950s and 1960s, said Dr. Joseph Lee, director of the Alabama A&M University Community Development Corporation, located in Edmonton Heights.
Before a post-World War II population boom, most Black Huntsvillians lived in the city’s downtown area, in segregated neighborhoods full of small, shotgun-style houses.
At the time, Huntsville was a sleepy agricultural town of about 13,000 in North Alabama.
But its population ballooned to an estimated 144,000 by the late 1960s, after the U.S. Army chose Huntsville as the new home of its missile program and NASA moved to town shortly after.
Along with the postwar boom came the city’s effort to modernize: Huntsville leaders proposed an urban renewal plan that would use massive federal grants to acquire, clear and redevelop land near the city’s downtown.
The city’s urban renewal plan called for razing Black homes downtown as well as the Black business district which was located on Church Street, a thoroughfare into the city’s downtown.
As the homes in Huntsville’s Black neighborhoods were demolished in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, so too were Black businesses. Huntsville resident Melvin Sistrunk later told city preservationists that when his father’s barbecue stand on Church Street was slated for demolition, his father took the building apart board by board, to salvage what he could. He later retired after losing his business.
One of the city’s solutions for its displaced Black residents was Edmonton Heights, a planned neighborhood north of town. It was something of an anomaly in the South at the time; there were few planned suburbs developed specifically for Black homeowners. Across the nation, as white families fled cities for the suburbs in the decades following World War II, Black families were mostly shut out from this migration, due to discriminatory building and lending practices at the federal and local levels.
But backroom deals between Edmonton Heights’ white developers and white local and state officials opened the door for Black buyers to access federal housing loans for Edmonton Heights specifically.
‘Your life will be beautiful’
Ads in local newspapers for the new Edmonton Heights neighborhood featured headlines like “New, roomy, quality homes for Huntsville’s Discerning Negros” and “Your life will be beautiful in exclusive Edmonton Heights!”
The neighborhood promoted as “North Alabama’s Most Exclusive Negro Subdivision” featured modest three-bedroom, one-bathroom homes on landscaped lots with brick exteriors, indoor heating systems and washer connections.
Edmonton Heights was soon home to the city’s Black middle class. Residents included teachers, nurses, Redstone Arsenal workers, builders, preachers and cab drivers, according to the neighborhood survey completed earlier this year and commissioned by the City of Huntsville. In later years, it became popular with university faculty from nearby Alabama A&M University.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent the night at a home in Edmonton Heights during his 1962 visit to Huntsville. King and Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy stayed with the family of Rev. Ezekiel Bell, who was pastor of a local Presbyterian church and chaired Huntsville’s first Civil Rights organization, the Community Service Committee.
The neighborhood was essentially one of the only places Black residents could live in the city. Some residents later told local preservationists hired by the City of Huntsville that mortgages were considered pricy, and options were limited.
“People whose homes were being destroyed downtown really had no place to go,” said Lee, “other than Edmonton Heights or public housing.”
By the 1980s and 1990s, Edmonton Heights had fallen into decline. Homes in the neighborhood were dilapidated or abandoned; drugs and other street crime had become major problems.
Lee recalled touring one abandoned home in the 1990s and spotting police officers running through the back yard, chasing a suspect.
But local residents and preservation-minded leaders didn’t want to see an important part of the city’s history fade from neglect.
A historic place
Neighborhood residents initially turned to Alabama A&M for help in the late 1990s, Lee said. He and others at the university began applying for grants and working with the City of Huntsville to revitalize Edmonton Heights and other neighborhoods around A&M.
By the turn of the millennium, preservationists helped Edmonton Heights residents organize a neighborhood association that met in a nearby church. That association and other local groups pressured the city – including by marching in the streets – to address needs in the area and recognize its historical and cultural significance, said Lee.
Progress was slow, but steady. Over the next 20 years, federal and local grants allowed a coalition of preservationists, neighborhood organizations and the City of Huntsville to acquire, rehabilitate and sell formerly dilapidated homes in the neighborhood. They turned one of the homes into a community center. The City of Huntsville commissioned a survey of Edmonton Heights in order to apply for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.
Earlier this year, Edmonton Heights earned a spot on the National Register, thanks to the work of multiple organizations, said Lee, including the A&M Community Development Corporation, the City of Huntsville, the Historic Huntsville Foundation, the Edmonton Heights Neighborhood Association, the Normal Historic District Preservation Association and local Black leaders.
“It was a long-term effort and the neighborhood has changed tremendously,” said Lee. “I am very pleased to see the change in my lifetime, in terms of the recognition of African American history and heritage.”
The face of the neighborhood is also changing. Some former residents who grew up in Edmonton Heights have moved back, he said. Newcomers are participating in the neighborhood association.
A decade ago, distressed properties sold for $10,000. Today, they’re going for $90,000 or more, said Lee. Huntsville recently became the state’s largest metro area, and home prices are rising.
Now, rather than crime, Lee said he’s mainly concerned about the effects of gentrification. He said he would like to see most homes in the neighborhood owned by residents, rather than out-of-town investors.
And while the Historic Register designation has made Edmonton Heights more attractive to buyers, he said, it also marks a recognition of a part of history that was in danger of vanishing.
“So much of Huntsville’s African American history has been removed,” he said. “But this is Huntsville’s history, and it is significant.”
Saving Places: Around the South, historic neighborhoods and important cultural sites are under threat. In some cases, it’s because of development. Others have simply languished as community members grew older and properties fell into neglect. Still others might be swallowed up by the effects of a warming global climate. In the coming days, we’ll introduce you to some of these Southern places, why they’re threatened and the people who are fighting to preserve them.