Originally known as West Broad Street (you’ll still hear old-timers refer to it that way), Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is the spiritual home of Savannah ’s African American community, though it has gone through several transformations. In the early 1800s, West Broad was a fashionable address, but during the middle of that century its north end got a bad reputation for crime and blight, as thousands of Irish immigrants packed in right beside the area’s poor black population.
West Broad’s glory days as a center of black culture happened in the first half of the 20th century, beginning and ending with the late, great Union Station terminal. Built in 1902, the terminal was the main gateway to the city and ushered in a heyday on West Broad that saw thriving black movie theaters like the Star.
Here were packed venues on the “chitlin circuit” such as The Dunbar, hosting such legends as Little Richard. The great number of African American–owned banks on the street gave it the name “the Wall Street of black America.”
The end came with the razing of the gorgeous Union Station in 1963 to make way for an on-ramp to I-16. The poorly planned project cut the historic boulevard in two, with several entire neighborhoods being destroyed to make way. While the hideous on-ramp remains, every now and then talk surfaces of moving it in an attempt to recreate the magic of old West Broad.
Renamed for the civil rights leader in 1990, MLK Jr. Boulevard currently is undergoing another renaissance. A city-sponsored facelift of the median and a low-interest facade loan program, begun in 1996, have beautified some formerly run-down areas near the Historic District, while an increase in businesses servicing the SCAD student population brings a vibrant, edgy hustle to the area on into the night.
During his visit for the 2007 Savannah Music Festival , jazz great Wynton Marsalis dedicated a plaque to Louis Armstrong’s mentor King Oliver in front of the building at 514 MLK Jr. Boulevard where Oliver spent his last days.