Archaeological excavations in Augusta reveal material culture of racial segregation

Submitted by Brad Botwick (New South Associates, inc.)

Official and institutionalized racial segregation was a significant aspect of urban life in the southern United States during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While laws institutionalized the systems of separating people of African and European descent, land use, housing developments, and residential patterns supported these divisions in explicit ways. These practices not only physically separated the races, but also manipulated the built environment to reinforce racial stereotypes and to demonstrate, from the white perspective, the inferior position of African Americans. Archaeological investigations for a new roadway in Augusta provided historical and archaeological evidence of the way a particular residential neighborhood was developed at the turn of the twentieth century to accomplish racial separation and reinforce unequal racial relationships.

The study area lay in the 1400 blocks of Broad, Jones, and Reynolds Streets in Augusta. The neighborhood west of Fourteenth Street, including the study area, never developed in any systematic way before the 1880s. Throughout this period it remained at the city’s western periphery. Much of the land remained in the hands of speculators and the inhabitants tended to be renters rather than owners.

The piecemeal development of the area changed after 1892, when a large parcel within the 1400 blocks of Broad and Jones streets came into the hands of Timothy White and then his son James Bryce White. Unlike the prior speculation efforts for this area, which consisted mainly of buying and reselling land but rarely making improvements, White’s planned a large residential development that would be constructed all at once, contain modern conveniences, and include properties marketed to different income levels, and less explicitly to different races.

Section of the 1904 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Augusta showing contrasting house and lot sizes on Broad Street (top) and Jones Street.

Construction commenced in 1898 with houses facing Broad Street to the south and Jones Street to the north. The types and sizes of the houses and associated properties reflected the two different social and economic levels of prospective occupants. Facing Broad Street, White put up 20 “handsome dwellings, equipped with every modern luxury and convenience.” Behind these on Jones Street were 20 four-room “cottages.” The larger houses on Broad Street were marketed for between $1,800 and $2,000 dollars, and in 1904 some of these were advertised for rent at $22.50 per month (Augusta Chronicle, August 14, 1904). These more expensive houses were occupied by white families. The Jones Street houses cost $600 dollars to buy and rented at $6–$8 per month, about a third as the Broad Street properties, and were intended mainly for working class, and probably African-American, families. In addition to separating classes and races, the new development incorporated features that formalized these traditional patterns with strong visible and symbolic cues.

The 1904 Sanborn map (above) illustrates the material and spatial differences that were designed into the real estate development project. The inferior status of the cottages on Jones Street was reflected in their size, style, and lot arrangement. The houses consisted of one-story buildings containing about 900 square feet. Their exterior appearance is not known, but they probably consisted of simple and unadorned structures. All that can be said for certain is that they had identical plans. The map shows 10 houses on a single long lot beginning near 14th Street. Also, this lot measured only about 55 feet deep, most of which was taken up by the houses.

Even today, the remaining houses on Broad Street retain stylish Queen Anne details (photo by Staci Riche).

In contrast, the houses on Broad Street were larger and came in four separate plans that were repeated in sequence. The houses also had multiple stories and stylish Queen Anne details, which is evident from extant examples. This arrangement created greater visual diversity and demonstrated that the builders had put more attention and expense toward appearances here. These houses also occupied large lots, which at 125 feet deep measured nearly two-and-a-half times as long as those on Jones Street. The lots were further divided into individual properties separated from one another with explicit property lines, whereas the houses on Jones Street were all on a single property. The spatial arrangement thus separated races and economic groups, keeping the African-American residents of Jones Street at arm’s length and shoving them into a small, crowded, communal space.

Archaeological study revealed additional ways that space was created and manipulated in service to the racial and class ideologies of the time. Excavations indicated that fill deposits were laid down across the entire site, with more placed at Broad Street to create higher ground. Although this presumably yielded greater protection from Savannah River floods, the developers neglected to provide the same protection to the lower class lots on Jones Street. The result of this difference became evident in 1912 when spring floods hit the area. On March 19, the Augusta Chronicle noted that after two days, water still stood in the 1400 blocks of Jones and Reynolds streets (Reynolds is the next street closer to the river). The grading and filling thus created additional physical distinctions between the residents of Broad and Jones streets. The design of the new housing development specifically incorporated racial and class separation and in doing so expressed prevailing ideologies of the nineteenth century.

The organization of space on the block also demonstrated and formalized prevailing economic and social realities by placing everyone where they belonged, according to the dominant ideologies. In addition, the differences in land fill helped to symbolize the higher and lower statuses of the block residents. The distinctions were further expressed with different architectural styles, the larger and more ornate houses on Broad Street proving visual cues as the higher and more genteel status of the residents compared to the rougher occupants of Jones Street in their small and relatively plain cottages.

An additional way that the development reinforced social ideologies was to put the smaller Jones Street houses into a single large lot without fences. The lack of clear separations between individual properties could have provided a form of coercion and control. The intention might have been to inform these residents that they had no right to private space and that they were susceptible to monitoring.

To summarize, Augusta followed some of the broader trends of urbanization experienced throughout the United States in the nineteenth century. As the city spread from its original core area, it took on many characteristics of a modern city, including residential neighborhoods that were divided up on the basis of class, race, or other attributes. In this example, a planned residential development specifically incorporated prevailing social ideologies at the turn of the century. The development was designed and built in a way that separated residents on the basis of race and class and which helped to reinforce ideologies of the appropriate racial and economic social positions and roles.

Editor’s Note: This article is presented in conjunction with Black History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1976 each year in February.