Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series presented this year, reflecting the 175th anniversary of the Columbia Race “Uprising”, which took place along historic East 8th Street.
She is a woman of many titles: religious leader, funeral director, businesswoman and mother. Some of her most important responsibilities remain anonymous, such as times when she comforted someone in a loss or when she gave encouragement to a young person.
Everything Yvonne Ogilvie-Gilbreath does is to improve her lifelong neighborhood and the people on East 8th Street in downtown Columbia.
Over the years, the surrounding historic district has experienced some decline. Decades ago, once thriving businesses are now shabby vacant buildings with dusty windows and overgrown vines.
But on Sundays, the largely unoccupied block comes to life when Ogilvie-Gilbreath opens his church service with the Bible in hand at the 8th & Woodland Original Church of God.
Ogilvie-Gilbreath’s voice echoes throughout the sanctuary with praise and faith as the residents of the area crowd the pews.
She, like a handful of other business owners and entrepreneurs on East 8th Street and the intersection of Woodland Street, serves as a gatekeeper to sustaining Columbia’s once thriving black business district.
âI guess I’m just the keeper of the tower,â she said.
Ogilvie-Gilbreath is part of the street legacy, as a young girl she helped her parents, who for many years ran a local restaurant and daycare, at 8th and at Woodland Church that she continues to lead.
Following in her parents’ entrepreneurial footsteps in business and service, she runs the funeral home on the adjacent property, the Roundtree-Napier-Ogilvie Funeral Home, which also has locations in nearby Mt. Pleasant and Franklin.
Epicenter of history
East 8th Street has a rich history of change even before civil rights became a national movement.
Once called the Bottom, the street and surrounding area is the epicenter of an “uprising” 75 years ago, when black residents and business owners in Bottom stood up against Tennessee state soldiers, who used violence and ransacked the neighborhood in 1946. The clash follows the historic confrontation between a white businessman and a black woman and her son in Columbia’s public plaza. The incidents gained national attention and provided a first glimpse into the rise of the national civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The importance of the neighborhood apparently left the public consciousness after 1965, when the integration of schools and the workplace prompted residents to find equal opportunities elsewhere, ending a period of prosperity for the neighborhood.
âPeople started to move and found jobs and opportunities elsewhere,â said Maury County historian JoAnn McClellan.
McClellan also said that black citizens were allowed to establish their own pocket communities on a âseparate, but equalâ basis under the Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which initially gave birth to the once bustling business district.
More history can be seen in front of Ogilvie-Gilbreath Church at AJ Morton Funeral Home, a prime location for activity in the early 1900s. A family business handed down for generations, the site has a historic marker opposite, acknowledging black business owners who strategized there during the 1946 uprising.
Hope for the future
Ogilvie-Gilbreath shares hope for the future of East 8th Street.
“My God, he’s changing some things,” said Ogilvie-Gilbreath, sitting on one of the benches she preaches before every Sunday.
“I already see part of it. Sometimes people need to see the whole picture. I know this is just the beginning. There is going to be a big movement in the heart of 8th Street, from high up. downstairs. I see this street becoming just as important as the ones downtown. ”
“Uptown” is not too far away. A two minute walk down the next street, 7th Street, the scenery is another story. Renovated buildings, thriving new businesses and a spirit of revitalization fill the air. First Friday celebrations draw thousands, festivals abound, and tourists come to explore – all of which bolster the economy and show evidence of the county’s unprecedented growth.
In contrast, Ogilvie-Gilbreath, which celebrated its 60th birthday in July, saw its neighbor East 8th Street move from a hub of successful businesses to a place considered a “drug street” by the general public.
This may have been the case in the recent past, and maybe even today for some, but not for long. She says change is coming.
âI can feel it,â Ogilvie-Gilbreath said. “I’m excited about it. It might not even happen in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that just knowing it’s going to happen. This fire is going to spread, and that’s something that we will all have to see. ”
Ten years ago, there seemed to be a spark of change with a 2010 plan to reduce crime and address the deteriorating structures in the region. However, the plan never gained much momentum.
âThere are some setbacks. I hope the city crumbles and beautifies 8th Street like it did 7th Street. This is how you attract people here. sidewalks and street lights, âOgilvie-Gilbreath said.
“The Devil will be free as soon as you bring the light. I know it can happen if we get together. We could all go out and enjoy the street if there was a bench to sit on. You have to make it inviting. . “
Although the city plans to improve the road, including building a roundabout along the street, Ogilvie and the residents want to see more. City leaders are now pointing out that East 8th Street is the next step in the natural progression of the city’s ongoing revitalization and redevelopment. Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder said he would like to see improvements to the area, and the street improvements are a start.
âWhen I drive down this street I know that’s not what my parents envisioned,â Ogilvie-Gilbreath said. “It’s not what I’m envisioning, but I know change is coming and that change has to start with someone.”
If the local government doesn’t do the job fully, Ogilvie-Gilbreath said young people in the community could provide a way forward.
âBusinesses will thrive and they will become our training ground for our young people,â said Ogilvie-Gilbreath. “It will give them the excitement of being a leader. We have to start with our babies. We have to train and teach them. It will give them the example they need to be our great leaders.”
His own adopted daughter, Kay Polk, a student at Columbia State Community College, is studying for a business degree. She attends church services, plans funeral arrangements and plays the drums in the church orchestra.
âIt allowed me to better connect with other people,â Polk said. “It made me grow up.”
Polk said she was studying to prepare for a future, following her mother’s legacy. She hopes one day, alongside her cousin, to continue the family business.
âI think we’re going to carry on the legacy,â Polk said. “It’s our plan to keep going. It’s our plan to keep it going on 8th Street. It’s the last piece of the house. For me, it’s something major.”
Polk said she hopes the community thrives and echoes her prosperous past.
âI want this street to grow and there to be more business,â Polk said. “My vision is to see her as a community, to involve the community. I want the community to express itself more here. It’s sad. She’s just collapsing sitting there, and no one is doing anything with it.”
Polk’s vision could be on the horizon as city leaders look to the east side of downtown as a place to possibly expand the city’s arts district.
Build a foundation
As a child, Ogilvie-Gilbreath said she had the opportunity to help a bricklayer lay bricks at the church.
When her parents were preparing for their own ministry, she helped them install the same chandeliers that light up the church today.
She hopes future generations will, figuratively speaking, have the opportunity to do the same – lay the foundation for the new East 8th Street.
âI am grateful to God that I can say that I have contributed to this,â said Ogilvie-Gilbreath. “I can go out and I can show where I could have laid the bricks. These are things our children need. Do you know what kind of a mark that would leave on a child’s life? I want our babies to say they played a part in that. That’s a great thing. They can make that mark. ”
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