The Last Little Piece

Homer Wilson remembers when Hot Corner was home to more than 60 black-owned businesses: doctors, dentists, motels, barbershops, and restaurants—even a black college. Three remain today, including Wilson’s Styling Shop, one fewer than this time last year.

The Hot Corner, which consists of the corner of North Hull Street and West Washington streets, is described as, “sort of the Mecca for black people,” Wilson says. “And, if it were to disappear, yeah, I’d be upset, but that’s not going to happen.”

Wilson’s optimism is shared by the customers who drift in an out of his shop, but they are realists as well.

At any given time of day one can find Wilson’s Styling Shop filled with patrons of all walks of life; high schoolers; students; even the local pastor participate in the singing, laughter, debate and hilarity.

In October 2011, Wilson’s mother, Elizabeth, and Wilson’s sister, Angelish closed Wilson’s Soul Food, which was next to the barbershop after more than three decades on the corner.

“She got tired.” Wilson said.

 Districts like the Hot Corner are common in small southern cities, waning vestiges of racial segregation.

“All these neighborhoods that used to be black are now white. All the counties were black and ‘The Corner’ is like the last little piece. ” Bernard Anderson, barber of over five years at Wilson’s said.

In the early 1960’s Mr. Mitchell sold the barbershop to M.C Wilson and Mr. Hanes who had a partnership that ended with Mr. Wilson and his sons buying out Mr. Hanes and keeping the business going.

The corner currently consists of: Brown’s Barbershop, a family owned business; Manhattan Café, an eatery; Morton Theater, a local venue; and Wilson’s Styling Shop.  

Athens was once home to 1,892 slaves and one freed black man making up a half of the population of Athens, according to the Georgia Encyclopedia. Today African Americans make up 25.8% of the population, according to City Data for Athens Clark County.

“There’s black people here, but sometimes were forgotten because of the University, not saying that we do not need the University,” Pat Watkins, a Wilson’s barber of over 10 years, said.

Every year to commemorate the Hot Corner there is a three-day family event with food, games, and family fun that draws 1,500 people, according to the Athens Banner Herald. The festival takes place on the first weekend of May and this year will mark the 12th year of the festivities.

The festival is more geared towards families and local Athenians, but they are hoping to expand it to University students.

The festival has various forms of entertainment including dance troupes, artists, a car show and even a hair show.

The festival brings out Gospel Acts and this year plans to bring some Hip Hop acts from around the area to preform to attract more people.

 “Student participation would be so wonderful but since it’s the first week of finals some of them are too busy studying to come out and support.” Wilson said.

“I would try to bridge that gap, between the University and Athens. People don’t even know about [the Hot Corner] and they don’t know the history and it’s really sad,” Alvin M, said,  a University of Georgia Law student and Athens local.

 “We don’t even have one of those historical markers.” Watkins said.

When asked about obtaining a historical marker, most of the shop employees had never even thought about it. “They know about [Hot Corner] because the Tour of Athens come[s] right there and park[s], I don’t know what they say but I’d always wanted to go see what they say about the history,” Watkins said. “This is where you get a haircut…keep it movin” Anderson said.

 Athens was once a hub for African American education in Georgia, specializing in secondary education, according to the Georgia Encyclopedia. “Athens had the first black high school in Georgia, [there’s] a marker up there, but now its just nothing but a lot.” Watkin’s said.

Almost 2,600 historical markers are located throughout the state of Georgia. These markers are only exceeded by Texas (11,000) and New York (2,800), according to Georgia Info online’s database.

“Stores that we have been open longer than have plaques, but, that’s just how Athens is, you know; you can get overlooked so easily,” Watkins said.

To obtain a historical marker, an establishment must have been open for 50 plus years and apply to the historical society of the state. “We just never really thought about that.” Wilson said, “If we had more young minds thinking like that we would have already had one.”

While evidence shows that the Hot Corner is becoming smaller, the people who grew up on the corner and the current owners of the corner do not believe that the corner is going anywhere.

“I was raised on a farm up the street, but I grew up on the corner,” Mr. Alvin, a local Athens man said.

“It’s the same owners, same social networks, same business,” Anderson said.

Browns Barbershop, which is located two doors down from Wilson’s, is owned by the Brown family who claim to have been the first barbershop on the corner. However, the family was not open for comment.

Jameson C. Sheets who is affiliated with the Brown family was found sitting listening to music in Wilson’s barbershop and said, “All these new projects are coming around, and I don’t know if they are trying to push people away, but, there are a lot of new businesses around, but for the most part the corner is the same.”

“There’s less people because of Wilsons (restaurant) closing. The downtown area seems like more things are being built for ‘other’ people. There’s a lot more that we could do to bring more people here but everyone’s just holding on to keep people here,” Sheets said.

Sheets, whose mother was an influential part of the community near the east end of Athens, has her own smaller festival called the Loretta Cleveland Festival held on the day of her passing in the middle of October.

When asked about a possible closing of either one of the festivals, Sheets said, “It would be a huge let down [for] us as black people in Athens. We don’t really have too many events and things to look forward to so its one of those very few events that we do have so if it was lost it would be very sad.”

Many of the residents who have grown up on or around the Hot Corner truly believe that it is not going anywhere as long as they have a say in the matter.

“I still wouldn’t leave, and it’s not going to shut down. It’s a landmark, its not going to shut down. I wouldn’t feel too happy about it, but its not going to shut down,” Mr. Alvin said.

Mr. Wilson attributes the corner dying down to the younger generations. “The younger group, the children, should have held on, but all you can do is watch your watch,” Wilson said.

Many of the barbershop employees agree.

“If the youth doesn’t want to keep [Hot Corner] going, that’s the only way the Hot Corner will stop, if the youth stops.” Watkins said

As of now, the corner shows no immediate sign of getting any smaller because of financial reasons. The residents and inhabitants of the corner all agree that the corner is not going anywhere soon.

“My dad told me the only thing: all you can do is look out for your watch, and I’ma [Sic] hold on. But after me, it’s out of my hands,” Wilson said.

“As long as they got breath in they [Sic] body I don’t see the [Hot] Corner going no where, ” Watkins said. 

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