The denizens of a city should feel represented by and connected to their downtown. A downtown district should simultaneously showcase the pride of the local population and offer visitors a glimpse into the cultural and economic histories of an area, along with evidence of its current social priorities. Above all else, a downtown should engender a strong sense of place for generation after generation, because consistently encouraging a city’s flavor and celebrating its unique characteristics ensures a future both vital and vibrant.
With those beliefs at heart, and inspired by the wildly successful Sweet Auburn Springfest in Atlanta, longtime Athenian Homer Wilson created the Hot Corner Celebration and Soul Food Feast 16 years ago.
The 2016 incarnation of the two-day event opens Friday night with a not-to-be-missed gospel extravaganza at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic sanctuary in downtown Athens designed and built by African Americans with a congregation that can trace its roots to the 1820s. On Saturday revelers can expect a block party featuring 10 hours of nonstop live entertainment and a bevy of civic, culinary and competitive activities. There will be barbecue, classic cars, checkers and chess.
Wilson has worked at his family’s barber shop on North Hull Street for more than 50 years. He recalls making the trip to Athens from Madison County as an 8- or 9-year-old boy, watching men play billiards at a pool hall in the Morton Theater. He remembers when the Union Hall Hotel faced west, casting early afternoon shadows on what is now the Manhattan Cafe, before a huge church was built that needed a place for its gymnasium.
Any portrait of the Hot Corner Celebration would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of the topic of gentrification. The intersection of Hull and Washington streets was the epicenter of African American culture and commerce less than a century ago. The Morton Theatre, built by the wealthy black businessman Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton in 1910, hosted such legends as Blind Willie McTell and Cab Calloway. Today, only a handful of black-owned and operated businesses remain.
This year’s Hot Corner comes at a time when—in the wake of the General Beauregard’s “N*****ita” controversy last fall—downtown is facing criticism from minority and progressive communities that it lacks a welcoming atmosphere for people of color. The lack of diversity downtown bothers Wilson, who says a more diverse mix of businesses would make downtown friendlier for people of all cultures. “When I read the Flagpole article about discrimination in the bars downtown, I was shocked,” he says. “I thought we were all over that.”
Reports from black UGA students that they’re regularly turned away from student-oriented bars also shocked Mokah Johnson, an educator and hip hop promoter who’s been organizing efforts to rid downtown of discriminatory practices, such as dress codes aimed at keeping African Americans out of student bars. “It’s not inviting to African Americans, or seemingly any culture outside of [white] college students,” says Johnson, who is originally from Jamaica. “My family came to visit as well, and stated they felt uncomfortable downtown.”
Johnson believes businesses that cater to minorities—hair salons, clothing retailers and authentic Mexican and Caribbean restaurants, for example—could thrive downtown because they wouldn’t be subject to the seasonal shifts in student clientele. She says she’d like to see Athens-Clarke County offer grants to help local minority business owners locate in the high-rent downtown area. (Athens Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Pamela Thompson says she is working on a low-interest microloan program for small businesses.)
To its credit, the Hot Corner Celebration is not simply an exercise in nostalgia; it’s facing these issues head-on. The mission, as event organizer and Athens Technical College instructor Tawana Mattox shares, is not only to “pay homage to the history of Hot Corner business owners from the ’50s and ’60s,” she says, but to also “promote a site of exchange for encouraging more African American business ownership in the downtown area.”
Mattox has enjoyed attending the festival for years, and transitioned into her administrative and leadership role in 2013 after hearing a radio show featuring Wilson and A.R. Killian, Athens’ first black policeman. “Their stories and roll call of the many African American businesses that lined up Washington and Hull Street resonated with my soul, and I remember visiting Mr. Wilson shortly after,” she says. “The rest is history.”
Recruiting young, intelligent, passionate talent like Mattox to serve on the planning committee and help grow the annual summer event has been Wilson’s organizational strength. The past two years have seen a significant attendance surge, and local promoter Montu Miller’s role in the festival’s increased popularity cannot be overstated. Bands, speakers, poets, MCs, DJs and dancers—more than 40 acts in all—will entertain the crowds on Saturday until the sun goes down. (Performers include Jet Squad, Chrismis, Blacknerdninja, Squalle, L.G. and Versatyle Tha Wildchyld; see below for a full schedule.)
Miller had a hand in curating the entire experience. “I’m not going to lie,” says Miller. “Booking so many acts can get really crazy, but my family already knows how I get during this time of the year. Ultimately, it is worth the time and effort knowing I’m helping to not only preserve Athens’ black history, and Athens’ history as a whole, but to build a foundation for future generations.”
So what does the future hold—for the Hot Corner Celebration and the neighborhood? The sky’s the limit. Wilson says he is pleased with the recent momentum and would love for the event to ultimately host a college football classic in the fall featuring two historically black colleges, complete with a downtown parade and marching bands at halftime. Clarke Central High School has the facilities to host, until the game outgrows the space and Hot Corner organizers set their sights on Sanford Stadium. (A 13-minute Ludacris pregame show probably won’t happen.)
“I personally believe there is room for a lot more growth,” says Miller, adding, “Hot Corner can be just as big as any other festival that Athens has to offer. This will only be achieved through bigger sponsors and even more support from the community.”
Mattox concurs, saying she is confident that Hot Corner can not only become a more popular festival but also expand its scope to offer year-round activities, educational programs and partnerships that foster an entrepreneurial spirit within the community. All of this would be welcomed, healthy and essential for our downtown.
Shaye Gambrell contributed reporting.
HOT CORNER CELEBRATION SATURDAY, JUNE 11 SCHEDULE:
12-12:30 p.m. Gospel Testimony
12:30-12:40 p.m. Gospel Royals Airs
12:40-12:50 p.m. Rev. W. Mauriez Blount
12:50-1 p.m. The Spiritual Aires of Smyrna, GA
1-1:10 p.m. On Fire 4 God
1:10-1: 20 p.m. Spontaneous Denial
1:20-1: 30 p.m. Kaliah Hearts
1:30-1:40 p.m. Nebo
1:40-1:50 p.m. Rashard Stovall
1:50-2 p.m. Lifting the Void
2-2: 10 p.m. John Dunn Band
2:10-2:20 p.m. Wise Expressions
2:20-2:30 p.m. Peewee Da Golden Child
2:30-2:40 p.m. Andy Linden
2:40-2:50 p.m. Destructive Divas
2:50-3 p.m. Ziggy RoxXx
3-3:10 p.m. Kidd Shadi
3:10-3:20 p.m. Young Gutta
3:20-3:30 p.m. Stella Zine
3:30-3:40 p.m. Lil C
3:40-3:45 p.m. Sonny Bamboo
3:45-3:50 p.m. Profound
3:50-4 p.m. Autumn Saints
4-4:15 p.m. Dancing in the Streets and Awards
4:15-4:25 p.m. African Soul
4:25-4:35 p.m. Billy D. Brell
4:35-4:45 p.m. Tru Thought
4:45-4:55 p.m. Ant Da Ripper
4:55-5 p.m. TPM 400
5-5:10 p.m. Shania
5:10-5:20 p.m. A. Mack
5:20-5:30 p.m. Palms of Fire – Unitarian Universalist Church
5:30-5:40 p.m. Swavez
5:40-5:50 p.m. Milyssa Rose
5:50-6 p.m. Mia
6:10-6:20 p.m. VIP Girls
6:20-6:30 p.m. Versatyle Tha Wildchyld
6:30-6:40 p.m. Eri Soul (Guitar)
6:40-6:50 p.m. Supu Man
6:50-7 p.m. CWhite and Kdub
7-7:10 p.m. Street Legacy Muzik
7:10-7:20 p.m. Solo Hitz
7:20-7:30 p.m. K. Chanta
7:30-7:40 p.m. Ant Breezy
7:40-7:50 p.m. Yung Cuz
7:50-7:55 p.m. L.G.
7:55-8 p.m. Squalle
8-8:10 p.m. Tee-Roy 3Mil
8:10-8:20 p.m. BlackNerdNinja
8:20-8:30 p.m. Stella
8:30-8:40 p.m. Kaliko
8:40-8:50 p.m. Chrismis
8:50-9 p.m. Jet Squad
9-9:15 p.m. Dancing in the Streets – Line Dances
9:15-10 p.m. Splitz Band
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