1950 Fire Changed Davidson Forever
On a Sunday morning in 1950, there was a fire in Davidson that interrupted a church service and changed Davidson forever.
The fire occurred on February 1, 1950 in Brady’s Alley, which ran from Main Street to the railroad tracks between what is now the Famous Toastery and the Needlecraft Center. At the time, the alley, crowded with rental houses and a boarding house, was home to many of Davidson’s African American residents. An article in the Statesville Daily Record the following December 22 retells the story as an example of the Christmas spirit in action. According to the Record, “Brady’s alley is a negro slum, which … stands directly behind the row of the principal business buildings, and only a hundred yards from the Presbyterian church and the campus of historical Davidson College.” There were approximately eleven shacks along the alley, housing 87 people; 25 of these were crowded into a five-room tenement. The Record went on to describe conditions along the alley: “Outdoor privies, chicken yards, pig pens and garbage cans were as closely crowded as were human beings… Four outdoor spigots gave the slum dwellers their only water supply.”
Carlton Pritchett, then the pastor of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church, interrupted the service when he heard the fire alarm and led the congregation across the street to help extinguish the fire. The Record described the blaze, which burned a two-room shack, as a small fire “as fires go.” The family, however, lost everything and was forced to move into a relative’s nearby home, “so that it came to shelter 17 people.” Reverend Pritchett then organized a tour of the poorer neighborhoods of Davidson, and he reminded local citizens “of a Christian and civic responsibility.” This resulted in a Citizens’ Housing Committee “and a private, voluntary method of financing a slum clearance, home-building project for the town’s Negro residents was adopted.”
The Committee purchased land on which it had a house built for $3000; the prospective owner was required to put up ten percent “in cash, lot, or the equivalent…Additionally, some individual or group had to give endorsement by placing stocks, bonds or cash in escrow, which would remain as the lending agency as insurance in excess of a normal loan.” By late fall, there were ten new houses on Davidson’s Westside, eight built by the committee and two by a private citizen. “The sale of these 10 houses meant that of the 100 Davidson homes occupied by Negro families, 58 were now owned by the occupants.”
The town passed new ordinances requiring that the houses have bathrooms and electricity, and it spent $30,000 to provide sewer service. That December, the college YMCA’s $5000 Christmas gift fund was added to the loan insurance fund, allowing for the construction of ten additional homes. According to the Record’s reporter, “If any combination could be more local, more in keeping with essential democracy, more worthy of emulation, I have not heard of it.”
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.