by Amanda R. Lanata, Assistant Director of Louisiana Main Street
This story appeared in the May issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
Located in Lincoln Parish, the City of Ruston serves as the parish seat and home to Louisiana Tech University, with Grambling State University to its west. In the downtown Main Street Commercial District, the city has buried power lines, upgraded utilities, and enhanced its buildings and streetscape. These physical improvements set the stage for a revolution in intentional inclusivity in this small community in north Louisiana.
Downtown Ruston is now home to six black-owned businesses. This would have been unheard of just 10 years ago. “There was a perception that downtown was off-limits and not welcoming, but that’s changing,” said Ruston Main Street Director Amy Stegall. “Having downtown be open and accessible to all, for everyone to have that opportunity is a great feeling.”
At Louisiana Main Street, we believe that downtown is for everyone, but too often, the black community has been left out of the wealth many downtown businesses create. We know that during Jim Crow, black residents could not get jobs, open businesses or shop with dignity downtown, unless it was a black business district. This history is reflected in the built environment, too. Many historic theaters on our Main Streets still have extant “colored” entrances.
Today, we want to be inclusive in our efforts to revitalize historic downtown commercial districts — whether a traditional downtown of white business owners or one of the many black business districts that formed during segregation. Business owners have told us that locating downtown gives them legitimacy, authority and visibility. These benefits should be available to everyone. It can start with a conversation.
“When George Floyd was killed, I knew that we needed to do something, but I did not want it to be a committee with a report that sits on the shelf,” said Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker. He called Pastor Maurice White of Zion Traveler Baptist Church. The mayor said he wanted “real change for Ruston,” but he wasn’t sure what it should be. White and his congregation had already created a community development corporation to address poverty. The two men gathered community leaders, black and white, to form the Real Change group.
That first meeting started off quietly. “We all knew we had the same goal, but we didn’t know how to start the conversation,” Stegall said. “Pastor White told us that we wouldn’t get anywhere if we weren’t honest with each other. Then we all exhaled.” What followed became the foundation of strong and enduring friendships that cross racial boundaries. “The relationships are growing. People you never thought would deal with each other are doing business together, working together, and that’s needed in the times in which we live. Everyone is coming together for the betterment of the community,” White said.
With leadership from Real Change, the city will soon break ground on an affordable housing development called Greenwood Crossing. They are creating financial education and homeownership classes and an incubator program for minority contractors. The pastors involved in Real Change preach at each other’s churches. Stegall calls on the group when she needs volunteers for Main Street events.
“Our city has come together for lots of reasons,” Walker said. “I can’t stress enough the fact that our City Council bought in to the vision. The people in our city have seen what’s happened with the mayor and council working together, and it’s filtered down.”
1: The union choir performs at the 2021 Juneteenth celebration in downtown Ruston. Photo courtesy of Downtown Ruston. 2: Some of the members of Real Change for Ruston. Back row, from left, Amy Stegall; Pastor James Skinner; Phillip Smart; John Waltz; Mayor Ronny Walker; and James Austin. Front row, from left, Councilmember Angela Mayfield; Pastor Maurice White; and Sarah Warren. Photo courtesy of the City of Ruston.
A watershed moment was the city’s first Juneteenth event held in downtown last summer. “It was such a joy for older members of my congregation, who are in their 70s or 80s to be celebrating Juneteenth in downtown Ruston, and for there to be black businesses in downtown,” White said. “Because there was a time when they were not permitted to go into downtown Ruston because of the color of their skin. That’s real change.”
Downtown is a built environment, a physical place. We must remember that there is a historical and cultural significance attached to it. We can learn about this history. We can talk to our neighbors. We can start a conversation in our own communities.
Main Street programs are unifying forces that bring our towns together. We can lead in this area as well. We can be the connection that crosses racial and cultural boundaries. “This is the point of Main Street: we look at the past but also toward the future. Downtown needs to be representative of the community as a whole,” Stegall said. “Now, there’s an openness to doing things differently than before. Having [black] businesses move downtown, having people at the table has changed everything.”
White put it best: “Some people sit under trees that they didn’t plant themselves. To have those seniors out there [at Juneteenth], they were actually sitting under some trees that they probably planted, probably marched for [during the civil rights movement], sacrificed for — it was a good feeling for them.”
We can bring it full circle. Real Change for Ruston has shown us the way. Our next step is simple: gather people around a table and start talking to each other.
For more information about Real Change for Ruston, ruston.org/real-change-in-ruston.