Southern Heights

BR neighborhood ‘first fine subdivision for black homebuyers’

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Residents of Southern Heights gather at the Scotlandville Branch Library to share stories and photos. They are, back from left, John Knighten, Elsenia Young, Donald Kennedy and Eileen Kennedy; and, front from left, Henry Essex, Doveal Essex and Otis Stewart.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Residents of Southern Heights gather at the Scotlandville Branch Library to share stories and photos. They are, back from left, John Knighten, Elsenia Young, Donald Kennedy and Eileen Kennedy; and, front from left, Henry Essex, Doveal Essex and Otis Stewart.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of occasional features on neighborhoods in the Baton Rouge area.

As a child growing up on Southern Heights’ 79th Avenue, Phyllis White didn’t know her father, entrepreneur Horatio Thompson, was one of the developers of the subdivision, but she remembers people asking him to sell them lots.

White was born in 1949, two years before her father and other investors began developing 500 acres purchased from Baton Rouge lawyer and landowner Fred Benton Sr.

In a 1995 interview, Thompson called Southern Heights Baton Rouge’s “first fine subdivision for black homebuyers.

“Back in 1951, there was no Civil Rights Act and no first-class homes for black people,” he said. “We were able to buy 500 acres from Fred Benton Sr. and divide it into five-acre tracts which we sold. The City Council was sympathetic to our project, and the city put in streets and improvements, assessing each property owner for the cost. It was the first time that had been done. We made history with that development.”

Benton was a friend and adviser to Southern University’s father and son presidents, Joseph S. Clark and Felton G. Clark. He helped Felton Clark set up the First Federal Savings and Loan Association.

Harding Boulevard, the northern boundary of Southern Heights, leads to the overpass that cars cross onto the Southern University campus. Southern professors were among the first buyers in Southern Heights, White said.

Southern Heights is bounded on the west by Scenic Highway, on the east by Emile Street and on the south by 77th Avenue. Longtime residents say the J.W. Fisher home, on Harding Boulevard, is one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood.

“He (Fisher) tried to get me to buy on Harding Boulevard,” said Otis Stewart, 92, a retired letter carrier. “But in 1946, I bought two lots in Roosevelt Place, on the north side of Harding Boulevard, because the land was cheaper.”

Stewart was just out of the U.S. Marines at the end of World War II. He paid $600 for a corner lot and $500 for one next to the corner lot.

By 1954, lots on the south side of Harding were going for $3,000, said Henry Essex, 88.

Essex and wife Doveal, who retired as an assistant professor in Southern’s College of Education in 1976, have lived on 79th Avenue for almost 60 years. Essex retired in 1987 as director of middle schools in East Baton Rouge Parish.

“We’ve had the same phone number since 1953,” said Doveal Essex.

The Essexes paid $14,500 for their Crawford Home, a pre-fab house manufactured by the Crawford Corp., in 1954. From his Baton Rouge plant, W. Hamilton Crawford turned out pre-fab houses for
homeowners all over town and, eventually, the United States.

Henry Essex laughed as he read from the subdivision’s covenant that no house could cost less than $4,000. “No house even came close to that low an amount,” he said.

“They shipped Crawford houses in here like crossword puzzles,” Essex said. “They put the slabs down and came in with walls and the roofs, put them together like puzzles.”

Southern professors, black professionals and other black home buyers with good paying jobs began filling up the subdivision.

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, black principals who’d had careers in education around Louisiana began retiring to Southern Heights.

“They’d been students together at Southern, a lot of them in agriculture,” said Eileen Kennedy, who retired from Southern’s graduate school as director of special programs.

Kennedy’s husband, Ronald, 65, has his art studio in the house he grew up in on Harding Boulevard. The Kennedys live on 77th Avenue on land Eileen Kennedy’s father, Thomas E. Butler, bought from Horatio Thompson.

Ronald Kennedy retired as an art professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. He recalls chasing loose horses as a child growing up in Southern Heights.

In the 1950s, much of the subdivision and surrounding land were fields, said Stewart.

“People who lived on the north side of Harding tied their horses and cows on the south side of Harding,” Stewart said. “There were no fences, so they staked and tied their animals. You’d see six or seven horses tied up as you drove by.”

“The horses would get loose,” Kennedy said, “and we’d chase them. Try to catch the rope. A horse dragged me across Mr. Essex’s lot.”

Metro Airport occupies land that was Harding Field, an Army airbase in World War II. Some of the officers had houses on Curtis Street, near Immaculate Conception Church, on the north side of Harding.

“Watching the planes take off and land was the big entertainment Saturdays and Sundays,” Kennedy said. “Instead of watching television, we’d sit in the car or go to the fence to watch the planes. You could park right up to the airport fence.”

“The planes flew over our house,” White said. “I could stand in the front yard and read the numbers on the planes. You got used to the noise. You lived with it.”

John Knighten moved into 1788 77th Ave. in 1970.

“They got me to be president of the homeowners association in 1994,” he laughed. “And didn’t let me go until 2010.”

One of the first things Knighten did was help recruit block captains to fight house burglaries and damage to property.

About a dozen men who lived in the subdivision patrolled by car at night, he said.

“Women stayed home and kept watch on what was going on on the street. They called themselves ‘The Nosy Neighbors,’” Knighten said.

“Most of the break-ins happened between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” he said. “It was people in neighborhoods on either side of us walking through the neighborhood and coming back to break-in.”

“We brought crime down by 50 percent,” Knighten said.

“In the early 1990s, we had some drug houses,” he said. “We had to figure out a way to get rid of them.”

“They knew we were watching them,” Essex said.

“One of the men in our security group had been a drug dealer,” Knighten said. “He said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ I don’t know what he told them, but they shut down their operations.”

Today, 72 percent of Southern Heights’ 320 homeowners assess themselves $25 a year to belong to the property owners’ association.

“It’s still a desirable location,” said real estate broker Elsenia Young, who lives on 77th Avenue. “And the prices are reasonable.”

Houses on 70-by-150-foot lots sell for between $130,000 to $145,000, she said.