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A look back at a once ‘thriving community’ in Riverside

02/21/2016 12:00 PM |

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The weathered buildings lining much of the Flanders Road commercial district in Riverside, or what remains of it, appear to be listed for sale more than they’re open for business. Thick sheets of ice have consumed the parking lots of long-abandoned structures and rows of boarded windows seem interrupted only by the occasional barbershop or McDonald’s franchise.

It’s a sight David Peter Fitzgerald surmises would make his relatives, who opened several black-owned bars and motels in the once-industrious hamlet in the 20th century, roll in their graves.

“This was a thriving community,” said the 61-year-old Riverside native, who remembers the road he still lives on as being filled with successful African-American businesses. “They wouldn’t like it at all.”

Mr. Fitzgerald is also cautiously optimistic about current plans to revitalize the Riverside commercial corridor.

“We’ve heard this song and dance many times, so I’m still skeptical,” he said. “I want to see businesses. That’s my hope, to see it built up.”

If that were to happen, the area might once again be home to businesses like those Mr. Fitzgerald remembers.



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The Blue Bird Inn was the larger of the two buildings behind this unidentified little girl in an undated photo.

THE BLUE BIRD INN

Despite its name, the Blue Bird Inn was more of a nightclub and employee boardinghouse than a place for passersby to rest their heads.

Established in 1929 by Mr. Fitzgerald’s paternal aunt, Willie Augusta Fitzgerald, and her husband, Jesse Shelton, the two-story structure featured natural wood walls and was popular among locals for the blues and jazz musicians it hosted — not to mention its soul food.

“They were famous for their fried pork chop sandwich and macaroni and cheese,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who as a teenager was permitted to play drums at the Blue Bird on Sundays with his band, the Invader Juniors.

In March 1946, the Blue Bird Inn made headlines when Mr. Fitzgerald’s paternal uncle, Meriwell Fitzgerald, 35, was stabbed to death there after he ordered two African-American men who had brought their own alcohol into the bar to leave.

The suspects, Joseph Fleming, 26, and his brother, Leroy, 22, were charged with first-degree murder and later indicted on a charge of first-degree manslaughter. They were each sentenced to serve between five and 20 years in prison.

“My Uncle Meriwell had gotten out of the bar business; then my Uncle Jesse lured him back in,” Mr. Fitzgerald recalled. “And that’s when he got killed.”

Mr. Fitzgerald said race relations back then meant his family was probably content that the Fleming brothers went to prison at all, despite being convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter.

“The fact that they went to jail, I guess they were satisfied with that at the time,” he speculated.

The Blue Bird Inn again received press in 1953, when a fire gutted the structure’s “entire interior and damaged the exterior,” according to a contemporary article from the Riverhead News-Review.

Despite the damage, the Sheltons continued to operate the Blue Bird Inn until their retirement in 1966.

Today, nothing remains of the Blue Bird Inn. The lot it once sat on is empty. 

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