"Scratch Ankle" was a pejorative term used by the Birmingham Police Department and others to refer to the black business district centered on 18th Street North and 4th Avenue North. One suggestion for the origin of the name is the itching welts left by the leg-irons used to bind workers in chain gangs. In the early 20th century African-American men were often rounded up on minor charges and put to work in the state's "convict lease system" for long periods.
One source locates Scratch Ankle as a mining district at the edge of the city. Another community by the same name was located in Monroe of Clarke County, so named because stagecoach travelers were frequently attacked by fleas or other insects on that part of their journey.
Bustling by day, the district became known for illicit activities at night. Notable businesses included Powell's Saloon. Another well-known character in Scratch Ankle of the 1880s was Jennie Beal (or Beall), a madam who operated her "palace" with African-American and mixed-race prostitutes which were visited by both black and white men.
In early 1899 the Birmingham Age-Herald embarked on a campaign to have the "dives and dens of infamy and vice" in Scratch Ankle and Buzzard Roost "broken up, root and branch" for, "the lasting benefit of the city." Scratch Ankle was still listed as a den of vice and a source of bad publicity in George Ward's calls for county-wide prohibition in the early 1900s. By 1906 the Birmingham Realty Company stated in an editorial that, whereas "Scratch Ankle" and its ilk were, fifteen years earlier, the, "squalid abodes of a shiftless, criminal an very dangerous class of people," the area "has become a part of the business district of the city and the old name is little more than a memory."
Nevertheless, the memory of the neighborhood's criminal reputation persisted. Diane McWhorter described the Scratch Ankle of the mid-20th century as a "subterrein" ruled by Charles "Rat Killer" Barnett, owner of the 17th Street Shine Parlor who organized the bootlegging and pimping activities in the district while enjoying immunity from prosecution as an informant to Bull Connor. The term continued to be used for a beat in Birmingham Police Department work lists in the 1960s.
In fiction, Scratch Ankle was used as the name of a chapter in Clement Wood's 1922 novel Nigger.
- Weekly Age Herald (January 2, 1889) - via Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
- Birmingham Realty Company (February 6, 1906) "Greater Birmingham And The Matter of Slums." Vol. 2, No. 15, reprinted in The Birmingham News (February 7, 1906), p. 6
- "Birmingham's Eighteenth Street" (August 1937) U. S. Steel News. Vol. 2, No. 8
- McWhorter, Diane (2001) Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743226488