Hundreds of black-owned businesses once dotted the Charleston Peninsula. The Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC) aims to empower local leaders to collect the oral histories of these important community establishments.
Retired educators George Kenny and Walter Brown are among those older Charlestonians who are the main interview subjects. They are reminiscent of convenience stores, medical and dental offices, shoe repair shops and barbershops, beauty salons, gas stations and hotels and other small family businesses that catered to a predominantly black clientele when Charleston was a racially segregated city.
When Kenny was a music education student at what was then SC State College in Orangeburg, he spent most weekends in Charleston playing the tenor saxophone during nightly jam sessions in the 1950s with the Swingers, a combo of six musicians, at the RVA Club West Side of Charleston.
This nightclub on Ashley Avenue and Line Street is now a wasteland adjacent to the Crosstown Expressway, which has taken up much of the surrounding Black Quarter.
Across town at Buist Elementary School on Calhoun Street, sixth-grade math teacher Walter Brown rushed after school to Browns Grocery located at 6 Elizabeth St. for a bag of salty crisps and a cold Pepsi.
In the 1950s, his students also gathered there to buy âbroken cookiesâ for a penny a piece. This store is now a single family home in a heavily gentrified eastern community.
The PSC is in the early stages of a plan to partner with groups to collect stories from people like Kenny and Brown who remember these businesses scattered across town, but centered mostly along the Spring Street / Cannon Street corridor, as well as Morris Street. These businesses have contributed to the city’s black history, culture and economy.
âRobinson Florist (on Rutledge Avenue) and Pete’s Grill (on St. Philip Street) are the ones I know well,â Kenny said. âWe lost them with the integration. When the integration happened, blacks began to patronize white businesses, but it was not reciprocated. Whites did not come to black companies.
Brown said that for young people today, it might be hard to imagine “those businesses within walking distance of your home that provided the essentials, including firewood” for cooking and heating. Many of those businesses closed, Kenny and Brown said, when the owners ‘children did not follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Deborah Powell Anderson is an exception. Together with her husband, Frank Anderson, they operate the Fair Deal grocery store “The Spot 47”. Deborah Anderson’s parents, Paul and Gladys Powell, opened the Fair Deal grocery store in 1953 at 47 Cooper Street. . After his father’s death in 1968, his mother and late brother George Powell took turns operating the small grocery store until his death in March 2020.
The Andersons kept the store’s original name. In July 2016, they renovated their building and renamed the Fair Deal Grocery business “The Spot 47”, which continues to be a grocery store with a sports internet cafe with karaoke, a commercial kitchen and even two party buses.
Before starting his business, Paul Powell drove for the Safety Cab Co., founded in 1936 by Henry Smith. His life as one of Charleston’s legendary businessmen is recounted in âThe Midnight Mayor of Charleston, SC: The Henry Smith Story,â written by his daughter, Maxine Smith. She sold Safety Cab in 1998. She continues today under new owners.
When white-owned taxi companies weren’t driving blacks, Henry Smith started the service, especially for people with irregular working hours, said his daughter, a retired educator and public relations manager.
The taxi company was not the only business Smith operated. At various times he owned Esso and Shell gas stations, four liquor stores and a real estate business. He was also an entertainment promoter, bringing James Brown and other big names to Charleston under the Henry Smith Presents banner.
When Charleston’s black business community was mostly confined to the peninsula, Smith was part of that nucleus of businessmen, along with Albert and Benny Brooks, who operated the Brooks Motel and Grill on Morris Street, as well as other companies. âNow we live in the Trident region and it’s hard to connect for business purposes,â said Smith, former general manager of the Trident Urban League.
If an effort is made to collect oral histories of black businesses, it must follow a carefully planned process, insisted Barbara Dilligard, retired assistant superintendent of the Charleston County School District.
âWe need to identify people who may have information and people who could lead us to other people to develop a list of storytellers,â she said. When black bathers were denied access to white sand beaches, Dilligard’s father drove a weekend bus, as a second job, which took black Charlestonians on excursions to predominantly Atlantic Beach. black by the ocean just north of Myrtle Beach.
Decades ago, Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street compiled a list of nearly 300 black-owned businesses in the city. Church member Willi Glee speculates that Emanuel kept the list to encourage his members to support these businesses.
It is not known how many black companies remain. There are probably less than 100, said Otha Meadows, chairman and CEO of the Charleston Urban League. He applauds the PSC’s interest in telling the story of black businesses in Charleston.
âTo move forward, you have to look back to understand the way forward,â he said. âI think it’s extremely important to investigate and find out what contributed to the demise of these companies. Historically, black businesses have always been under-capitalized and have not had the same opportunity to obtain loans through banks and government-sponsored programs as their white counterparts. The great northward migration in the early 1900s by blacks leaving the Jim Crow South also contributed to the closure of many black businesses in the city. We (as blacks) are to be blamed for some of the conditions in our community. But it also requires us to be at the table to provide recommendations and solutions to the problems and to hold the powers that are responsible for the situations that have contributed to the demise of black businesses and other long-standing economic and social problems in the world. black community. “
Anyone interested in participating in the oral histories project should contact Kelly Vicario with the Preservation Society of Charleston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 722-4630 ext. 26.