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 those important community establishments.

Retired educators George Kenny and Walter Brown are among those older Charlestonians who are prime interview subjects. They recall the corner stores, doctor and dentist offices, shoe repair and barber shops, beauty parlors, gas stations and hotels and other small family-owned businesses that catered to a mostly Black clientele when Charleston was a racially segregated city.

When Kenny was a music education student at what was then S.C. State College in Orangeburg, he spent most weekends in Charleston playing tenor sax during late-night jam sessions in the 1950s with the Swingers, a six-piece combo, at the RVA Club on Charleston’s west side.

That night spot at Ashley Avenue and Line Street is now a vacant lot adjacent to the Crosstown Expressway, which took a chunk out of the surrounding black neighborhood.

Across town at Buist Elementary School on Calhoun Street, sixth-grade math teacher Walter Brown dashed over after school to the nearby Browns Grocery at 6 Elizabeth St. for a bag of salty chips and a cold Pepsi. 

Deborah Powell Anderson and her husband, Frank Anderson, own and operate Fair Deal Grocery “The Spot 47″ | Credit: Herb Frazier

In the 1950s, his students also gathered there to buy “broke cookies” for a penny apiece. That store is now a single-family home in a heavily gentrified east side community.

The PSC is in the early stages of a plan to partner with groups to gather stories from people like Kenny and Brown who recall those businesses scattered throughout the city, but centered mostly along the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridor, along withMorris Street. Those businesses contributed to the city’s Black history, culture and economy.

“Robinson Florist (on Rutledge Avenue) and Pete’s Grill (on St. Philip Street) are the ones I know well,” Kenny said. “We lost (them) with integration. When integration came, Blacks started frequenting white businesses, but that was not reciprocated. Whites did not come to Black businesses.”

Brown said for young people today it might be difficult to imagine “these businesses within walking distance of your house that provided basic essentials, including wood” for cooking and heating. Many of these businesses closed, Kenny and Brown said, when the owners’ children didn’t follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Deborah Powell Anderson is an exception. Along with her husband, Frank Anderson, they operate Fair Deal Grocery “The Spot 47.” Deborah Anderson’s parents Paul and Gladys Powell opened the Fair Deal Grocery in 1953 at 47 Cooper St. “We are one of the oldest Black-owned businesses in downtown Charleston that has been owned the entire time by the same family,” she said with pride. After her father died in 1968, her mother and her late brother George Powell took turns operating the tiny grocery until she died in March 2020.

The Andersons have retained the store’s original name. In July 2016, they renovated their building and rebranded the business as Fair Deal Grocery “The Spot 47,” which continues as a grocery store with a sports/internet cafe with karaoke, a commercial kitchen and even two party buses.

Before he launched 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 told in “The Midnight Mayor of Charleston, S.C.: The Henry Smith Story,” written by his daughter, Maxine Smith. She sold Safety Cab in 1998. It continues today under new owners.

When white-owned cab companies didn’t give rides to Black people, Henry Smith started the service, especially for people with odd working hours, said his daughter, a retired educator and public relations executive.

The cab company was not the only business Smith operated. At various points, 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 name acts to Charleston under the banner Henry Smith Presents.

When Charleston’s Black business community was mostly confined to the peninsula, Smith was in that core group of businessmen, along with Albert and Benny Brooks, who operated the Brooks Motel and Grill on Morris Street, as well as other businesses. “Now we are living in the trident region, and it is hard to connect for business purposes,” said Smith, a former chief executive officer of the Trident Urban League.

If an effort is mounted to collect oral histories about Black businesses it must follow a carefully planned process, insisted Barbara Dilligard, retired deputy superintendent of the Charleston County School District.

The Brooks Hotel’s restaurant on Morris Street was among the recommended establishments in the 1960 version of The Traveler’s Green Book | Courtesy New York Public Library

“We need to identify people who may have information and people who could lead us to other people to develop a list of storytellers,” she said. When Black beachgoers were barred from white beaches, Dilligard’s father drove a bus on weekends, as a second job, that took Black Charlestonians on excursions to Atlantic Beach, a predominantly black ocean-front town 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 Emanuel kept the list to encourage its members to support those businesses.

It is unknown how many Black businesses remain. There are likely fewer than 100, said Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the Charleston Urban League. He welcomes the PSC’s interest in telling the history of Black businesses in Charleston.

“To go forward, you have to look back to understand the path going forward,” he said. “I think that it is extremely important to investigate and uncover what contributed to the demise of those businesses. Historically, Black businesses have always been undercapitalized and not afforded the same opportunity to get loans through banks and government-sponsored programs as their white counterparts. The Great Migration north in the early 1900s by Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South also contributed to the closing of many Black businesses in the city. We (as Black people) have to take blame 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 hold the powers that be responsible for the situations that have contributed to the demise of Black business and other long standing economic and social issues in the black community.”

Anyone wishing to participate in the oral histories project should contact Kelly Vicario with the Preservation Society of Charleston at kvicario@preservationsociety.org or (843) 722-4630 ext. 26.


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