Charleston is buzzing with the stories of Black entrepreneurs who provided goods and services for Black consumers a half century ago when the city was divided along racial lines.
In the days before Uber, they took people places. Before GrubHub, they delivered food.
For example, after White cabbies refused to take Black people to work, Black businessman Henry Smith started the Safety Cab company, said his daughter Dr. Maxine Smith of Charleston. He also operated Esso and Shell gas stations, four liquor stores and a real estate business. Smith’s mother, Emily Smith, also operated a beauty shop on Coming Street.
Another success: When church goers wanted a “hot plate” of lima beans, beef stew and okra soup after Sunday service, they flocked to the Brooks Motel’s restaurant on Morris Street, operated by Benjamin Brooks and his brother, Albert Brooks. Charlestonian Jean Brooks Murphy, who worked in her family’s businesses as a high school and college student, said her father, Benjamin Brooks, and her uncle also helped launch other Black-owned businesses.
These are some of the stories the emerging Black Businesses of Charleston Oral History Project, organized by the Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC), is collecting to amplify the city’s Black businesses that were once scattered across the peninsula but concentrated mostly along the Cannon-Spring Street corridor and Morris Street.
Smith and Murphy are among four Charlestonians who are featured in a 15-minute PSC video that will debut at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at Burke High School. The children of the business owners shared with the PSC their parents’ struggles and successes. The project is designed to foster a deeper appreciation of how Black-owned businesses shaped the city’s culture and economy.
Former Charleston County School District deputy superintendent and advisor to the oral history project, Dr. Barbara Dilligard of Charleston, said in a press release that longtime Charlestonians and newcomers to the city “can appreciate the history that the [PSC] is going to share with them, and will learn more about a great city with such great potential.”
The PSC’s president and CEO, Brian Turner, said his organization is listening.
“It’s really key that we not go into this project with our own assumptions about what we think, but to actually use this as a time to have open ears about why places matter to people and what those stories are that help illuminate the past to inspire the present,” he said
Dentist James E. Brown had an office on Morris Street in the 1950s. His daughter, Jamella Brown Jaglal, who is also featured in the video, said her father spent one day each week seeing patients at his birthplace, Holly Hill, until the demands at his downtown Charleston office grew.
Decades ago, Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street compiled a list of nearly 300 Black-owned businesses in the city. In October 2021, church member Willi Glee told the Charleston City Paper that the church may have kept the list to encourage its members to support those businesses. The list included two insurance companies, 10 service stations, seven auto repair shops, eight funeral homes and dozens of merchants, beauty parlors, barber shops and restaurants.
In the late 1990s, Charleston City Council created the “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District” as an homage to the Black businesses in the Spring-Cannon Street corridor. Integration then gentrification were the social and economic shifts that began to dilute the city’s Black population, eroding the customer base for Black businesses, Murphy said. “Integration made a hard hit on our businesses because [Black] people just didn’t have to come to us,” she said. “They could go to other places. I think that was one of the things that slowed our businesses down.”
West Ashley resident Sharon Scott, also featured in the project, was too young to work at her father Albert Scott’s business, Scotty’s Sweet Shop. The shop at Fishburne and President streets was a favorite hangout for school children from the mid 1950s until the early 1970s.
Leon Alston, a local general contractor, said in addition to sweets, the shop also offered an assortment of other snacks and sandwiches, and it even had a jukebox. Alston said Scott was generous to the neighborhood kids and let them use a credit system if they didn’t have money.
“The main thing sold from Scotty’s Sweet Shop was called ‘Scotty’s Link,’ ” Alston said. “It was like a sausage. You were able to buy a whole link for 10 cents. Half a link was 5 cents. And if you wanted mustard on it, it was an extra penny.”
When Scott graduated from high school, she did what most of her peers did then: leave Charleston. “I thought there were no opportunities for me. I looked away from Charleston for success,” she told the City Paper. Scott worked as a reporter and copy editor for various newspapers in North Carolina, then she moved to Washington D.C., to work at The Washington Post for 23 years before she returned home.
“I didn’t focus on what I could do to help the Black community in Charleston back then,” Scott admitted. “I felt I needed to make some contribution to the community now, and this [project will help] people be aware of the legacy of local Black businesses.”
Scott said she hopes young Black people who hear the oral histories will feel solidarity and understand they are able to succeed in Charleston as entrepreneurs no matter what challenges they face.
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