Media Coverage

‘Can’t lose our history’: Exhibit honors Black, immigrant legacy of Charleston street

preservation-admin , April 14, 2021

Purvis Drugs, pharmacy at 42.5 Morris Street, Walter Boags, 1951, courtesy of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Purvis Drugs, pharmacy at 42.5 Morris Street, Walter Boags, 1951, courtesy of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.

CHARLESTON, S.C.

For nearly 200 years, Morris Street in downtown Charleston was more than an address.

In the 1850s, it was where newly emancipated African Americans began their lives as free people. It was where the National Freedman’s Relief Association opened the first public school for Black children in South Carolina.

In the 1960s, it was where Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders stayed the night at the Brooks Hotel. It was on this street that James Brown, “the godfather of soul,” accepted a key to the city in 1967.

But most of all, for Black residents and immigrants alike, Morris Street was a rare place in a segregated South that was entirely their own.

“Every part of our beautiful city was shaped in some way by the lives and work of Black Charlestonians, but none more than Morris Street,” said Nathaniel Robert Walker, an associate professor of architectural history at the College of Charleston. “It was the thriving commercial and cultural heart of a community that refused to be left on the margins of a segregated city.”

Fearing the legacy of the Morris Street Business District could one day be forgotten, the Preservation Society of Charleston has launched an online exhibitthat tells the story of this place and the people who shaped it.

Despite its small geographic size on the peninsula, Morris Street historically contained one of the highest concentrations of Black-owned and operated businesses, offices and residences in the city, as well as numerous houses of worship. It was also home to a thriving immigrant community, including German grocers, Irish laborers, Chinese businessmen and Russian-Jewish merchants.

Simonton School.jpg
Photograph of students following a teacher in the schoolyard at Simonton School, B.W. Kilburn, circa 1891, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The virtual exhibit features an online storyboard and an interactive map that tells the histories of more than 20 individual sites along Morris Street and its surrounding neighborhoods. The effort took years to complete.

Modern-day photos of these sites, however, reveal how much has already been lost.

When the Brooks Motel opened in a mid-century building at 60 Morris St. in 1963, it was billed as “the largest Negro motel in South Carolina.”

Its operators, brothers Benjamin and Albert Brooks, were successful Black businessmen and investors who owned several businesses that served African Americans in this downtown district.

Their Brooks Restaurant at 58 Morris St. would become what the exhibit calls “the social backbone of the Black community on Morris Street both before and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Joyce Howard, a woman who grew up in a nearby downtown neighborhood, spoke of Morris Street in an October 2017 oral history interview with the Historic Charleston Foundation.

“The bulk of our lives were below Morris Street. And when you would see people come in the tourist industry, like when our relatives came in, there were no hotels and stuff for them until the Brooks Brothers built their hotels,” she said.

Brooks Motel.jpg
The Brooks Motel, constructed circa 1963, 60 Morris Street, photograph by Steve Rhea, 1990.

In a 1967 interview with the Charleston Evening Post about his success, Albert Brooks spoke of how his friends up North had questioned his decision to do business in his hometown.

“Albert, why do you stay down South? Why not come up here?” he said they would ask.

“I’ll tell you why,” Brooks said. “I find that most everything up North is phony. I like it here in my hometown of Charleston. I have done well here. I have prospered.”

Today, a house now stands at the site of the former Brooks Motel. The mid-century civil rights landmark was demolished for new residential construction.

The goal of the online exhibit is to inform the public of these culturally significant sites on Morris Street, said Julia-Ellen Craft Davis.

Davis is a founding member of the Thomas Mayhem Pinckney Alliance, the task force that spearheaded this project in partnership with the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

“Our children will not know these stories personally, so it’s important that we go after this information now, because we have already lost so many people of the previous generation that knew it,” Davis said. “We can’t lose our history; once it’s lost you can’t regain it.”

Today, the street continues to change. Formerly dilapidated structures in the surrounding neighborhoods are being restored. Some have reopened as businesses, rental properties and single-family residences.

There are a number of surviving historic buildings, too, that represent what remains of the cultural history that was established back in the 1850s.

Morris Brown AME Church, for example, still remains a prominent house of worship. In the summer of 2015, after nine Black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist, Morris Brown AME became a place where people came to gather and grieve.

Church leaders organized a community vigil the day after the massacre. The church was so packed that an overflow group of community members had to stand outside.

However, the historically Black and immigrant demographic makeup of this street has been largely lost.

For more information on the Morris Street Business District or to view the free, online exhibit, visit http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/msbd.

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Photograph of students following a teacher in the schoolyard at Simonton School, B.W. Kilburn, circa 1891, courtesy of Library of Congress.
 
Profile Image of Caitlin Byrd

Caitlin Byrd covers the Charleston region as an enterprise reporter for The State. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and she graduated from UNC Asheville in 2011. Since moving to Charleston in 2016, Byrd has broken national news, told powerful stories and documented the nuances of both a presidential primary and a high-stakes congressional race. She most recently covered politics at The Post and Courier. To date, Byrd has won more than 17 awards for her journalism.