Black-owned Businesses 1900-1950
By 1910, 46 Blacks owned at least 30 acres of land with three of these farmers owning 100 acres or more: M. R. Anderson of Mills River Township (230 acres), Martin Herrin (100 acres) and Washington Shipman (100 acres) both of the Hendersonville Township. To be a property owner gave Blacks some security and independence in an unpredictable world. There were other Blacks who never gained financial success but were admired by their peers for their acquired skills. Among these persons were the much sought-after midwife Margaret Summey, hod carrier Thomas Mitchel, and mail carriers Garfield Markey and John Whitmire.
There were a few individuals who launched successful businesses in downtown Hendersonville. The county’s earliest recorded Black commercial enterprise was a confectionery shop owned by C. E. McKenzie. McKenzie’s shop provided customers with groceries, sweets, candles, soap, tea, coffee and spices. As Kirsten Mullen, reseacher for the Black History Research Project, notes; “Small businesses like McKenzie’s had difficulty securing credit and had to rely on a high volume of customers, who made their purchases in cash, to make a profit. Many of them failed. Located near Black neighborhoods—more profitable locations were often barred to them—Blacks were their primary customers. They also had to compete with White businesses that routinely outdistanced them in merchandise selection, prices, and services.” Confectioneries were the seventh most likely business chosen by Blacks after restaurants, barbershops, grocery stores, cleaning and pressing establishments, shoe repair shops, and mortuaries. Confectioneries were chosen for the relatively modest initial investment.
Simpson D. Dogan, a South Carolina native, came to Hendersonville and established himself as a very capable businessman. He opened a textile and apparel “cleaning and dyeing” operation on the northern edge of downtown Hendersonville near West College and North Main Streets. Dogan was the first Black merchant to use advertising extensively and showed his humor in this 1902 teaser: “S. D. Dogan, who has been dyeing for some time, is still alive and can be found at the old stand, where you can get clothes cleaned and dyed at reasonable prices.” In 1903, Dogan opened a grocery store and by 1905 he had become the most propertied Black in Henderson County. As Mullen uncovered, “Dogan’s business assets were valued at more than five times that of the next highest Black property owner in 1905 and the value of his cleaning and dyeing concern rose steadily each of the next four years.” By 1915, Dogan refined his company’s specialty to include “French Dry Cleaning and Pressing,” added a telephone and moved his business to a more desirable location across from the Courthouse. H. S. Maxey owned a “pressing club,” another designation for a dry cleaners, in “the old rock building on Main Street” in 1909, but his firm was never any real threat to Dogan’s business. Kirsten Mullen goes on to state that, “Well-positioned within the city’s business circle and an unparalleled leader among Blacks… Dogan remained virtually unchallenged as the county’s Black business kingpin until the late 1910’s when Rosa and James E. Pilgrim established the 5th Avenue (West) Pressing Club near Main Street, which would eventually overshadow Dogan’s highly successful pioneering enterprise… ”
Rounding out the early Black middle-class were ten teachers, seven ministers, three barbers and blacksmiths, and a butler. The teachers were literate, received a guaranteed income and were respected members of the community. The length of the school year varied from three to nine months and was a determining factor in their incomes. Mullen’s research indicates the teachers at the time were: In the Mills River Township the county commissioners employed Hattie Butler, who would become a model of philanthropy for the community; brother and sister, Thomas and Nannie Allen taught in the Clear Creek Township one third of the year; and in the Hendersonville Township, Elizabeth Caffe, Miss M. E. Henin, Lola Jefferson, John Wesley Neill, and Louisa Simmons were engaged in teaching occupations.
Hendersonville Township supported eight Black ministers in 1900: Frank Brown, who along with his mother, Harriet Westmoreland, had been a slave of Col. Valentine Ripley; Giles Fortune, Mr. Louis Gowan, Mr. Hemphill, Jack Lynch, Frank R. White, Morgan Williams, and Walter Williams. The Rev. Frank Brown was a businessman as well as pastor of the Star of Bethel Baptist Church, of which he was a founding member. He owned and operated a successful livery stable at the south end of Grove Street.
Calvin Russel was another man who did what was needed to make a living in the early years of the twentieth century. He was a farmer most of his life, but he did stints as a street grader and paver, grading First Street and paving with concrete the Main Street of Hendersonville. At one time he was a woodcutter and sold his products out of the back of a covered wagon.
Two members of the Happy Land colony, Perry and Sarah Williams, left the colony to open a restaurant close to the South Carolina line in southern Henderson County, catering to the needs of travelers “wagoning” down the old state road. They gained a reputation for well-cooked food, cleanliness, and providing the comforts people wanted while making the hard journey.
Lavinia Potts used her knowledge of medicines and herbs to help nurse the people of her East Flat Rock community. Her skills with people led her into midwifery, for which she became well known and respected by both Blacks and Whites. She was able to earn extra money as a seamstress, making comforters and quilts. She also gained a reputation as a baker, making fancy pastries, which she would sell on Saturdays to regular customers. The farm on which she and her husband George Potts lived was for the most part self-sustaining, but the money she brought in helped to pay the bills for the things that they could not supply themselves.
There were others, no doubt, who contributed their talents and energies to make an independent living but whose accounts have not been available for this history. The overwhelming majority of people between 1865 and 1920, however, labored in the hotels, houses, and fields of Whites, and the dignity of their work should not be forgotten. Without their dedication the generations of young people who have followed would not have had the expanding opportunities that their labors produced.
During this time most Blacks in Henderson County worked as maids, cooks, servants, and chauffeurs, with the Black professionals being teachers and ministers. Henderson County continued to base much of its economy on the tourist trade, and prior to 1925 the only other main industry was agriculture. Between 1925 and 1939 two industries located in Henderson County, Balfour Mills and Grey’s Hosiery Mill, but Blacks were employed at these locations primarily in custodial capacities. An example of a “good job” was one with the railroad. There were good wages and benefits, and in the Black community, a certain status went with the job. Racial prejudice continued to limit Blacks ability to get a fair opportunity at good jobs. To illustrate the pervasiveness of the prejudice, in Hendersonville, Blacks were denied such basic human decencies as being able to drink from the public drinking fountains or to rest on the green benches on Main Street. Until the early 1960’s Blacks had to enter restaurants by the back door, and although they could order take-out, they were not allowed to sit down and eat a meal. It wasn’t until the early 1920’s that Black people could stay at Patton Memorial Hospital and then they were relegated to a “Black wing” in the basement of the building. Prior to this time operations would be performed at Patton Memorial, but Blacks were then sent home in an open wagon to recover from surgery. Because Black people were excluded from the mainstream, a lively second economy grew up that catered just to Black people. There were two cafes, a taxi service, two boarding houses, at least one nightspot of note, two beauty shops, one newspaper and a funeral home.
During this time, from 1920 through 1950, Alberta Jowers is an example of a person who continued to give to the Hendersonville community in many enterprising and creative ways. Mrs. Jowers came to Hendersonville in the early 1920’s with a nursing degree from the Savannah School of Nursing. She came to Henderson County to do private duty nursing but soon was employed by Patton Memorial Hospital. She was the first Black nurse at the old Patton Memorial Hospital and her responsibilities were extensive. She not only performed her nursing duties but she lived in the hospital as well. She would be called on day or night as the need arose. Before the days of hospital dieticians, the nurses were expected to wash dishes, attend to the needs of the patients, and assist the doctors with their medical duties. Mrs. Jowers accomplished all these responsibilities with professionalism and caring. Blacks were reluctant at first to come to the White hospital. Black patients would come for appendix operations and serious medical needs, but events such as home births were still the norm at that time, with midwives serving the needs of the mother and her child. Lance Allen remembers that during those times “we never had a doctor till I was nearly grown. That was when my sister’s appendix ruptured and the doctor operated on her there at our house with his wife helping him.” Allen said a doctor was present when only two of the 13 babies came. “Sometimes there was a midwife, but not always.”
In 1927 Patton Memorial had had a succession of custodians who would come and go. It wasn’t until that year that Fred Means joined the staff doing yard work. He soon displayed the characteristics of a responsible worker and it wasn’t long before he was made head orderly. For the next 40 years Fred Means worked as head orderly, first at Patton Memorial Hospital, and then at Pardee Hospital. Of his work he said, “You must have a natural compassion for sick people and the will to contribute to their overall good or you don’t belong on this job.”
Mrs. Jowers also started the Mountain News, the only Black-run paper ever to be published in Henderson County. On the cover of each of her weekly papers she stated that the purpose for the paper was for “the betterment of Colored People in Western North Carolina.” She also started a beauty parlor called the Alberta Jowers Mooney Beauty Shop. One of the beauticians employed by Mrs. Jowers was Mrs. Kathleen Williams. Mrs. Williams later started her own beauty shop called Kathleen’s Beauty Shop, which has been in operation for more than 40 years. In 1948 Mrs. Jowers was appointed as the field representative for the North Carolina State Beautician and Cosmetologist Association. From this work she started the Beauticians Chapter 38 in Hendersonville with five beauticians as original members: Ms. Lydia Landrum, Mrs. Kathleen Williams, Mrs. Georgia Mims, Mrs. Lillie B. Quinn, and Ms. Geneva Green. The chapter continued to grow by including members from Polk and Transylvania counties. Among her community activities, Mrs. Jowers started the first Black Girl Scout troop, Troop No. 7, in the mid-1940’s, and also sponsored a Black baseball team in Hendersonville during the 1920’s. She had a car, an unusual possession for a woman at the time, and she drove the team to the towns where they played. Her accomplishments were unusual for a woman of her time but her characteristics of fortitude and imagination made her a notable businesswoman and community leader throughout her life. Toward the end of her life she moved to Washington, D.C. to be near relatives.
Another businessman who got his start during the 1930’s had an enduring influence on the Hendersonville community. The man was James Pilgrim. After graduating from Stephens-Lee High School in Asheville, N.C., in 1934, Pilgrim began work with Mark’s Cleaners, eventually buying into the business with partners Eric Frady and Max Markowitz. One day Thomas Shepherd approached Pilgrim, offering him a position in his funeral home business. Pilgrim accepted. From this start Shepherd aided Pilgrim in gaining his education and eventually, in 1941, helped him establish his own business by signing the bank notes, lending him equipment and aiding in the performance of his first funerals. Pilgrim’s Funeral Home prospered under the careful and compassionate eye of its founder. Pilgrim became involved in the activities of the Black community, always offering to help in any way he could. He was instrumental on the Community Council, which won a more equal footing in hiring practices for Blacks in Henderson County. James Pilgrim was motivated by his faith in Christian principles and said, “I’ve always tried to do the Christian thing, to follow the Master.” Because of his compassion and his position of financial independence, he continued to be a leader of stature in the Hendersonville Black community as well as the community as a whole until his death in 1988.
During the period from 1920 through 1950 Blacks in Henderson County, for the most part, were employed in more service-oriented work. This work had its demands as well as its traditions. For example, schedules within the Black community were adapted to accommodate domestic workers. Churches held two Sunday worship services so that members working as servants could attend an evening service. There were social traditions as well. One such traditional party was an annual event held at the end of the summer season which became known as the “Chauffeurs’ Ball.” The drivers for Low Country Whites, summering in Flat Rock, would celebrate with an end-of-the-season party. For that evening they had the use of the “big car,” a Cadillac, Pierce Arrow, or Packard, and it was traditional to dress elegantly. A band from Asheville called “The Little Brown Jug” would offer the music. Another popular gathering place during the 30’s and 40’s was the “Merry Garden,” located off of Mine Gap Road in East Flat Rock. Bands traveling through the area would play on weekends. Occasionally, a big name band would play at the Merry Garden. The place to gather downtown was Bennett’s Barber Shop. This popular place remained open from the late 1940’s to 1973. There one could get a haircut as well as a sandwich and a good dose of conversation.
The years from 1920 through 1950 were a period of gradual change in the economic life of Blacks. The Great Depression and WWII were over and many Blacks had served their country honorably during the war. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had opened doors for many people and it wouldn’t be long before the tight bonds of segregation would begin to come apart. The stage was set for the dramatic changes that were about to take place across the nation and in Henderson County as well.
From A Brief History of the Black Presence in Henderson County by Gary Franklin Green