Recalling ‘vivid memories’ of Rock Hill’s black business district

Rock Hill will soon have a historic monument for long-gone black-owned businesses like Mutt’s Pool Hall, Mills’ Service Station and the Gathings Drug Store.

The businesses once were fixtures in the city’s old black business district, which sat between West Black and West Main streets and Trade Street, now called Dave Lyle Boulevard. On Thursday, Rock Hill leaders and family members of the people who ran the businesses gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony for the future monument.

Members of the Rock Hill African-American Cultural Resources Committee led the effort to raise money for and plan the monument. The goal is to preserve and share the rich history of Rock Hill’s black community and to honor the contributions that black business owners made to the city, said Gladys Robinson, leader of the cultural resources committee.

Robinson and others have worked with city officials for nearly two years to make the monument a reality, she said.

“Many of us still have vivid memories of those businesses,” she said.

John Richardson is one who remembers life in the old black business district. As a child, he got his first professional barber shop haircut in the mid-1950s at the OK Barber Shop. The business operated on Black Street for nearly 50 years.

On Thursday, he swapped stories with Willie “Bro” Sawyer, the grandson of Andrew Jackson, who ran the OK Barber Shop. Richardson recalled that his dad brought him from Lesslie to Rock Hill, where he was “crying and twisting” in Jackson’s chair.

His haircut was one of thousands Jackson did for Rock Hill’s black community before he died in 1965. Sawyer later took over the barber shop at a new location on West Main Street near Constitution Boulevard.

Before black business owners were forced out of the district, Jackson’s barber shop was the place to go for a hot shave and a fresh cut. At the time, businesses like Jackson’s were the only places in a segregated Rock Hill where black people were welcome.

The black businesses were community gathering places, Robinson said. The restaurants, shops and other businesses served black people living in Rock Hill who didn’t have the option to go to white stores in other parts of town, she said.

The business district was decimated in the 1970s through a federal economic development grant program designed for cities that were planning for “urban renewal.” The program gave Rock Hill money to buy land from the black business owners and demolish the old buildings.

Rock Hill city leaders opted to wipe out the old black business district with an eye on future development in the area. Now, the city has put $20,000 toward the historical monument, which will sit at the corner of Dave Lyle Boulevard and West Black Street.

Sawyer says the tribute to his family and so many others’ roots is welcomed.

“We had thriving businesses down there,” he said. “A lot of people lived good.”

Without a monument helping to document stories and life in the old black business district, Sawyer said, “history would otherwise just be forgotten.”