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‘Keep that legacy going’: Monument honors Rock Hill’s black business district

Murray L Smith looks at a photo of Andrew Jackson of the OK Barber shop and reminisces about the hair cuts he had there during the African-American Business District Exhibit Dedication Ceremony.
Murray L Smith looks at a photo of Andrew Jackson of the OK Barber shop and reminisces about the hair cuts he had there during the African-American Business District Exhibit Dedication Ceremony. Special to The Herald

Freddie K. Barnes knew the value of a hard day’s work, his family members say, whether it was in the Rock Hill restaurant he started with his wife in 1961, or in the Charlotte hair salon he operated until his death in 2000.

Barnes’ legacy continues today, not only through his children who have opened their own salons in Rock Hill, but in a history monument unveiled Saturday that pays tribute to historical black businesses that were on the fringes of Rock Hill’s downtown.

The black business district dissolved in the mid-1970s under the guise of urban renewal as the city of Rock Hill demolished most of the buildings.

The Rock Hill African-American Cultural Resources Committee and the city collaborated to honor the contributions of the business owners, such as Barnes, who operated in the old black business district.

“We cannot rewrite the script or rebuild the structures,” committee chair Gladys Feely Robinson said during Saturday’s ceremony. “The many challenges those businessmen and women faced daily that were accepted as the norm and simply as a way of life far exceed any of life’s challenges that most of us have had to endure in our lifetime; however, their sheer determination and commitment to what was possible in spite of the many adversities they were confronted with continue to this very day to be a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of determination.”

Ground was broken for the monument, located on the corner of Dave Lyle Boulevard and West Black Street, in September. The city donated the land for the monument which was designed to look like a storefront and features interchangeable windows that provide information on the businesses.

Robinson Funeral Home was founded in 1911 as People’s Undertaking Company and was located on West Black Street. Now at 527 South Dave Lyle Boulevard, the funeral home is one of just two businesses from the black business district still in operation.

Blue Bird Taxi Company relocated multiple times on West Black Street from 1946 to 1972 before finding a home on Green Street, where it remained until 1992. A license plate from the company is among the exhibits in the monument.

Murrie Smith frequented a number of the businesses in the black district. He got his hair cut for years by Andrew Jackson at the OK Barber Shop, and now gets his hair cut by Jackson’s grandson, Willie “Bro” Sawyer. His cousin, Leroy Dye, operated Blue Bird Taxi Company, for which Smith drove a taxi.

Chicken in the Basket was the place to go for chicken “before KFC and Bojangle’s,” said Freddie K. Barnes Jr. The drive-in also offered fish, hamburgers, milkshakes, fries and homemade pies.

“That’s where you had a lot of black businesses open up,” the elder Barnes’ widow, Sylvia, said. “We weren’t allowed, in some of the other sections, to start that type of business.”

They operated the restaurant until 1964 when they turned it over to James Barnes and his wife. It closed in the early 1970s.

Freddie Barnes Sr. was also a hairstylist and operated a shop in Charlotte. His children now operate their own businesses in Rock Hill: Freddie Jr., his brother Antonio and their sister Patricia operate Barnes Hair and Spa Salon on East Main Street, Rodney Barnes operates Rodney L. Barnes Hair Salon Plus Barbering on East Main Street, and their sister Michelle Barnes operates Michelle’s Beauty Salon on Cherry Road.

“They cut a pathway for us to where we can keep that legacy going,” Freddie Jr. said. “That’s why we’re living the legacy that we’re living now, simply (by) being obedient to our parents. I tell young people, if you want a business or anything, if you’re not obedient to your parents and look at the big picture and don’t know your roots and foundation, you’ll be lost.”

Saturday’s unveiling came just days after nine people were shot to death at a historically black church in Charleston. The shooting was referenced several times during the ceremony. Robinson noted the new monument was made possible by people of different races.

“Today has been a good day,” she said. “It shows what is possible when people work together regardless of race. It’s unfortunate we, as a whole, cannot see how we can do so much together, and that in the sight of God, we’re all the same. There are no racial divides in heaven.”

Teddy Kulmala •  803-329-4082

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