Before Robinson Funeral Home – one of Rock Hill’s oldest mortuaries – moved to Hampton Street, it was a staple in the city’s historic black business district just off downtown.
John Ramseur, whose family has owned the funeral home for more than 100 years, is now part of an effort to build a monument near downtown to honor black business owners who once operated on an entire block of what is now Dave Lyle Boulevard.
Rock Hill’s African-American Cultural Resources Committee is trying to raise at least $20,000 to pay for the monument. City officials plan to contribute another $20,000.
The group began in October 2012, with the blessing of the Rock Hill City Council. Its members hope to help residents learn about the significance of the black business district before city officials wiped out the buildings using federal money from an “urban renewal” grant.
Ramseur remembers the urban renewal program that brought big change to the city. The federal government’s goal was to help cities eliminate blight and improve residential and business districts to spur new investment.
Ramseur was about 35 when Rock Hill decided to tear down an entire block of black-owned businesses, which included his family’s funeral home. Some of the businesses and shops had been there nearly a century.
While some of the black business district’s buildings were “run-down” in appearance, he said, the urban renewal program’s targeting of the block between West Black and Wilson streets felt racially-motivated.
Rock Hill’s urban renewal efforts took place in the 1970s, a few years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most forms of discrimination based on race, gender and other protected classes. It was a “tough and frightening” time, Ramseur said, when black people “had to fight for everything that you got.”
The federal grant provided money for the black business owners in exchange for their land, but not all offers – which were based on the properties’ fair market value – were “fair prices,” Ramseur said. His family successfully sued, he said, and got more money for the funeral home land.
Rock Hill’s black business district historically was located along Trade Street – now named Dave Lyle Boulevard. A major portion of the urban renewal grant money went toward extending Trade Street to connect downtown to Interstate 77, said Joe Lanford, who became city manager in 1979.
The city also wanted to reconfigure part of West Black Street and change Main and Black streets to one-way roads.
During this time, Lanford said, land was cleared on Johnston Street in preparation for a new City Hall and downtown library building. The old railroad depot between Main and White streets also was demolished.
Former Rock Hill Mayor Betty Jo Rhea was first elected to City Council a few years after the city’s urban renewal process began. She said the project did wipe out much of the city’s older, historic properties.
Rhea said she worried that black residents in Rock Hill wouldn’t have familiar shopping and business options after the demolition of the buildings in the old black business district. Urban renewal efforts claimed more than just the businesses in the district, Rhea said, it took many homes near West Black Street.
Rhea and Lanford said race played no role in the city’s urban renewal goals. Rock Hill did, however, sacrifice some of its history in the process, Rhea said.
When she was elected mayor in 1986, Rhea said, one of her main priorities was trying to preserve some of the city’s history.
“We were just losing too much,” she said.
It’s often difficult in elected office to find a balance between making room for progress and protecting historic districts or buildings, she said. The African-American Cultural Resources Committee’s future monument is a good idea, she said.
‘Everyday life’ for black residents
Anticipating new investment and more people coming through the city’s downtown area, Ramseur said, it was clear that Rock Hill officials didn’t want visitors to be “exposed” to any old buildings in the black business district.
While the city’s plan to spruce up downtown made sense, he said, his family’s business faced “hell and highwater” to find a new place for the funeral home. Before moving to its present-day Hampton Street location, Robinson Funeral Home had two spots on West Black Street, in the heart of the former black business district.
The late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond helped the family’s business obtain a loan through the state to help pay for setting up a new location, Ramseur said.
He and many other Rock Hill business owners and residents want to build a monument to help others understand a part of the city’s history.
“Things are much better now than they were then,” Ramseur said, but it’s important to not forget where Rock Hill has been.
The urban renewal grant helped Rock Hill respond to changing social dynamics and customer habits that shifted much of the city’s shoppers to Cherry Road, away from downtown, said Janice Miller, the city’s historic preservation specialist .
Most people seem to know about Rock Hill’s history in the civil rights movement, she said, specifically when the “Friendship Nine” staged a peaceful sit-in at the whites-only McCrory’s five and dime lunch counter downtown. The men who were arrested began the now-famous “Jail, No Bail” strategy in Rock Hill in 1961, a time of struggle for civil rights and racial equality across the South.
What people often forget, Miller said, is the “everyday life before the civil rights movement.” She and others hope the monument will serve as a reminder of that part of the city’s history.
The monument will include text and photos of the black businesses that once stood just outside downtown Rock Hill’s main stretch. Miller and others are still collecting information and photos and could use help from the community, she said.
Because the monument is meant to honor businesses and those in the business community, the design will look like a storefront.
To raise money, the African-American Cultural Resources Committee is selling engraved bricks, starting at $100, which will be part of the monument. The group also wants to build a swing near the monument.
WANT TO HELP?
Rock Hill’s African-American Cultural Resources Committee is looking for donations and photos to help build a monument just outside downtown to honor the former black business district between West Black and Wilson streets, along present-day Dave Lyle Boulevard.
Learn more about the black business district and the fundraising effort at cityofrockhill.com/blackhistory.
For more information, call Janice Miller, the city’s historic preservation specialist, at 803-817-5129 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.