Herbert Riley has fought hard, along with others from the Booker T. Washington community, to salvage the African American cultural history of Myrtle Beach. That is why on Monday, a demolition ceremony for a Carver Street property that housed a thriving supper club and motel from the 1930s to the 1960s and drew some of the greatest black musicians of all time to Myrtle Beach, was defined by Riley as “bittersweet.”
“The sweet part is I see an opportunity when all of this is gone,” he said, motioning to the decaying structures the city has deemed too badly deteriorated and too costly to salvage. “If we could have something built to show the historic content, to tell about Charlie Fitzgerald and the civil rights history, if we do that, we can draw tourists over here to Carver Street.”
The owner of the supper club and motel, the late Charlie Fitzgerald, along with his wife helped put Myrtle Beach on the map drawing to their businesses top black entertainers traveling the Chitlin’ Circuit, a list of U.S. venues where blacks were accepted and felt safe during civil unrest. The Fitzgeralds were known for their inclusiveness, allowing whites to come enjoy the entertainment in an era that still frowned on mixing races.
To help revitalize the street that once filled with automobiles sometimes bringing high society New Yorkers to the venue that was also the site of a 1950s Ku Klux Klan raid, the city purchased the little more than one-acre plot in 2015. Work began on plans to develop the property in ways that would not only revitalize the street but also provide opportunities for the residents, especially the youth, of the area.
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City Manager John Pedersen said there is no definitive architectural plan just a preliminary rendering of a grocery store and coffee shop concept for what has become known as The Charlie’s Place Project. He said the city has budgeted $710,000 over four years to develop the property into something that could be an “economic catalyst” but also include reminders of the area’s musical heritage. The plan also includes streetscaping for Carver Street.
Obviously this structure is pretty badly deteriorated. The city cannot afford to own property that looks like this and we cannot allow the homeless to live here.
Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen
“Obviously this structure is pretty badly deteriorated,” Pedersen said following the ceremony. “The city cannot afford to own property that looks like this and we cannot allow the homeless to live here.”
The city’s Neighborhood Services Director Edna Wright, whose application for a Knight Cities Challenge grant for Charlie’s Place Project was selected earlier this year as a finalist but lost out in the last rounds of funding, had hoped to see some of the structures salvaged for a museum.
“I would have hoped we would have been able to save a small portion for a museum because of the history of the motel where black entertainers stayed,” said Wright, who had worked with Riley and others in the community to bring attention to the significance of the property and its cultural history.
With the final decision to demolish the entirety of the old motel, the only part of the historic business left standing, Wright conceded that it may be time to “tear down the old to move on to the new.”
“I just hope the city manager will hold true to his commitment to honor the request to incorporate the history into the development,” Wright said.
Pedersen said the city’s plans include building replicas of some of the motel rooms where famous artists like Little Richard, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye and so many others stayed during their visits to perform at the beach and integrating that into the new facility.
This place is chock full of memories and great spirit.
Dino Thompson, whose father owned a nearby eating establishment called The Cozy Corner
Dino Thompson, speaking briefly at the event, said, “This place is chock full of memories and great spirit.” Thompson, whose father owned a nearby eating establishment called The Cozy Corner, shared childhood memories of being hoisted at age 9 to sit on the side of the stage one night when Little Richard, a frequent visitor to the club, was performing. He also recalled how his father often sat down to eat a sandwich with Charlie Fitzgerald at a time when blacks were not allowed at the same lunch counter as whites.
Resident Rose Knox, who attended Monday’s ceremony, still remembers dancing at the club to the rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll sounds of such greats as Jackie Wilson and Chuck Berry.
“Back in the ‘60s, I was able to visit these properties,” Knox said. “I liked to dance and listen to the music. Being a teenager, it was very exciting. It was the audience that made up the environment that was so receptive.”
Knox said she is ready, however, to see the area moving forward. “We must be able to give up what makes it more effective for future projects,” she said. “Some things you do as a requirement to reach your next goal and you must be able to accept it, even though we cherish the past.”
Not as eager to see the walls of the old structure come down were members of Horry County’s Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation, Joel Carter and Bill Strydesky.
“It has been a storied process,” Carter said. Carter said the board had hoped to find grant money to study the possibility of restoring the old motel and developing its history. “A lot of people think you cannot restore things…but you do have to spend a lot of money to do it.”
Strydesky was more vocal about his disappointment in the city’s decision to destroy the structures. “We bulldoze over too much history and all of a sudden, we’ll have no history,” Strydesky said. “I am a firm believer in saving historic properties because there is a whole industry in historic tourism.”
Also saddened by the city’s decision to demolish the property was 15-year-old Azure Allen, who has worked closely with Riley to document the role the Carver Street businesses played in musical history. Allen developed the animated film, “One Day on Carver Street—A story related to the beginning of the Carolina shag,” which has won multiple film festival awards.
I don’t want it to become an empty lot. It’s going to be demolished but we need something that will represent what it was… This is a story that is very important about Myrtle Beach that is often ignored and possibly even covered up. It has been ignored for years. It’s messed up that I grew up here and didn’t know we had such an amazing musical history here.
Azure Allen, who has worked with others to document the role the Carver Street businesses played in musical history
After watching part of a circular decorative wall knocked down with a sledgehammer in a mock display of demolition, Allen said she hopes the hard work put into saving the history of Charlie’s Place is not wasted.
“I have a little hope that we could have some sort of memorial devoted to this that could mean something,” she said. “I don’t want it to become an empty lot. It’s going to be demolished but we need something that will represent what it was… This is a story that is very important about Myrtle Beach that is often ignored and possibly even covered up. It has been ignored for years. It’s messed up that I grew up here and didn’t know we had such an amazing musical history here.”
Riley, who initially brought the importance of saving the property from developers to the city’s attention, declined to use the sledgehammer, turning it over to Mayor John Rhodes and City Council members Wayne Gray and Michael Chestnut. Also, taking a blow that brought down part of the wall was pastor Elizabeth Bowens, who said she was happy to see the change because of the deterioration of the neighborhood.
“I am happy to see someone come to uplift this area again because it was a popular area,” she said, adding that to her it is also bittersweet because she grew up in Myrtle Beach and danced at Fitzgerald’s club as a teenager.
Angela Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.