The younger generation of the Myrtle Beach black community does not know its rich musical history, according to the people who saw R&B icons like Little Richard, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles perform on Carver Street.
A group of residents are hoping to change that by creating a cultural museum in the former Fitzgerald Motel, owned by Charlie Fitzgerald in the once-segregated Booker T. Washington neighborhood – also known as The Hill.
Longtime Myrtle Beach resident Herbert Riley asked Myrtle Beach City Council to consider purchasing the motel at 1420 Carver St. to turn it into a museum that highlights the black music icons that walked through the doors of Charlie’s Place supper club in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s on the “Chitlin Circuit.”
The Chitlin Circuit is a string of performance venues that were deemed safe for blacks – especially in the South – to perform during segregation.
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“This is considered a blighted area,” Riley said of Carver Street. “At one point, it was like black Hollywood.”
Author and journalist Frank Beacham, who wrote a book about Charlie’s Place, said he’s amazed that the neighborhood youth don’t know The Hill has a rich musical history. Charlie’s Place closed in the 1960s and the building has since been demolished, leaving only a grassy field beside the Fitzgerald Motel.
“When I visited Myrtle Beach, I stopped a black kid on a bicycle and asked him where Charlie’s Place used to be,” said Beacham, a S. C. native who now lives in New York. “He said he didn’t know. So I asked him where the musicians used to perform. It was a teenage kid. And he didn’t know that musicians had ever performed on Carver Street.”
City Manager John Pedersen said the city likely will discuss purchasing the building during the City Council’s budget retreat later this month.
“It’s all really preliminary at this point,” Pedersen said. “We will look at purchasing the property, but need to get a better handle on what the group [asking for the museum] wants.”
Pedersen said the city is looking at ways to not only establish the museum, but also revitalize the street Riley said once was the hub of the black economy in Myrtle Beach.
“At its peak, [Carver Street] was as prosperous as anywhere in Myrtle Beach,” Riley said. “We believe a creation of a museum on the site of the former Fitzgerald motel would have a good economic impact on Myrtle Beach.”
Black travel and tourism is valued as being a $40 billion industry and cultural tourism is a growing segment of that industry, according to a 2013 report by Nielsen and the National Newspaper Publishers Association that studied, among other things, spending habits of black American consumers.
Several people who knew Fitzgerald, also known by some as Lucious Rucker, said he worked hard to make sure his club was among the nicest in the area.
“He had the best of what you could get at the time,” he said. “It was as nice as any place else in Myrtle Beach. The one exception being Ocean Forest [Hotel].”
Riley said what most stood out to him was that there were several white people who frequented the black club.
“Considering the era, the social diversity that Charlie had was remarkable,” he said. “And there weren’t any issues. ... Whites would come and dance and take the steps they learned back to the Pavilion.”
It’s argued that the shag dance was born at Charlie’s Place.
“In 1994, I interviewed the original first-generation shaggers at the hall of fame,” said Beacham, who grew up in Honea Path. “They all told me about dancing at this club and Charlie Fitzgerald. ... They told me they learned a lot of steps that led to the modern shag from the blacks.”
There also was a woman who worked at the club, Cynthia Harrell, who was nicknamed “Shag.”
Longtime Myrtle Beach resident Dino Thompson, who’s also written books including memories from Charlie’s Place, said he was very young when he first met Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald ate at Dino Thompson’s father’s restaurant Kozy Korner.
Dino Thompson said he was about 10 years old when he first visited the club to see Little Richard perform.
“Charlie’s Place [wasn’t] no barrelhouse, [wasn’t] no tin-top, cinder-block, jug-band joint,” Dino Thompson wrote in his 2014 book “Boogie Woogie Beats.” “Crafted out of heart-cypress, Charlie’s offered up starch-shirt waiters, classy coiffed hostesses, pomaded dance couples and boasted ... swing and boogie royalty.”
Fitzgerald was a very respected man in the city, those who knew him said, and even was known to lend money to whites in town. He is said to have eaten in white restaurants and was seated in the white section at the Broadway Theater in the 1940s – well before integration.
In August 1950, a reported 27-car caravan of Ku Klux Klan members rode through Myrtle Beach and past Charlie’s Place. They later returned to Charlie’s Place, and the Klan members and a group of black people at the club engaged in what’s been described as a gun fight where more than 300 shots were fired. Klan members also went into the club and shot up the jukebox, according to news reports at the time.
One Klan member, who also was a Conway police officer, was killed in the incident. It was not clear who fired the shot that killed the Klan member and no one was tried for his murder. News reports at the time said the group had the blessing of South Carolina’s Klan grand dragon, Thomas Hamilton, to raid Charlie’s Place.
Klan members reportedly threw Fitzgerald in the trunk of a car, took him to a wooded area off U.S. Highway 501 near Conway and beat him. They also sliced the bottoms of his ears off.
“We didn’t see him for a few months,” Dino Thompson said. “I was about 5 at the time. Everyone heard that his ears had been cut off. I remember him coming into [Kozy Korner] and I was staring at his ears. He said to me, ‘boy, you looking at my ears?’ ‘No sir,’ I said. But I was. They were still there but you could see where they’d been cut.”
The club was repaired and continued to operate until the late 1960s, Riley said. Some people also began calling it Whispering Pines. But Jack Thompson, a local photographer who has documented Myrtle Beach for more than 60 years, said many whites stayed away from the club after the raid. Jack Thompson and Dino Thompson are not related.
According to many accounts, Fitzgerald died in 1955 from cancer.
“Nobody knows where this man is buried, though,” Riley said. “Miss Sarah [Fitzgerald, Charlie’s wife,] was very secretive.”
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control online death index lists the name also associated with Fitzgerald, Lucious Rucker – a non-white man from Horry County – as having died on July 4, 1955, at 49 years old.
Sarah Fitzgerald ran the club after her husband’s death.
Economic revitalization on Carver Street
At one point Carver Street had several small motels and nightclubs, grocery stores, daycare centers, a barber shop, funeral homes and other local businesses. Now there are far fewer businesses, and several buildings along Carver Street – including the Fitzgerald motel – are boarded up.
“We’re trying now to revitalize the area, to bring wealth to the area,” Riley said.
He said he hopes that the museum can serve as a springboard to bring back the vitality of the neighborhood.
“We want this place as nice as Charlie and Sarah Fitzgerald had it back then,” Riley said. “We want to bring their spirit back.”
Pedersen said he hopes residents will volunteer to brainstorm ideas of what types of commercial properties they want to see in the neighborhood.
“It has to come from the residents,” he said.
Pedersen said he’s also spoken with the new Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. CEO Jim Moore and hopes the group will be involved in planning and studying proposed additions to the neighborhood.
“We need to determine what the neighborhood wants and what works best for that street,” Pedersen said.
Riley said he envisions something similar to The Market Common, with mixed-use buildings that have residential and commercial components and people are out of their cars and walking around.
Pedersen said the area is zoned for most types of businesses and offices.
Riley said the once-booming neighborhood began to deteriorate after segregation when black people could legally patronize any store they wanted.
“You know the saying,” he said. “The white man’s ice was colder.”
Riley said The Hill had black people of all economic classes living together during segregation. Integration allowed them to move toward the American dream.
Jack Thompson, who visited the club a few times in the ‘50s both to take pictures and to listen to music, said the museum is important for the area’s kids to know their history.
“The black community was enjoying liberty so much after segregation,” he said. “They were so happy for equality that they were too busy getting on with their own families and personal lives ... to worry about dragging history along.”
But the children in the neighborhood have no idea of the contributions of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, Riley said.
“For a time [after integration], it made sense for them to forget the past and start life anew,” Jack Thompson said. “Now, with the young generation – the last three decades – it’s become more and more important for them to discover where they came from and honor those who came before them and realize that their forefathers are actually the ones who built Myrtle Beach.
“The cooks and the waiters did the hard work,” Jack Thompson said. “They spent the blood, sweat and tears to build the infrastructure and brick and mortar of Myrtle Beach. The tourists who came and stayed at the wonderful seaside motels where they had American and European cuisine, those restaurants gained their reputation from the recipes from the black cooks. Yes, Myrtle Beach owes their gratitude to the legacy of the black community.”
Riley said he and others are working to put together about seven members to create a board whose first order of business will be to raise money to be put toward the building’s purchase and renovation.
Riley said he hopes initially to raise about $150,000.
He said he envisions a museum with old photographs, newspaper clippings and a small studio to allow children to record music.
For now, Beacham has donated iPads and a television monitor to the Historic Myrtle Beach Colored School and Museum to serve as an exhibit for those wanting to learn more about Charlie’s Place. Staff members are working to get those operating and also are re-creating the bar area of Charlie’s Place on a wall in the school with life-sized pictures of Fitzgerald and other bar workers.
For more information on the proposed Charlie’s Place museum, visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/charliesplaceoncarverstreet.