After Dark: Seeking Harmony in Music and Culture
Nightlife on Church Street was abuzz with vibrant sights and sounds. Some remember it as comparable to the atmosphere of “Bourbon Street” in New Orleans – crowded, exciting and a little bit scary.
There were pool halls and juke joints in a festive environment. Bands of black performers on what was called “The Chitlin’ Circuit” are said to have included Church Street on their swings through the South. Rumors abound of visits by legendary soul singer James Brown. Music and dancing spilled into the street, especially on the weekends when revelers from Clemson to Abbeville made the trek to one of Anderson’s premier tourist attractions.
When asked to describe the sounds on Church Street, beloved music teacher and church organist Miss Vermelle Williams turned to her keyboard to play a medley of a dirge, a hymn and lively jazz rift. This variety of music on Church Street inspired a generation of musicians. Foremost among them is Dr. George Leroy Starks, Jr., known as Starkie. A favorite son of Church Street, he became professor of musicology at Drexel University, cherishing a saxophone bought on Church Street during his childhood.
Church Street was home to a movie theater and at least two hotels. The Palace Hotel was owned and operated by Mrs. Josephine Allen Benson. She also offered the hotel as a boarding house for construction workers for whom she functioned as “manager, bouncer and policewoman.” As one of Church Street’s most colorful characters, Mrs. Benson notoriously donned a folded paper bag on her head as she welcomed patrons from hotel windows late into the night.
Beyond the festive façade, Church Street was also a key communication hub for the African-American community. It was where friends gathered to learn about social, political and economic activities. As the Civil Rights era progressed, Church Street was an epicenter for information.
“Thursday afternoon was when a lot of domestic workers had time off. It was kind of like a holiday. They would come to Church Street on Cook’s bus. It would pull up in front of City Hall and you could hear them coming, like a roar. People knew if you didn’t go to Church Street, you didn’t know what was going on. You were just empty.” Mr. Patrick Flack
“At night it would be so packed you had to walk, you couldn’t get a car down Church Street. Sometimes there would be a little disturbance but things mostly got worked out. Eventually we got two black cops, Bobby Clinkscales and Randolph Morris.” Mr. Roosevelt Thompson
“As cops, we always felt that we should do our best to keep someone out of jail. If we came by and you were drunk or could not handle yourself, we gave you a chance to go home. But if we made our next round and you were still there, you were ours.” Bobby Clinkscales
“Church Street was off limits to children at night. As a little boy, I remember my uncle taking me down there. The hustle and the bustle was overwhelming, but I liked it so much I would sneak back.” Mayor Terence Roberts
“It was the only place to go. My father drove a taxi there. He and five or six of his friends drove there. It had almost everything.” Mr. John Weir
“I coached at Westside High School for 47 years. Sometimes we’d have a bad season . . . you didn’t want to go to Church Street when you lost . . . they would get on to you for losing a game.” Coach William Roberts