Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Seedy Underbelly

When I bought my house three years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Mrs. Patricia B. McKinney. Pat is a natural born storyteller whose memory of old Spartanburg could fill volumes. She lived in my house from the 1930s to the 1960s and has told me more than I could have ever hoped to find out about my little home on my own. I won't regale you with all of the stories she told me; I'll only mention one that left me a little puzzled.
Pat told me that in the late 1930s, when the city school district was building Southside Elementary (now the Spartanburg Charter School), the children zoned for that school were divided up and some were temporarily sent to Pine Street School. She told me about an incident in which a little girl from Pine Street told her teacher she needed to go wash her hands because she had accidentally touched a "southsider."

The bias that traditional white Spartanburg has had against the south side of town was well known to me growing up, but it had always seemed to me that the bias was racial and recent in origin. I knew plenty of people (and they still exist, especially in eastside Spartanburg) who looked upon Hampton Heights as a charming but crime-ridden neighborhood. It was only after I got a taste of life in New Orleans that I lost a lot of my preconceptions about "dangerous" neighborhoods in Spartanburg. Although crime does occur now and then, it's not nearly as common as some people think, and simple precautions all but eliminate the danger.

So Pat's story surprised me because it illustrated that the bias pre-dated the tumultuous civil rights era that changed the face of urban neighborhoods in Spartanburg. It seemed that the bias had an earlier root.

An email conversation with a doctoral candidate shed some light on all that and may have opened up a whole new perspective on research into the south side of town, and the Hampton Heights neighborhood in particular. This student is researching crime statistics among young women in the city of Spartanburg during the 1880s and 1890s. It's a fascinating topic already, but her research seemed to be revealing a previously unknown Red Light District! How about that!

It seems that crimes involving prostitution and robbery during illicit acts were concentrated in one specific part of downtown Spartanburg. Accounts frequently mentioned young black women accused of keeping a "bawdy house" and white men being led by black men to women-occupied "negro tenement" houses. All this was occurring in the block bound by Spring St., Broad St., and what is now Daniel Morgan Ave, just south of Morgan Square.

This new piece of information suddenly made sense of a whole lot more. Only a block or so away from this area was the city's earliest public black cemetery. It dated to antebellum times and held slaves as well as the town's few freedmen. Around 1910 the graves were exhumed and moved by Southern Railway to the much larger Cemetery Street Cemetery as part of a land swap. But the first location might have indicated the location of the city's first urban black neighborhood, just how the white Magnolia Street Cemetery indicates where most affluent white residents were living.

This block would have been the town's original "south side," since everything further south was occupied by large, semi-rural farmhouses that were outside of the town's tiny urban area. This, then, may have been the origin of the bias against Spartanburg's south side. This was even before the "Southside" African-American community based around S. Liberty Street, which formed after the Civil War. After the Southside community formed, the old urban black neighborhood in this block might have declined, with the result that it became known as a Red Light District.

Hampton Heights's early history may play a part in all this too. It is known that the neighborhood was named for West Hampton Avenue, which was named by Pink, Thomas, and Arthur Irwin for Governor Wade Hampton. Wade Hampton spoke at a huge festival in 1876 held on the outskirts of what is now Hampton Heights. The location of this speech was significant, because only a few years earlier it had been the encampment grounds of the Federal Army during the infamous KKK trials of the early 1870s.

If it's true that a bias against the southern end of town already existed by the 1870s, and that bias linked the southside of town to black neighborhoods, then naming Hampton Heights after a governor associated with the restoration of white rule in SC could have been an effort to distance the neighborhood from the southside's reputation in order to make the area appealing to wealthier whites. That might also explain why the southside seemed to grow a little slower than other parts of town.

Talk about unpalatable racial politics!


Frivolitea said...

Another fascinating post.

Amanda Kuykendall said...

Just finding your blog. New (1 year)resident of Hampton Heights and also researching the history of Spartanburg. Funny, I am really proud of this neighborhood- understanding that it wasn't always a "good" neighborhood 25 years ago (or more). But now, I love it! Thanks for your work. If you have more info about the earliest history of Sburg, I would appreciate any links or tips.