Charleston in the 1940s remained a city of segregated neighborhoods, workplaces, and public and private facilities, forcing the Black population to remain mostly north of Calhoun Street in their established enclaves. Working class African American families were displaced from former tenements south of Broad Street, such as those on St. Michael’s Alley, Elliott Street, Tradd Street and East Bay Street, as northern investors and local real estate professionals continued to restore and convert the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structures into single family dwellings. As a result, dozens of Black families migrated to northern neighborhoods, such as the East Side, Radcliffeborough, Cannonborough and Elliotborough and ultimately contributed to the midcentury cultural vibrancy of the business district.
After World War II, Morris Street grew as a commercial and sociopolitical epicenter for Black citizens of diverse economic backgrounds with political activism intensifying. In October 1944, the Local 15, a newly formed worker’s union at Charleston’s American Tobacco Company Cigar Factory, held their first meeting in the Morris Street Baptist Church. Those first meetings set the stage for the Cigar Factory Strike of 1945-1946. On October 23, 1945, over 1,000 employees, predominantly Black women, walked out of the American Tobacco company’s plant to protest the factory’s low wages and poor working conditions. Two weeks later, another meeting was held at the Morris Street Baptist Church for “all citizens interested in bringing the strike to a successful conclusion.” The five-month strike concluded with the factory manager and the union stewards brokering a deal that resulted in a modest pay increase and federal pressure for the American Tobacco Company to further negotiate working conditions.
The Local 15 and strike leaders chose to organize at the Morris Street Baptist Church, evidence of the continued importance of Black churches as political and civil rights organizing spaces. In fact, while some cigar factory laborers resided on and around Morris Street, most of the Local 15’s board members and the strike’s documented leaders were living in the East Side neighborhood. Seven residents of Morris Street worked for the American Tobacco Company: four women who worked as inspectors and cigar makers, two men who packaged the cigars, and one man who prepared the tobacco. Several other cigar factory workers also resided on nearby Felix, Coming, and Cannon Streets, though most lived in the East Side neighborhood and elsewhere. The strike leader’s choice of the Morris Street Baptist Church as an organizing location seems to reflect that Morris Street and its surrounding neighborhoods remained a place in Charleston where African Americans felt a sense of safety, belonging, and ownership.
In 1953, William Ackerman, a prominent Jewish lawyer in Charleston, purchased 120 acres of undeveloped land west of the Ashley River, developing one of the earliest suburbs in the region. Much of Charleston’s Jewish community migrated to newly developed suburban neighborhoods. By 1958, many of the nearly twenty Jewish families that relocated were former Cannonborough and Radcliffborough residents. The swift exit of these white families from one of Charleston’s urban business districts coincides with national trends of heightened racial tensions and segregation as well as a broad pattern of white families leaving urban space for intensely and sometimes violently segregated suburbs. Morris Street, once dotted with Jewish-owned groceries and small stores, was void of all but one Jewish business by 1979: Greenberg’s Laundry and Grocery.
Throughout the 1950s, former immigrant-operated stores and properties were subsumed by essential midcentury Black-owned businesses, such as Dave's Paint and Body Shop at 51 Morris Street. Long-standing corner stores experienced significant turnover: 41 Morris Street, which was formerly a German grocery, became McClary’s Beauty Shop by 1958, and a formerly Greek-owned corner store at 60 Morris Street gave way to the midcentury Brooks Motel constructed in 1963. The Brooks Motel was owned and operated by Benjamin and Albert Brooks, who also owned the Brooks Restaurant at 56-58 Morris Street and several other establishments along the corridor.
The increasingly Black business district attracted ever more attention from Black business owners. Benjamin and Albert Brooks constructed the current building at 56-58 Morris Street and opened the Brooks Pool Room after their purchase of the property in 1943. After witnessing the pedestrian and vehicular traffic along Morris Street, a street he later recalled “filled with people,” Albert Brooks made the decision in 1950 to transition his pool room into a restaurant. The restaurant served as part of the social backbone of the Black community on Morris Street both before and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For African American travelers visiting Charleston, they planned their trips with The Green Book, a national publication providing Black travelers with lists of hotels, restaurants, and services stations designed to help them avoid “running into difficulties, embarrassments” and to make “trips more enjoyable,” euphemisms for African Americans avoiding degrading and potentially violent situations with unwelcoming whites. From 1959 to 1961, The Green Book listed Brooks Restaurant as one of three establishments in Charleston that welcomed African Americans. A visitor described the restaurant as “situated in what you would call your typical Negro neighborhood, only this one seemed even more than typical.” In 1967, the restaurant was moved across the street to 57 Morris Street, where years later James Brown was given the key to the City of Charleston. Albert Brooks opened Brooks Realty in 56-58 Morris Street after the restaurant relocated. Brooks Realty and Brooks Restaurant were active until Albert Brooks’ death in 1993.
At its opening in May of 1963, the Brooks Motel at 60 Morris Street was deemed “the largest Negro motel in South Carolina,” proving a significant building during the civil rights movement. Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, local Lowcountry African Americans organized with national civil rights leaders to fight for equal rights. The Brooks Motel provided accommodations for national civil rights figures and local movement leaders while both Morris Street Baptist Church and Morris Brown AME Church held rallies for Charleston strikes and protests. On June 10, 1963, 250 Black citizens peacefully marched from Morris Street Baptist Church to Charleston City Hall where they stood and prayed for integration in sweltering summer heat. One week later, 320 Black citizens marched from the church to the police station where they sang and prayed in protest of the arrest of several sit-in demonstrators on King Street. The marches continued for over eight weeks, with frequent rallies at the Morris Street Baptist Church. The marches were the foundation for the Charleston Movement, the formal name Black activists gave to the activity in the summer of 1963. The “Office of the Charleston Movement” was formally opened in June of 1963 in the law office of prominent Black attorney Richard E. Fields at 186 Coming Street, the northeast corner of Morris and Coming Streets.
As white immigrant families moved themselves and their businesses away from Morris Street, the area became home to increasing numbers of middle and upper-class Black families whose businesses filled the economic void caused by white flight and segregation. The increase of Black economic and cultural wealth in the district during the 1960s and 1970s is reflected in the architectural detail of extant and non-extant buildings of the district. The fence, gates and second-story window grills at 92 Morris Street and the window and door grills of the former law office at 61 Morris Street are surviving pieces of work by Philip Simmons, Charleston’s nationally renowned twentieth-century blacksmith. The former Brooks Restaurant building also contains ironwork by Philip Simmons.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was federal law enacted to prohibit discrimination in voter registration laws as well as in public facilities, education, and the workplace. However, Charleston’s white leadership failed to enforce the law, allowing segregated white business and public spaces to remain segregated and unequal. In response, Black strike leaders Mary Moultrie and Bill Saunders used the two Morris Street churches as the meeting place for civil rights work during the Charleston hospital workers strike, a protest movement demanding fair pay and working conditions free from racist treatment at the city’s Medical College Hospital for the State of South Carolina. Sharing similar experiences, workers from the Charleston County Hospital also later joined the strike. During a march on King Street in the summer of 1969, fifty-six mostly Black female protesters were arrested. Many of them resided near Morris Street on nearby Coming Street, Cannon Street, and Rutledge Avenue. In a strike lasting over one hundred days, strike organizers and civil rights activists chose to meet and conduct work in several of the Morris Street Business District’s structures. Again, Morris Street’s buildings and district served as an organizing space for Black Charlestonians working to gain equal rights and end racial discrimination.