Morris Street Business District

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Post-Civil War

From the start of the Civil War, most commercial and social activity within the city gradually slowed before coming to a halt. By the end of the war, however, thousands of formerly enslaved people flocked to the peninsula in hopes of connecting with family and finding work. Their move into the city significantly changed the density and demographics of Charleston’s neighborhoods. After Confederate evacuation of Charleston in February 1865, the 21st regiment of the United States Colored Infantry were among the first United States troops to arrive, followed by several other Black regiments. They marched from the East Bay wharves to the area near Morris Street on the Charleston Neck, as hundreds of Black residents lined the streets in celebration.

Photograph of students following a teacher in the schoolyard at Simonton School, B.W. Kilburn, circa 1891, courtesy of Library of Congress. Newspaper article about the recent opening of Simonton School, "The Colored School at Morris Street," Charleston Daily News, 1868.

(Top) Photograph of students following a teacher in the schoolyard at Simonton School, B.W. Kilburn, circa 1891, courtesy of Library of Congress. (Bottom) Newspaper article about the recent opening of Simonton School, "The Colored School at Morris Street," Charleston Daily News, 1868.

During the Union occupation of Charleston in March of 1865, the National Freedman’s Relief Association organized the first public school in South Carolina to educate Black students on Morris Street. According to the school’s announcement in the Charleston Daily News, Morris Street was “occupied principally by colored persons.” The Morris Street School, later renamed Simonton School, welcomed approximately 1,000 Black students within the first month and represented one of several similar public schools in Charleston established during the Reconstruction period. Although erected for the public education of the city’s Black majority, the school also served over 200 white students in its inaugural year—most of Irish and German descent—and was segregated by floor. Like many Black schools formed during or immediately following the Civil War with funding from northern abolitionist relief associations, the Morris Street School was originally funded by the National Freedman’s Relief Association. With abolitionist associations’ funding drying up after the end of the Civil War and the institution of slavery, the Morris Street School’s funding was taken over by Charleston’s Board of Commissioners in 1867. In 1874, a New York Times reporter visited the Morris Street School, reporting that the students solved “the most difficult problems in algebra” and answered “questions in ancient and modern history.” The Morris Street School remained in operation throughout the late-nineteenth century and, with the exception of the first year, remained an all-Black school for over a century. The school officially closed in the early 1970s following the national desegregation of public schools.

Constan Groceries, an immigrant-owned grocery store located in the Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood, 1931, courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation.

Constan Groceries, an immigrant-owned grocery store located in the Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood, 1931, courtesy of Historic Charleston Foundation.

The establishment and longevity of the Morris Street School reflects the continual rise of Charleston’s Black population in the decades following the Civil War. By 1870, there were 4,000 more Black citizens in the city than white, a demographic reflected in many other South Carolina cities. Fearful of the free Black majority and in hopes of stimulating the state’s suffering economy, the South Carolina state government created the Bureau for Emigration in 1866 to attract white emigrants to South Carolina and establish “a line of steamers to travel between Charleston and the ports of Germany, Ireland and Northern Europe.” Within a few years, Morris Street’s antebellum German grocers, such as Henry Kuck who operated a grist mill and grocery at 44 Morris Street and Levy Moses who resided and worked at the northwest corner of King and Morris Streets, were joined by several other German immigrants, including Diedrich Bosch, who operated a grocery and saloon with his family at the southeast corner of Morris and Coming Streets well into the 1930s. Fellow German grocer John Henry Tietjen purchased the northeast corner of St. Philip and Morris Streets as early as 1872 and three years later, established his store and residence across the street. By 1880, two more German groceries opened on Morris Street, belonging to Henry Voight and Henry Ehrichs. Voight’s grocery was repeatedly raided by police in the late 1890s for his illegal sale of local Palmetto beer, part of the state’s early actions leading to the adoption state-wide prohibition.

Portrait of Robert Carlos De Large, United States  Representative from South Carolina, photograph by Levin C. Handy, circa 1870, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Portrait of Robert Carlos De Large, United States Representative from South Carolina, photograph by Levin C. Handy, circa 1870, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Despite the postbellum influx of immigrants, Morris Street remained a predominantly Black neighborhood. Many Black politicians and community leaders, most of whom were free prior to the Civil War or relocated to Charleston from the North, invested in and around Morris Street in the late-nineteenth century. One investor was Robert Carlos De Large, a free person of color before the war who owned several structures along Morris Street circa 1870. In 1868, twenty-six-year-old De Large was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention and in 1870, he became a member of the United States House of Representatives. De Large continued to rent his Morris Street properties to working class Black families throughout the next decade. For example, from 1869 to 1871, he rented 40 Morris Street to a newly freed family, Benjamin Moses Jones, his wife Sintilla, and their six children. De Large resided a few blocks south in a more prestigious area of the city on Calhoun Street.

A market scene in Charleston, James E. Taylor, 1866, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A market scene in Charleston, James E. Taylor, 1866, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. White city officials quickly implementated Black Codes after the Civil War, forcing newly freed people to secure housing, jobs, and the safety of their family in the face of race-based ordinances and social boundaries. 

While the city slowly regained its economic footing, the institutional racism of the pre-war social structure was reconstituted by resurgent white supremacists. In addition to the Bureau of Emigration, the South Carolina Legislature continued to malign the Black population by passing the 1865-1866 Black Codes, which called for occupational and political restrictions for the newly freed population. Although the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, legally protecting the rights of Black citizens across the nation, white South Carolinians violently removed and excluded the Black population from official networks. Largely disenfranchised, African American Charlestonians continued to struggle against political and social suppression. 

In Charleston, De Large was among several Black citizens associated with Morris Street who stepped forward as local community leaders in the wake of whites establishing the Black Codes. Others included fellow Morris Street-investor Richard DeReef and Reverend Richard Harvey Cain, who later established the Morris Brown AME Church at 13 Morris Street. With both personal and financial ties to Morris Street, one of the city’s most densely-populated Black communities at this time, De Large and Cain represented the organized political resistance to whites' attempts to remove Blacks' newly gained political, economic, and social freedoms.

Notably, De Large and Cain were two of eight men elected to serve as the Charleston delegation at the South Carolina constitutional convention of January-March, 1868 assembled to craft a new state constitution. The 124 delegates, the majority of whom were Black, convened in Charleston for 53 days at 71 Meeting Street, a raised two-story, Italianate building known as the Charleston Club, lost after the earthquake of 1886. A requirement for South Carolina’s re-admission to the Union following the Civil War, the new, progressive constitution penned by the majority-Black delegation granted all citizens, regardless of race, the equal enjoyment of “all common, public, legal and political advantages.”

Photograph of the former Charleston Club on Meeting Street following the earthquake of 1886, courtesy of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Photograph of the former Charleston Club on Meeting Street following the earthquake of 1886, courtesy of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

While racism and segregation persisted in the years after the Civil War, the 1868 state constitution De Large and Cain helped enact represented a remarkable step toward racial equality in South Carolina. However, this progress was quickly undermined by white South Carolinians’ racism and use of political intimidation, eroding Black politicians’ Reconstruction era progress. Once whites violently regained political control, they wrote a new state constitution in 1895 reestablishing the oppression of South Carolina’s Black citizens in the subsequent Jim Crow era. For example, the new constitution enacted literacy laws, codifying Black voter suppression. After the passing of the new constitution, the city’s streetcars were segregated, as well as railroad cars, beaches, parks, movie theaters and an array of both public spaces and private businesses. During and after the Reconstruction period, the segregation of Charleston’s businesses and cultural institutions sparked an unprecedented increase in the number of educational, social, and religious facilities within predominantly Black neighborhoods. In addition to schools, churches served as a source of stability for African American communities in Charleston. Churches were cultural asylums and hotbeds for political activism.