The MLK, Jr. MEMORIAL DISTRICT
A conversation with Richard Wigfall
Recorded April 17, 2019 by Theron SNYPE
Richard is from a family of entrepreneurs who created and operated businesses in the Spring and Cannon Streets corridor. Due to the number of African American business enterprises historically located along this corridor, in 1999, city council passed a resolution designating those streets the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial District in honor of the slain civil rights leader. In the early 1950s Richard’s father and grandfather opened a bakery on the lower floor of their residence on President St. His uncles owned and operated a very successful eating establishment on Spring Street, the Ashley Grill, which generated the resources to build a twenty room hotel next door.
The bakery was located at 114 President Street, between Spring and Cannon Streets. Richard recalls an episode when he was a young child, still in a stroller, where he pulled on a large bag of flour which was on a shelf and spilled the contents all over his body. “I looked so funny with that flour all over me that everyone was hysterical. They laughed so I started laughing also.”
Due to the discrimination that was prevalent during that time, the bakery ceased doing business approximately in 1954 or 1955. He recounts that his grandfather’s bakery had items for sale in a number of local grocery stores. However, the sales representative for the National Biscuit Company, a corporate giant, “Was losing sales to my family’s business, so he actually threatened to cut off the supply of goods from the National Biscuit Co. if the merchants didn’t remove my family’s goods from the shelves and [therefore] denied us access to sell”, according to Wigfall.
Operating until the mid 1970s, the James Hotel (or, as some called it, the Hotel James) was the largest and most successful business in this corridor. It was constructed and operated by Richard’s uncles and his father worked in the hotel. The Hotel James is legendary in the history of African American entrepreneurship in Charleston, SC. The grand opening of the hotel in 1952 was significant enough to be covered by the major local newspaper, the News and Courier & The Evening Post. On the page which featured a short story about the hotel opening, there were advertisements purchased by the various contractors and suppliers which were utilized to build and equip the business. It is noteworthy that none of these businesses were owned by African Americans.