Siler City group launches fundraiser to install plaque, mural honoring historical Black businesses

Posted 6/16/21

SILER CITY — On the fringes of downtown Siler City, a group of unassuming brick buildings stand along South Birch Avenue, where they host a real estate company’s offices.

But once, recalls …

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Siler City group launches fundraiser to install plaque, mural honoring historical Black businesses

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SILER CITY — On the fringes of downtown Siler City, a group of unassuming brick buildings stands along South Birch Avenue, where they now host a real estate company’s offices.

But once, recalls Siler City native Donald Matthews, those buildings housed a thriving Black business district with a cafe, a barber shop and a billiards room — stores he can still remember frequenting as a young boy growing up in the 1960s.

“That was your Saturday,” said Matthews, 63. “Dad dropped me off every Saturday. You get a haircut. Then you go next door and get something to eat. There were always people mingling and people from all over, so it was actually a real good time.”

Now, decades later, he has been working to raise enough money to commemorate these Black businesses and others nearby with a plaque, a mural and a celebration. By remembering the past, Matthews said, he and other interested Siler City residents hope to inspire others to look to the future.

“It’s so vitally important for our young people to know that these things existed because there’s not any African American business downtown, period,” said Matthews, who’s an associate minister at First Missionary Baptist Church. “Nothing. Nothing. So, if you don’t know what you had, in my mind, you don’t know what you can have. We had businesses. It’s a possibility to have them again.”

Altogether, Matthew estimated that the project — the plaque, mural and celebration — will cost around $5,000. Originally, he asked the town for funding after presenting the project and submitting a proposal to the Siler City Board of Commissioners earlier this year. The town approved the project, but they declined to fund it.

“Currently, any funding for this type of project would need to go through the nonprofit application process, and Mr. Matthews did turn his forms in as requested by the board,” Town Manager Roy Lynch told the News + Record. “However, the nonprofits were not funded in the upcoming budget process, which is where they were focusing on as far as being able to provide any assistance. So, therefore, you know, the town was not funding any of those requests at this time.”

Anyone who wishes to donate to the project may contact Matthews at donaldmatthews526@gmail.com or 336-653-4129. He’s also looking for any photos of the former businesses and their owners, Matthews added.

“This part of our history will be lost if we do not take advantage of the situation now,” Matthews wrote in a March letter to Siler City’s Board of Commissioners. “Many of those that remember are dying, pictures are getting hard to come by.”

‘It’s like they didn’t exist'

Matthews’ efforts to commemorate Siler City’s Black business district and owners began more than two years ago. Through his years of research, plus his own memories, he’s identified at least five historical Black businesses in Siler City. Some trace all the way back to the early 20th century.

But of those businesses, only one has been well documented — Tod R. Edwards Watchmaker & Jeweler.

“The Chatham County Historical Association actually had participated in looking,” Matthews said. “We can’t even find as much as a business license for these businesses. It’s like it didn’t exist, but we all know they were here.”

According to the CCHA’s research, the Tod R. Edwards Watchmaker & Jeweler was the only Black-owned business located along Chatham Street — downtown Siler City’s white business district during the Jim Crow era.

Founded by Bynum native Tod R. Edwards in 1905, the jewelry, watch repair and photography business operated until 1961, when Edwards’ son, Tod Jr., and wife Ella, closed it 10 years after the senior Edwards’ death. Per the Association’s research, Edwards’ business received mostly white patronage.

Several local newspapers reported on Edwards’ store throughout the decades, including a 1910 Siler City Grit article, a 1950 article in The State Magazine, as well as a 1961 Chatham News piece reflecting on the store’s closure.

“Seldom has the closing of a local concern engendered as much regret as the announcement that Edwards’ Jewelry Store would be no more,” read the Chatham News story. “... For the past 66 years the Edwards Jewelry Store in Siler City was proof that whites and Negro people can live side by side without hatred and violence and with respect for each other.”

That coverage also preserved photos of Edwards and his wife, their business and even their house, two blocks away; several newspapers in the region also carried ads and announcements Edwards placed to attract business and update his customers.

“That is the only business that they can find a record of,” Matthews said. “The rest of them, we actually grew up with. We knew the people. They were from this community, and there were some other businesses that were in the community, but they weren’t downtown.”

During segregation in the ’60s and early ’70s, Matthews said, other downtown Black-owned businesses were limited to Birch Avenue, which was about a block south of the white business district.

“It’s sitting on the back side of Main Street, facing railroad tracks,” Matthews said, “so it was pretty much out of sight, out of mind. I don’t know anybody my age that is white that would know it was there, and I know no one ever went into any of them [on Birch Avenue].”

South Birch Avenue hosted three businesses — a billiards room and TV repair shop on the left, a barber shop in the middle and a cafe on the right. Miller’s Siler City City Directory from 1959 to 1960 and from 1962 to 1963 record the businesses as Birch Avenue Billiards, Birch Avenue Barber Shop and Birch Avenue Cafe, respectively.

The 1959 directory lists Major L. Farrar as the barber shop and cafe owner, while identifying Bynum C. Jeffries as the billiards room owner. In the 1962 directory, though, all three businesses have different owners: William Haith Jr. had come to own the billiards room and cafe while the barber shop passed to Henrietta F. Patterson, whose 1999 obituary identifies as Major Farrar’s daughter.

“Birch Avenue Cafe had several owners over the years, but to the best of my knowledge, it always maintained the Birch Avenue Cafe name,” Matthews said. “The last owners, I believe, (were) the Farrar family. That would have been a husband and wife and the children. … Henrietta Patterson’s barbershop ran up until she retired and pretty much closed to business.”

But for Birch Avenue Billiards — what Matthews knows as the Haith Pool Room and TV Repair Shop — he hasn’t been able to find any records at all, and he’s unearthed few, if any, photos of the Birch Avenue businesses and their owners.

And another business just around the corner left even fewer records. The store, called Spencer’s Shoe Repair, doesn’t even have an entry in either of Miller’s Siler City directories. The store closed once the owner retired, Matthews said, and no business took its place.

“The young men in a neighborhood were employed there shining shoes and working there,” he said. “That was a good time for them.”

‘It was ours’

Of these businesses, Matthews said, Birch Avenue Cafe stuck it out the longest, but eventually, a Black-owned plumbing business replaced it. But once that business closed, the Birch Avenue buildings went dark.

“And so for many years, they sat,” Matthews said. “They deteriorated. Someone came through, gutted it. Roof was off, windows out. And it sat like that for a number of years. And then this young man bought them, had a vision, (and) turned them around.”

In 2015, Edwin Argueta, owner of the Winland Group, bought the buildings to house his real estate company. A year later, he renovated them and turned them into what Matthews described as “beautiful” offices.

But in its heyday, Matthews remembers, South Birch Avenue’s Black business district didn’t just provide goods and services; it also provided a forum for intellectual debate and community. Inside Birch Avenue Barber Shop, adults often kicked around different ideas and held intellectual conversations.

“It was just pretty much a nurturing environment then, listening to the elders talking about different things that were going on,” he said, “and sometimes it would be something that required immediate attention, and sometimes it would just be, ‘Oh yeah, my tomato plants are doing really good this year.’”

He described the cafe as “family-oriented,” and one of the few restaurants where Black residents could sit down and eat.

“You either went in the backdoor or you didn’t go in the door at all at other establishments,” he recalled. “You never went in and sat down anywhere. They served you at the back door.”

And that, he said, is why Birth Avenue’s Black business district meant so much to Siler City’s African American community.

“It was ours,” he said, “when there was nothing else.”

‘We have a bit of a ways to go’

To recognize South Birch Avenue’s historical business district, Matthews and others plan to install a plaque along Birch Avenue with the businesses’ names. They’ve also started planning the mural, which they’ll place along the left side of the building that used to house Birch Avenue Billiards.

The mural, Matthews said, would depict the district’s businesses and business owners at their apex.

“Say for instance, you would have someone going into the Birch Avenue Cafe, maybe a family walking in the door with some patrons already sitting down in there,” he said. “You can look through the window of the barber shop and see someone getting a haircut with a couple other barbers, also people waiting. … People mingling on the street, the way it used to be — people stopping, talking.”

It’s already laid out in his mind’s eye, he said, and they’ve got just the artist to bring it to life — Greensboro muralist Philip Marsh, who’s responsible for engineering many of Greensboro’s street murals.

“He’s actually a resident of Greensboro,” Matthews said, “but his home is here. His roots are here.”

Both the town and property owner Edwin Argueta have approved the project — and Argueta said he’s particularly excited for it.

“You know, wanting to honor heritage, and where this town is now and what it used to be, I think it’s important to recognize and not forget where we come from as a town, and as Americans, it’s important to celebrate the progress,” he told the News + Record. “So I’m thrilled to be part of it.”

Especially, he said, since some people used to stop by his office and tell him about the Birch Avenue buildings’ history. When the buildings first reopened in 2016, a woman walked in and asked to order some food.

“And I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’” Argueta said, laughing. “And she says, ‘Well, aren’t you reopening?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, ma’am. We just have.’ ‘Well, this was a restaurant. It was a soul food cafe.’”

She was surprised to find out the buildings had reopened as office space, he recalled, “but it was very cute that she came in her Sunday best, you know, waiting to be served.”

“It was a neat, neat interaction,” he added.

Once Matthews and others collect sufficient funds and finish the project, they’ll hold an unveiling ceremony and a celebration. Originally, he’d hoped to have a Juneteenth celebration on June 19th, but the “town shot it down” because of COVID restrictions at the time.

He can’t yet predict exactly when they’ll hold the celebration and ceremony, but he hopes it’ll happen before this fall.

“We have a bit of a ways to go,” Matthews said, adding, “But that is what we’re attempting to do. We are contacting people. We’re looking for donations in order to get this done.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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