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Clyburn's daughter renovating site of first Black woman-owned business in Columbia

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Alston House

The Alston House was built in 1872 and would be used by Caroline Alston as a dry goods store. Mike Fitts/Staff

COLUMBIA — The historic plaque is shiny, but the house itself, wedged between small businesses on Gervais Street, has lost much of its shine. Its latest owner, the daughter of a congressman, is planning to restore the house to what she sees as befitting its place in Columbia's past: The site of the first Black-woman-owned business in the city.

Jennifer Clyburn Reed, a retired educator and daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, has filed her plans with the city to spend $75,000 for multiple repairs on the small house in the Greek revival style at 1811 Gervais St.

She is seeking a tax credit for historic structure repair, including replacing the house's gutters and the wooden front porch it currently has in favor of a porch with ironwork like the building had decades ago.

From her office in the building next door, Reed sees walking tours sometimes stop at the plaque by the sidewalk marking the house as historic. She wants them to see the building as one that has received the care it really deserves.

“I am embarrassed by people stopping by and there is nothing for them to see but a house in disrepair,” Reed said.

The house was built in 1872, less than a decade after the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people. It was owned by Caroline Alston, sometimes referred to as Carolina. At some point in the ensuing years, she opened a dry goods store in one part of the house.

At the time she did so, there were only about 25 Black-owned businesses in Columbia, and hers was the first owned by a Black woman. From that small shop located at what was then the outskirts of the town, she is reported to have served customers of all races.

The business was a success for decades, according to a guide to Black-owned businesses in Columbia in a book edited by writer and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois. Alston eventually sold the building in 1906 to Black businessman L.M. Keitt, who operated it as a grocery.

For decades after World War II, the house was the site of McDuffie's Antiques.

All these years later, however, the small building has sat unused and needs significant repair, with rot in its roof and broken windows to be fixed. A chimney on the back of the small building has pulled away from the structure and needs to be reattached. 

“The way it is now is not the way we want her to be remembered," Reed said.

The house shows how Columbians in the late 19th century lived, and many homes like it that lined Gervais Street close to downtown have since been torn down, said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources at Historic Columbia.

"It's remarkable that the building has been able to be preserved for so long," Sherrer said.

It also serves as an important site to tell the story of a trailblazing Black woman in South Carolina during and after the Reconstruction era, a story that is not told often enough, Sherrer said.

Reed expects the little building to be used again as the space for a nonprofit, but the renovation work slated for next year is important in helping to tell the story of Alston and other Black women, she said.

“Those who care about the truth must invest in a way that keeps that truth visible to everyone," she said.

For Reed, that means stepping up to take care of a little building that is emblematic of the first steps Black women took after emancipation.

Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikefittsat140

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