MYRTLE BEACH — Nothing much is there today. Some houses. A Boys and Girls Club. A barber shop. That’s it.
This part of “the Hill,” an old African-American neighborhood, is less than a half-mile from the Boardwalk and Promenade, but it’s hidden behind the hotels and attractions, mostly invisible to the area’s 18 million annual tourists.
You wouldn’t know it now, but this small stretch of Carver Street once was the epicenter of black culture in Myrtle Beach. It was the gathering place of famous musicians and enthusiastic clubgoers. It was an early experiment in racial integration, a place where many could shed the heavy baggage of the brutal Jim Crow South and just drink and dance.
Charlie’s Place, established in 1937 by Charles and Sarah Fitzgerald, was the home of “Beach Music,” or early rhythm and blues, which spawned the Shag. It was a key stop on the old Chitlin’ Circuit where black musicians — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, Fats Domino, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Louis Jordan and many more — came to play. These famed musicians often performed in the big hotels on the beach, but they were not permitted to stay overnight, so they found their way to Charlie’s Place.
Charlie Fitzgerald was a black entrepreneur from New York who, in South Carolina, operated not only the restaurant and dance hall, but a motel, gas station and cab company. He was the most known of many such entrepreneurs active in the area at that time.
Musicians would rehearse in the ballroom during the day (often attracting neighborhood children), play late-night gigs and sleep in the adjacent hotel.
“Charlie’s Place became pretty well known throughout the Southeast,” said Roddy Brown, a longtime resident of Myrtle Beach and member of the Carver Street Committee, which has been working to secure the site of the old club and preserve its remarkable legacy.
In 1950, the Ku Klux Klan organized a vicious attack on the site, one that still seems to reverberate through the community.
This history, and the current effort to remake Charlie’s Place into a community center and museum, is the topic of a new documentary by SCETV, now in the works. Producer Betsy Newman has spent the past few months shooting about 18 interviews and b-roll, and collecting archival materials. She said a few more months of work are needed before the documentary is ready for prime time, but that she expects it to air on public television stations in South Carolina early next year.
The idea for the 30-minute film was first broached in November 2016 when Herbert Riley, a Grand Strand musician and civic leader, contacted Newman. They met at Big Mike’s Soul Food on the periphery of the old black neighborhood to talk about the fascinating history of Charlie’s Place and the effort to save that history for future generations.
The documentary will begin with a short history of the music, then describe Fitzgerald’s club, the Klan attack and the current project. Soon she will shoot an abstracted re-enactment of the raid with filmmaker Steve Daniels, who will use Super 8 film to lend a historic feel to the footage.
It wasn’t hard for Newman to convince her ETV colleagues to make a documentary, she said.
“These communities have been so disregarded, deprived, denigrated for so long,” Newman said. “People have a chip on their shoulder, and they don’t trust anybody. ... It’s very hard in these communities to go forward in a positive way.”
But they are going forward in a positive way. The city of Myrtle Beach purchased the property about a year ago. Block grants were secured to pay for a restoration project. Carter Architecture and project leaders devised a three-phase initiative based on community input.
Thanks in no small measure to the perseverance of Riley and his fellow committee members, an old house on the property will be fixed up and turned into a multipurpose space or community center. Soon after, what’s left of the hotel will be restored and its rooms made available to local entrepreneurs. A couple of the spaces could become a mini-museum that tells the story of the site and the community it served. Eventually, the community might add new buildings to the site, create a marketplace, green space and more.
Shag on the Hill
Brown, now 75, remembers how he and his young pals, age 12 at the time, would frequent the restaurant during the day to buy foot-long hotdogs, ice cream and snow cones. They ran into many musicians who were rehearsing in the dance hall, but they couldn’t attend performances at night.
“You had to be 21 to go dance in the evening,” Brown said. Instead, he would sometimes babysit the Fitzgeralds' young son.
There was a show every two weeks or so from spring to fall, he said. Tour buses would park in the street. Neighbors would gather. Cabbies would jockey for position. The whole street would buzz with activity.
Whites staying in the big hotels would regularly join the bustle on Carver Street, especially as the 1940s marched on. By then the “jungle music” white-controlled radio stations refused to play was catching on.
“The genie was beginning to come out of the bottle,” writes Frank Beacham, author of the book “Charlie’s Place: How the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Stop the Rise of Rhythm & Blues.” By 1950, white people couldn’t get enough of this new music, which inspired plenty of movement on the dance floor.
Whites were called lindy hoppers; blacks were referred to as jitterbuggers, recalled Riley.
At Charlie’s Place they all danced together.
The princess of the club was Cynthia Harrol, who waited tables and worked the bar. Harrol often visited New York City to dance in Harlem’s nightclubs. She was good. And she brought her talents to the ballroom at Charlie’s Place. Soon patrons were talking about “the shag on the Hill.” It’s unclear if they were referring to the dancing at the club or to Harrol’s nickname: Shag.
The new dance style essentially was a slower, smoother, sexier version of the jitterbug. It was the main reason everyone wanted to be at Charlie’s Place.
Attack of the Klan
In 1950, incumbent Democratic Sen. Olin Johnston, who decried the “mongrelization of the races,” faced a worthy opponent in Gov. Strom Thurmond, who accused Johnston of being soft of segregation.
“Any man that says I am for mixing of the races is a low-down, contemptible liar,” Johnston said in a speech in Georgetown, according to Beacham.
“No Negro will ever be a guest at the governor’s mansion so long as I am governor,” Thurmond declared.
And so went the racially charged campaign, emboldening the Klan in Horry County, Beacham writes.
The Klan, led by Grand Dragon Thomas L. Hamilton, did not like what was happening at Charlie’s Club. They threatened Fitzgerald, who nevertheless refused to ban white patrons. The Klan warned him of violence to come.
On the night of Aug. 26, 1950, the Klan cruised through Myrtle Beach’s black neighborhoods. Local police cleared the way for dozens of cars in the motorcade. Eventually, they passed by Charlie’s Place, and Fitzgerald called the police, telling authorities that if the Klan returned there would certainly be bloodshed.
The Klan returned just before midnight.
About 60 men in 25 vehicles stormed the club, disarmed Fitzgerald and threw him into the trunk of a car, then shot up the place with more than 500 rounds, aiming many of the bullets at the jukebox. Patrons, black and white, fled through the back of the building.
Several were injured. Only one person was killed, a Klansman. When his blood-stained white robe and hood was removed at the hospital, a police uniform was revealed. James D. Johnson, 42, an off-duty police officer from Conway, had been shot in the back.
After the burst of gunfire, the Klansmen took off. Locked in the trunk of a Pontiac, Fitzgerald imagined the worst. After about an hour, the car stopped near an inlet waterway, 600 yards from Highway 544, two and a half miles west of Myrtle Beach, according to Roddy Brown and an FBI report. Fitzgerald was hauled out and beaten badly by men he recognized.
The assailants debated whether Fitzgerald should be held responsible for the death of Dan Johnson, the FBI report states.
“The ‘Dragon’ stated that the victim was not responsible whereupon an unknown man leaned over the victim and cut his left ear lobe saying, ‘We’ll mark him so we’ll know him.’ When this man leaned over the victim the victim saw pinned on the inside of his shirt pocket a silver badge which was in the shape of a shield and about the size of a silver dollar. The victim … stated that it looked like a Deputy Sheriff’s badge.”
As the Klansmen talked with one another, Fitzgerald gathered the strength to make a run for it. He escaped into the brush as about 20 bullets whizzed by him.
By chance, Brown’s uncle Ed Washington was driving his cab down Highway 544 shortly thereafter, noticed Fitzgerald on the side of the road and rescued him.
The town was shaken by the KKK attacks. Some blacks left town, including workers at the hotels, according to Beacham. Some whites avoided Carver Street for a while. Fitzgerald spent two weeks in three separate jails, though there are no records of any charges filed. Possibly Sheriff C. Ernest Sasser, who was friendly with Fitzgerald, was protecting the club owner.
Sasser and other law enforcement officers speculated that Johnson had been killed by a fellow Klansman. Soon, about 10 Klan members were arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite mob violence. Grand Dragon Hamilton was released on $5,000 bond.
On Oct. 5, a Horry County grand jury cleared five Klansmen, including Hamilton, of all charges. All the others had already been released after a hearing in which no probable cause was determined. The white establishment was emboldened. The Klan managed to ensure that Sasser lost re-election. An FBI investigation, and a federal case led by Thurgood Marshall, went nowhere.
Olin Johnston defeated Strom Thurmond in the primary and soon returned to the U.S. Senate.
Fitzgerald put the club back together and opened its doors to the shaggers and music lovers of Myrtle Beach. Many more musicians came through, including Marvin Gaye, James Brown, the Inkspots, the Drifters and Percy Sledge. Black-run businesses continued to operate on Carver Street, including the nearby Little Club Bamboo, run by Brown’s father during the early 1950s.
The black community forged ahead. Black music went mainstream. But Charlie’s Club was never quite the same.
“I think it kind of shattered something in Myrtle Beach,” Newman said.