The story of Jewish South Carolina is the story of merchants.
Nearly every city and small town throughout the state once included at least a couple of Jewish families who were responsible for operating the local dry goods store or haberdashery or furniture showroom.
Some ran appliance or electronics stores; some sold food items. All of them strived to establish, then protect, the Jewish community in each place — to create synagogues, cemeteries, schools and other Jewish institutions, to foster a clear sense of Jewish identity even as South Carolina Jews embraced Southern culture and gained quick acceptance from their Christian neighbors.
These early Jewish merchants first arrived in South Carolina, and the rest of the South, in the 19th century, though already there were Jewish enclaves in places such as Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, largely established by Sephardic Jews with Spanish and Middle Eastern roots who had come to North America during Colonial times.
The new wave of Jewish immigrants was mostly Ashkenazy, people with Eastern European roots. And they were inclined to peddle their wares in order to gain a foothold in the local economy.
Push carts became shops. Shops became department stores or chains, which often led to entrepreneurial investments in other lines of business: real estate, finance, agriculture.
This story of the Jewish merchant now is being recorded for posterity thanks to a new initiative of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. The Jewish Merchant Project kicked off last month. Initially funded by a $30,000 grant from the Columbia-based Norman J. Arnold Foundation, the effort aims “to ensure that the memory of these merchants and their value to South Carolina isn’t forgotten,” according to Martin Perlmutter, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society and director of the Jewish Studies Center at the College of Charleston.
The Jewish Historical Society is working in tandem with the Historic Columbia Foundation and the Center for Southern Jewish Culture and Special Collections at the College of Charleston to gather narratives and materials from the state’s Jewish families. The project ultimately will result in an annotated electronic map of Jewish-owned stores in communities across the state as well as a searchable database and archive accessible to the public.
It’s the latest undertaking in a series of efforts to document Jewish life in South Carolina that began with the establishment of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston in 1984, continued with the formation of the Jewish Historical Society in 1994, and grew with the start of the Jewish Heritage Collection in 1995.
The 1990s in South Carolina was a period of concern for resident Jews, noted Perlmutter. Jewish communities in small towns, already in decline, had reached their twilight years, a period when it was increasingly evident that a vibrant Jewish experience was only to be found in bigger cities.
Many of the great-grandchildren and grandchildren of the first-generation of Jewish settlers had gone off to school and become professionals, preferring not to return to Kingstree or Anderson or Walterboro or Sumter or Georgetown.
This was the impetus for starting the Jewish Historical Society, Perlmutter said. It was becoming urgent to create a robust record of Jewish life.
Rachel Barnett, who is overseeing the Jewish Merchant Project, was in her hometown of Summerton on Monday cleaning out the family home her grandfather built. “Nobody threw anything away,” she said, half lamenting, half rejoicing.
Barnett’s grandfather was a dry goods merchant. Her father earned a degree in pharmacy from the University of South Carolina then, unlike so many of his peers, returned home. Her maternal grandmother operated an Army-Navy surplus store on upper King Street in Charleston. Her mother attended the College of Charleston. Her husband was raised in the tiny town of Manville, north of Sumter, she said.
“There was a store at every crossroads in every little town and hamlet in South Carolina in those days,” Barnett said.
Some Jewish families began to migrate to bigger cities decades ago looking to expand their business opportunities. The Kalinskys, for example, started in Holly Hill, but Morris Kalinsky came to Charleston and bought Bob Ellis Shoes in 1950, Barnett said. (The store closed earlier this year.)
Jewish merchants enjoyed notable success during the first half of the 1900s when racial segregation was in force. Many of the stores in Charleston were located along the upper part of the peninsula, and Jewish merchants catered to a mixed clientele.
As business boomed, new opportunities arose.
Dale Rosengarten, associate director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture and curator of the College of Charleston’s Special Collections, said that retail stores were jumping-off points offering a relatively firm foundation to businessmen (and some women) willing to assume a little risk.
“The store was their home base, but it wasn’t their ticket to ride,” Rosengarten said. “They went into credit and banking, real estate development, agriculture and land investment.” These new business enterprises often could be managed remotely and bequeathed to future generations.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Jewish merchants bought land and adopted the crop-lien system by which tenant farmers and sharecroppers obtained supplies, food and various necessities on credit, paying back the landlord-merchant with proceeds from the harvest (or worsening their indebtedness if the crop failed).
“The merchant was the first one paid upon sale of the crop,” Rosengarten said. What remained went to the farmer.
These extended business ventures helped Jews thrive in the South, even in rural areas where they were nevertheless able to cultivate a more cosmopolitan world view, she said. Many maintained strong links to big cities up north where business associates and extended family members lived.
“These merchants were not making a fortune selling dungarees or furniture or shoes," Rosengarten said. "They were entrepreneurs.”
Chain of migration
Katharine Allen, research and archives manager at the Historic Columbia Foundation, is helping to manage the merchant project. She got a head start thanks to the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative, now three years in the making. Allen has been collecting oral histories and related materials in an effort to create a comprehensive record of Jewish life in the state’s capital.
The enterprise has shed light on Columbia’s merchant class and the many Jews who have contributed to the local economy over the centuries. To take the effort statewide, Allen has developed a survey that’s been distributed to libraries and synagogues, and that’s available online at http://jhssc.org/jewish-merchants/.
“Both Columbia and Charleston, and part of the Lowcountry, have pretty well-documented histories of Jewish merchants, but we’re really hoping to find out more about the smaller towns,” Allen said.
Research will illuminate how people arriving mostly from Eastern Europe, established themselves here, then invited family members in the old country, or in big cities up north, to join them down south.
“So we’re following that kind of chain of migration,” Allen said.
Some small towns had only a few Jewish-owned shops, but when you factor in all the people who worked in these stores, and who were peripherally involved, you realize that the Jewish community in each place was not insignificant, she said.
In Columbia at one time, “every building along Main and Assembly streets was at some point occupied by a Jewish merchant.”
Lucky Levinson’s family got its start in a small town: Barnwell. His grandparents owned Leader Department Store, located in the heart of town when the nearby Savannah Nuclear Plant was fully operational.
“It was a boom town at that time,” Levinson said. “They were very successful. They were very well liked in Barnwell.”
Levinson remembers hearing stories about his aunt Anne Lourie and her store in St. George, and about his uncle Jake Kalinsky in Georgetown. His grandmother’s three daughters, distributed among three Jewish families, all would reconvene each Sunday in Barnwell, he said.
“We were very close-knit,” Levinson said. “Everybody was a merchant.”
When his grandfather bought out the men’s clothing store Brittons in downtown Columbia, first Levinson’s father ran it, then he did — for 45 years. He just sold his share to his sister, who continues to operate the shop.
It flourished on Main Street when Fort Jackson was bustling with activity and cabbies would drop off soldiers in front of the store. During the 1960s, the family opened a second store, then a third, then a fourth, and began to sell women’s clothing, too.
But by the 1990s, Main Street commerce had collapsed and recession forced the Levinsons to begin closing some of their stores. The main shop relocated to Devine Street, where it continues to operate today, in case you’re in the market for a bow tie.
Jews in South Carolina now are concentrated in the big cities. Only a few of the shops run by Jews remain open for business. Main Street in Columbia has seen a remarkable renaissance, but nearly all of the old retailers are long gone.
Charleston’s King Street also has seen dramatic changes. Among the stores that have closed recently are Dixie Furniture, Morris Sokol, George’s Pawn Shop and Bob Ellis. Other retailers, such as Fox Music House, relocated years ago.
A few Jewish families have gone into the restaurant business instead, noted Perlmutter. But the days of flourishing, independent, Jewish-owned retail shops are long gone.
Jews tend to be well-versed in the history of their people — the destruction of the temple, the migration into Europe, the Inquisition, the Holocaust — “but if you are raised in Andrews, South Carolina, your history is much more local than that,” Perlmutter said.
It’s about feeling welcome in a new place, about finding success, about building communities, about providing opportunities to new generations. It’s a good history, Perlmutter noted. But the world these Jews created in the 1800s and 1900s is no longer there.
“We have got to preserve history, otherwise it disappears,” he said.