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In Jim Crow era, Mary Watson borrowed $800 to start East Side business, a community hub

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Joe Watson (copy)

Joe Watson behind the counter of Mary's Sweet Shop in Hampstead Village, also known as Charleston's East Side. Watson's mother, Mary, opened the store as a restaurant 61 years ago. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

A new park in downtown Charleston will honor one of the city's most beloved residents, the late Mary Watson, whose convenience shop served as a community gathering space in the city's historic East Side community.

The city of Charleston will join the Watson family and the Eastside Community Development Corp. to dedicate the new Mary Watson Park in honor of the founder of Mary's Sweet Shop, which has served the neighborhood for more than four decades.

The idea to honor Miss Mary, as she was affectionately known, came from members of the Eastside Garden Club.

The park will be in a spot located diagonal to the store. Both are in the residential neighborhood roughly bordered by Meeting and East Bay streets, and Huger and Mary streets.

The shop is currently operated by Mary's son, Joe Watson. Joe hopes the park will inspire people to learn about his mother, who was a woman of faith, mentor of children, and lover of community.

In 1958, while residents on America Street, Mary and her husband, Benjamin Watson, purchased the corner property at Amherst and America streets and opened Watson’s Grill and Restaurant.

Jim Crow laws made it extremely difficult for blacks to acquire bank loans, so Mary borrowed $800 from an African American community group to start the business, Joe said.

The group would often offer financial assistance to those in need and would give seed money to blacks aiming to start companies.

"They came together under all that pressure," Joe said. "They found solutions."

In 1971, the couple transformed the property into Mary’s Sweet Shop, which served as both a snack shop and community space where children were nurtured.

Today, the shop points to its history. A framed portrait of the businesswoman greets customers at the door, and behind the picture rests the wooden bench where Mary would sit and counsel children.

Joe has continued his mother's legacy through personal activism. He's an active member of a nearby AME church and has long advocated for the East Side by fighting crime and attending neighborhood meetings.

In recent decades, the historic neighborhood has aimed to combat flooding and crime, but also to maintain the character of the community as it faces an influx of college students and new homeowners searching for affordable housing on the peninsula. 

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg touted Miss Mary as a champion of the community who transformed the corner of Amherst and America streets into a neighborhood gathering space.

"Now, more than 60 years later, Mary Watson Park will serve as an uplifting reminder of the caring, faithful and civic-spirited woman we all knew and loved as Miss Mary," Tecklenburg said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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