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A noble history

Anthony W. Neal | 2/14/2012, 5:23 p.m.
At turn of 20th century, Boston’s black businesses sought economic independenceAnthony W. Neal ...

The Tropical Store, the second largest black-owned grocery and provision store in Boston, was located at 592 Shawmut Ave. near Lenox Street. It offered free delivery.

C. F. Brown and Sons sold groceries and provisions at its 25 Warwick St. location. Other black-owned grocery stores included the Church of God Grocery Store and those owned by Singleton and Company at 726 Shawmut Avenue and by B. W. Stark at 910 Tremont St.

Restaurants and Catering

At the turn of the century, there were plenty of black-owned restaurants, lunch rooms and catering concerns in Boston’s South End/Lower Roxbury district. At 894 Tremont St., Thomas E. Lucas owned the “cool, clean, and commodious” Southern Dining Room, where “good food and prompt, attentive service” made his establishment “a most desirable dining place for discriminating people.” Peter Gibson was the proprietor of Gibson’s Restaurant, located on the next block at 806 Tremont St. G. A. Sewell and R. H. Smith sold “first class” American and Chinese food at the corner of Windsor and Westminster Streets. Their business motto was “We Aim to Please.”

With locations at 154 Lenox St. and 147 Northampton St., White’s Lunch, owned by William H. White, served “strictly home cooking.” Proprietors John T. Counsel and Harry A. Simmonds provided “pure food” and “quick service” at the Boston Dairy Lunch, situated at 610 Shawmut Ave.

Caterer James H. Madison owned Tremont Soda Spa, which could be found at 946 Tremont St. The Benjamin Brothers were wholesale and retail manufacturers of “strictly pure ice cream and homemade candies.” Catering to parties and balls, their establishment could be found at 792 Tremont St.

Wig-Making and Hair Product Businesses

African Americans had established several Boston based wig making and hair product companies by the turn of the century. At the age of 23, Gilbert C. Harris moved from Virginia to Boston and secured work in a hair product store. Over a 14 period, he learned as much as he could about the business and launched a successful hair product enterprise on Washington Street with a capital outlay of 38 dollars. He supplied wigs to theatrical groups all over the country. One of the best wig makers of his time, Harris owned the largest wig manufacturing business in New England by 1910.

When asked what his formula for success was, he replied, “Follow the man who has succeeded, learn his traits, and you will be upon the right side.”

Around 1889, Madam L. C. Parrish established a wig making and hair weaving trade in Boston for black women. The L. C. Parrish Company manufactured scalp and hair products and also ran a beauty school.

In 1899, Madam Mary L. Johnson, a wig maker, “scientific scalp specialist, and hair culturist,” founded the Johnson Manufacturing Company with her husband, Dr. W. Alexander Johnson. At 798 Tremont St., they sold hair goods and toiletries at Johnson’s Hair Store. Sold all over the United States since 1900, their famous “Johnson Hair Food” was “the most scientific pomade yet discovered for growing, beautifying and softening the hair,” they claimed.