Paducah's "African American Railroaders"
Paducah's "The Corner"
For slice of life (and pie), The Corner was the place
'The Corner' was the place Emancipation celebrants congregated after other festivities ceased.
By Gladman C. Humbles, Special to The Paducah Sun 08-Aug-2002
"The Corner" was a place where businesses, taverns, professionals, Masons and church people operated in a
rhythmic manner carefully not getting out of step.
Whites thought "7th and Adams" was the black area where black folks had a good time. There was more to The Corner than just a "good time." For blacks, The Corner was the two blocks of South 7th Street between Clark and Jackson.
At one time there were more doctors on The Corner than tavern owners.
Starting on the southeast corner of 7th and Clark stood The Chicken Shack, another misnomer as The Chicken Shack never sold chicken. Buster Hensley started his famous barbecue business there. Whites remembers Buster for his barbecue. Blacks loved his spicy hot dogs covered in a crumbled up bread sauce. Beulah Lowe didn't have an exterior sign and never advertised. Her homestyle meals were so good, Mrs. Beulah sold out every day. If you asked for a second slice of pie, she would tell you, "No, my other customers want pie." But if she liked you, she would slip you a second slice and tell the other customer, "Sorry, sold out."
A few steps from Beulah's, Dr. Dawson sat in front of his drugstore. He wasn't a real doctor, but black folks were so proud of a black man owning a drug store, they called him "doctor" anyway. During the 1930s and ’40s, white pharmacists were earning well over $100 a week. Dr. Hubert Pleasant, a registered pharmacist, worked in Dawson's Drug Store for $35 a week. He had to pay his "black tax" as Dawson's was his only source of employment as a pharmacist.
The two-story building was later purchased by Dr. Andrew Morton, the only African-American dentist in the city for 50 years. Dr. Morton managed to survive the $2 extractions in pre-integration days and later enjoyed some better post-integration days. Dr. Morton became so well-known for his specialized skills in taking impressions and fitting dentures, whites found their way to his office. At one time, three medical doctors occupied offices in Morton's building.
Right on the corner of The Corner, A.G. Strauss owned one of Paducah's largest saloons, complete with a long mahogany bar, brass rail and aproned bartender. A.G. sat in a chair and watched every movement of his operation... or so he thought. Youngsters found out they could sell pop bottles to A.G. and pretend to put them in the back room while passing them out the back door to a co-conspirator who could sell them to A.G. again.
George Archer succeeded A.G., and then came Charles Pickett. Pickett had the reputation of being one bad dude. The truth of the matter was that Pickett presented a pleasant persona. But beneath his winning grin was a clever man who knew how to clean you out in a crap game. The one place that integration existed before its time was in the gambling dens on The Corner. Blacks and whites gambled together, cussed together, drank from the same bottle and sometimes a good white hustler would walk away with all the money.
De Oro's DX gas station preceded Massie's Southside pool room across the street from Pickett's. While wealthy white men were keeping a close eye on the stock market, young, poor black men were keeping a close eye on the 8-ball. The top players were like the top guns of the Old West: Everyone wanted to shoot down the best shooter.
James Whitesides operated a taxi line next to Massie's. The fare was 35 cents with a discount for West End workers. It was through the taxicab gossip that we learned the West Enders were having big parties in big houses while we were partying on The Corner. There was a difference. White folks put on their halos Monday morning while we were still talking about weekend corner parties.
Seventh Street Baptist Church stood as a sole, saving sanctuary amid all the sins of The Corner. The church didn't win many Corner people, but Corner people respected older folks when they came to prayer meetings. Corner people also cleaned up their language when women moving through passed by.
A few feet from the church was the Dutch Maid Laundromat owned by the author. Integration brought about the demise of black business. The big laundromats cut prices and washed the Dutch Maid away. Ray and Lorraine Young have operated a successful liquor store in the same spot for more than 33 years.
Allen's barbershop was near the laundromat. You could get a haircut for 50 cents and a shave for a quarter — until Oliver Simmons came along. Simmons raised haircuts to $1 and shaves to 50 cents. Black customers griped about the price. Prices downtown were twice as much, and barber shops were still segregated. Simmons would simply say, "You can always go downtown if you don't like my prices."
The only white businesses on The Corner were Ripley's Drugstore at 7th and Jackson and Dismore's Grocery across the street.
On the southwest corner of 7th and Adams stood The Majestic Masonic Temple. The three-story building, built in 1904 by black craftsmen, seemed to be a giant with many eyes watching everything and many windows all around. At one time or another, the building housed two insurance companies, a USO office, a boys' club and a vending business, and the Masons always kept the third floor for Masonic meetings and rites.
On Adams Street, right behind the Masonic building, was the most popular tavern in town. Ivo and Carolyn Jones had the patience of Job, the popularity of David and the persistence of Noah. They put up with noise and arguments but wouldn't tolerate any fighting.
On the northeast corner of 7th and Adams was a restaurant. Dather couldn't think of a good name for her place, so she called it "Dather's Eat House."
We had our own "Today" show right next to Dather's. A man named "Today" shined shoes and told all of The Corner gossip.
Between Adams and Clark is the oldest black business in Paducah, Hammock-Bowles Funeral Home. Mrs. Velma Hamock was noted for her outstanding musical voice and Mr. Cliff Bowles for his outstanding embalming techniques. The Discovery Channel will present a short history of "Speedy," the famous mummified corpse embalmed by Mr. A.Z. Hamock in 1928 and buried a few years ago.
This was The Corner I knew. "Pot" was a vessel that mama cooked in, and "Coke" was something you drank out of a bottle. "Crack" was a hole in the house where you had to stuff rags in for insulation. Men and women dressed and were upbeat when they spent a Saturday evening on The Corner.
My motivational factor for writing about The Corner came about through an unusual source. One morning while I was walking my dogs, a man approached me and said, "You don't remember me, do you?" I stared intently for a moment and said, "I don't believe I do."
The man responded, "Remember how I used to shake the hell out them dice when we gambled on The Corner?"
Embarrassed, I told him I still couldn't remember. He smiled and said, "I'm Shaky." I smiled, and shook his hand and pretended to remember. I walked away thinking about how The Corner was more than a "crap shoot," and put together this story, thanks to Shaky.
The writer is a retired Paducah assistant fire chief and a lifelong observer of the city and its people.