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Broad Street street vendors and the days of ‘Old Porgy’

January 14, 2020

One of the most picturesque institutions of Old Charleston was the street vendors hawking their wares. Some sold ice for the “ice boxes,” while others sold vegetables, flowers and beautiful handmade baskets. Many women carried their wares in baskets balanced on top of their heads. Men pushed weather-beaten, makeshift carts decorated with chips of paint that somehow managed to cling to the boards. Two large wheels at the back of the carts rolled it along; the front had a perpendicular board to keep the cart from tipping over. Carts were used by shrimp and fish men, vegetable men and a peanut man who roamed the streets, chanting their familiar refrains. Their mellifluous voices were beloved by the tourists and “old Charlestonians” alike.

 

Charleston’s most famous street vendor was and continues to be Porgy, the endearing character made famous by DuBose Heyward in his best-selling novel about a crippled street-beggar living in “Catfish Row.” As with much of Charleston history, Porgy is intimately connected to Broad Street and its environs.

 

The creator of Porgy, Dubose Heyward, was a descendant of Judge Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As a youth, DuBose was often ill and dropped out of high school at age 14. He contracted polio at 18 and typhoid fever at 20. While convalescing, he passed the time writing verses and stories.

 

He became immersed in Gullah culture through his mother’s influence and was a keen observer of black life, adding verisimilitude to his future writing. He grew up on Church Street, not far from crowded tenements known as Cabbage Row and he was inspired by the culturally rich exploits of the men who lived nearby. His social conscience was also derived from his exposure to African American men on the docks where Heyward worked as a cotton checker.

 

Heyward participated in the Charleston Renaissance through a literary career that started with a one-act play, locally produced in 1913. He and Hervey Allen founded the Poetry Society of South Carolina. Heyward edited the society’s yearbooks and earned a “Contemporary Verse” award in 1921. In 1922, he and Allen published Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Low Country. The same year Heyward married Dorothy Kuhns, whom he met at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Heyward supported himself by operating an insurance and real estate company until he achieved enough financial independence to give up business and devote his time to literature.

 

Heyward was the first white author to make members of the black community come alive. He published Jasbo Brown and Other Poems in 1924 and supplemented his income by lecturing. After Porgy became a best seller, his wife, Dorothy, adapted the story into a Broadway play that ran for 367 performances.

 

George Gershwin and Heyward collaborated on an operatic version of Porgy at Folly Beach in the summer of 1934. They went to black churches so Gershwin could get a sense of Gullah culture and its music. Meanwhile, in New York Ira Gershwin wrote lyrics to some of the opera's songs, most notably, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The libretto and most of the lyrics, including “Summertime,” were written by Heyward.

 

DuBose Heyward died from a heart attack in Tryon, North Carolina at the age of 54.  He is buried at St. Philip’s, near the tomb of John C. Calhoun.

 

America’s first folk opera, Porgy and Bess, put Charleston back on the map. It was the first American opera to be performed on Broadway with an all-black cast. Although Washington was still segregated, when the production went on tour, the singers made history by demanding that the audience be desegregated. It was not a box office success when it was first produced and met with mixed emotions in the African American community until Leontyne Price played the role of Bess in the 1950s.

 

An attempt was made to produce Porgy and Bess at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston in the early 1950s. After weeks of auditions, set construction and rehearsals with the all-black cast, the production was cancelled, because they could not figure out how to keep the theatre segregated. (The Gershwins’ estates would not permit a segregated audience.)

 

The first Charleston production was performed at the Gaillard Auditorium in 1970 and again in 1993. In 2012, on the 75th anniversary of Gershwin’s death, the Footlight Players secured the right to perform the opera at the Dock Street Theatre. Typically, copyright owners grant performance rights only to venues that can seat more than 1,000; however, they made an exception to the smaller seating capacity because of the opera’s ties to Charleston.

 

The real Porgy was named Samuel Smalls, a street vendor who roamed around town with a goat cart. He sold peanut cakes to college students at the corner of King and George streets and he parked his goat cart on Broad Street to panhandle tourists.

 

Smalls was a regular sight on the Cooper River wharves where he kept company with Mosquito Fleet fishermen who went out at dawn every morning. He was popular with the fishermen because his upper torso development made him a good oarsman and enabled him to haul in nets. They nicknamed him “Porgy” after the fish caught off the barrier islands. Like the fictional Porgy, Smalls was quite a ladies’ man. Once, he was charged with murder in a disagreement over the affections of a woman. He was jailed on Magazine Street until some businessmen had him released. Heyward learned of him through a News & Courier article about his arrest after a vigorous chase down several alleys.

 

After Porgy became famous, people wanted to know more about Sammy Smalls, but it was too late. Even knowledgeable old-timers could not positively identify which downtown slum tenement he called home. According to the family who operated a business at 51 Broad St. in the 30s, he parked his cart in the alley behind the building. Like other commercial buildings at that time, the back of the alley housed the office restroom facilities and there was enough extra space for Porgy’s dilapidated cart.

 

Charlestonians still reminisce about Porgy. The late Jim Borom recounted how Smalls got chickens from the Grimball plantation on James Island. When he delivered something to Mrs. Grimball and she went inside for money, the cagy Smalls would throw out a little corn for the chickens milling about. After they started pecking, he would cast a net over some unlucky chick, pull it to the cart, wring its neck and quickly throw it into a bag before Mrs. Grimball returned. Since this had become part of local folklore, one wonders if a kind Mrs. Grimball didn’t linger inside just a little longer than necessary.

 

Samuel Smalls died in 1924 and was buried in the churchyard at James Island Presbyterian Church. In 1986 a marker was erected at his gravesite. Memories of Porgy and his goat cart lingered on long past his death in Charleston when the often noted Gordon Langley Hall/Dawn Langley Simons started a wonderful antique store located on St. Michael’s Alley just behind Nos. 51-53 Broad Street. Its name? You guessed it:  “The Goat Cart.”

 

My appreciation to Bob Stockton, Langhorne Howard and Molly Thompson for contributing to this article.

 

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