By Scott Robertson
During most of the city’s history, a segment of the Johnson City economy thrived, little known by the majority of citizens. Kept out of most white businesses by segregation, the city’s black community had turned to entrepreneurship.
As Johnson City celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2019, Lottie Ryans didn’t want this unheralded group of business owners left out of the remembrance. So, she invited a group of black Johnson Citians together to create a listing of black-owned businesses that had served their neighborhoods.
On Jan. 18, Ryans was joined by Patsy Cornick, Virginia Goins, Georgia Gillespie, Carroll Murphy, Evelyn Debro and Angelo Newman at the Memorial Park Community Center. Very quickly, the number of business names flying around the room became almost overwhelming to Ryans, who was trying to write them all down.
Grocery stores? H.W. Williams. Shoun’s. Pop’s. Jackson’s. C&C. Copes, “with those hot tamales.”
Doctors and dentists? Dr. Johnson, Dr. Hankle, Dr. Sherrill, Dr. Kilgore and Dr. White, “who wanted your business so bad that when he moved to Bristol, he’d pay your bus fare to keep seeing him.”
The lists went on and on, revealing just how active the black community had been in serving its own needs. More than 75 businesses were named in the first half hour.
Yet, Ryans noted, when segregation ended, most of those businesses fell by the wayside. “Why?” she asked.
When their community had the opportunity to start shopping at “the big stores,” it did. “You don’t get patronized by your own people,” Newman said. As demand dropped, the government began demanding licenses and permits, and almost every one of those heritage black-owned businesses ceased operation. Yet, Ryans said, they remain an inextricable part of Johnson City’s 150-year history.