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Taking Care of Business

In spite of segregation, many African Americans were able to thrive financially. Black businessmen and professionals within the black neighborhoods profited from the business of patrons within their own communities. A 1915 survey revealed that approximately four hundred African American businesses served Houston’s black communities.

Additional professionals, such as teachers and ministers, were employed in black schools and churches. With such an active base of goods and services, African American communities became self-sufficient entities, selling and purchasing products within their neighborhoods.

_____ Independence Heights was one such self-sufficient community during the early twentieth century. Many of the neighborhood’s residents either worked as professionals or owned and operated businesses. Community members recall a vast array of shops and businesses filling its blocks.

____ Vivian Seals recalls that in its heyday, the Independence Heights business district, which ran along North Main (then Houston Avenue), was packed with various businesses. These businesses included several small groceries, drugstores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, a tailor, a barber, a blacksmith, and even two music teachers.

_____ Many residents worked in more than one type of business. One of the city’s plumbers, Mr. Oscar Lindsay, also ran an ice cream parlor, where he would sell “say so’s,” otherwise known as ice cream cones. On the second floor of Allen’s Hall, Mr. Lindsay also worked as a cleaner and a barber. Madame Ella Lewis also balanced several jobs. In fact, she was so successful that she owned the whole block of 3400 Courtland. In these buildings, she ran a restaurant, worked as a seamstress, and rented rooms.

_____ Other significant businesses were Cummings Grocery at 3300 Columbia and Allen’s Grocery at 3200 Columbia. Both of these businesses had large rooms (halls) in their buildings where fraternal organizations and community events could conveniently be hosted.

_____ Mail for the Independence Heights community used to be brought to Cumming’s Hall where it would then be picked up by residents. In addition, two very important meetings in the neighborhood’s history were held here. The first was the meeting to organize Salem Church. The second was the meeting in 1928 at which residents voted to become annexed to Houston.


______ Mary Lee Taylor’s father was the owner of George’s Grocery, which was a significant presence in the Independence Heights business community. She recalls that the store, which opened in 1943, “was really something nice for the community.” George’s Grocery left an impression on the community that Mrs. Taylor still sees today. With a slight laugh, she explains that the community loved the store’s fresh meat and produce. “They still talk about that meat,” she says with a proud smile.

_____ In spite of the residents’ hard work and determination, Lota Charles recalls that for the majority of Independence Heights’ residents, money was scarce. “We were poor, but we didn’t realize it because everybody out in the area was poor,” she explains. Mrs. Charles’ family and many other neighbors supplemented their family’s income by growing vegetables. Helena Allen recalls her grandmother trading greens, which were grown in the family garden, for a neighbor’s canned meat. In this way, neighborhood families both met their needs and shared their resources.

_____ Mrs. Allen also remembers that the Independence Heights residents, in spite of poverty, improved their standards of living and advanced through hard work. She proudly recalls the community members who were able to become business owners, local politicians, and community leaders. It was the opportunity “for better conditions” that initially attracted Mrs. Allen’s family to Independence Heights. While living in Independence Heights, her single mother worked as a domestic servant in the Houston Heights and her grandfather worked in a chemical plant that treated railroad ties. When Mrs. Allen became an adult, she worked as a professional nurse.


_____ Other residents of Independence Heights both lived within the community and owned successful businesses elsewhere in Houston. O.P. DeWalt owned the Lincoln Theater, which was a popular African American theater in downtown Houston.

_____ One particularly interesting neighborhood business was actually owned by the community itself. This business, the General Mercantile Corporation, managed a general store on North Main Street. Although there was a president and a secretary of the corporation, shares of the corporation were available for purchase for fifty dollars. Mercantile Hall was in the same building as the store.

_____ Throughout Mercantile Hall's long existence, it served both as a meeting space and as a place to watch “the picture show,” what we know today as the movies. By 1923, when the Independence Heights School outgrew its building, classes were held in Mercantile Hall. Following annexation by Houston, the Burgess family bought the building in 1929, and it was renamed Burgess Hall. Today it is the only original public building left standing in the community.

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