A historic photograph collection reveals a bustling Main Street in Columbia.
The Local History room is home to a large and diverse photograph collection that captures the daily life of Columbians from the Victorian to the modern eras. Recently some images of Main Street from the 1950s have piqued my interest.
If you’d like to step back in time to see Main Street in the past, visit the Local History Digital Collection. A link and selected images are below.
Mid 20th Century Main Street
I’ve heard many older Columbians recount stories of going ‘downtown’ to shop, eat, see the movies, or just take in the sights. There was a lot to draw the surrounding citizenry to Main Street back then. In 1955, travelers could buy a train ticket from the Seaboard Air Line or the Southern Railroad ticket offices on Main Street. The Jefferson and Wade Hampton hotels flanked the business ends of Main Street, and department stores like Belk’s and Tapp’s anchored the shopping district. In 1955, Main Street was home to 5 movie theaters; the Strand (1226 Main), the Carolina (1223 Main), the Ritz (1323 Main), the Palmetto Theater (1413 Main), and the State Theater (1607 Main). There were numerous restaurants and taverns, such as the Capitol Café, Elite Restaurant, The Chatterbox, and the Ship A-hoy restaurant. The Playland Arcade at 1216 Main offered pool and pinball, and a few blocks away the Columbia and Capitol Bowling centers hosted tournaments and recreational bowling lanes. There was really a lot happening on Main Street in the 1950s.
Black Business District
However it’s important not to let nostalgia paint with too kind a brush over this era. In the 1950s African Americans weren’t served in many downtown restaurants. Segregated waiting rooms existed in the downtown bus and train depots, and black customers had to sit in separate balcony seating at theaters and shop in the basement levels of department stores. Washington Street, between Park and Main Streets, served as the business and shopping district for Columbia’s African-American population. In 1955 these blocks were home to numerous black-owned businesses such as Counts Drug Store, the Victory Savings Bank, the Blue Ribbon Taxi Company, the Capitol Theater, the Blue Place Barber Shop, Hemphill Pride dentistry, and the law office of Lincoln Jenkins. It would be another decade before segregated facilities were eliminated in downtown Columbia.
This frantic level of activity on Main Street and the surrounding blocks was not to be sustained. As Columbia grew outward and suburban shopping centers drew shoppers away from the downtown district, many of Main Street’s entertainment options dwindled. Movie theaters, restaurants, and department stores closed, and by the 1980s the streets where empty after 5 p.m. Today, however it’s nice to see activity being restored to Columbia’s downtown area. Main Street is becoming a haven of activity once again. See you there!