Without any celebration the H & R Sweetshop turned 65 this month. Three generations of customers have passed through its doors seeking friendship, good food, a haircut, or hats and suits.
H & R Sweet Shop located at 102 Royall Avenue in Mount Pleasant's Old Village may be the longest continually operating business east of the Cooper. It may be the oldest continually operating restaurant in the county. If you travel Royall Avenue, you're bound to notice the block and stucco building with "H & R Sweet Shop" stenciled on one pane glass window and "Major Hats and Suits" on the red awning to the right. If southern cuisine the way you remember it when a child is something that still haunts you, then you'll be in for a treat when you push open the door to Raliegh Johnson, Jr.'s world at 102 Royall.
Raliegh - who prefers the "i" before the "e" spelling of his name - wears a black turban and an ascot, no matter what the occasion or weather. The ensemble, together with his salt and pepper beard, makes him quite a memorable character. There's the spic-and-span tidiness one expects in a hometown diner, and soft jazz music wafts across the counter from an antique jukebox. Immediately, you like this place. It has a Lowcountry charm that refuses to be replicated. The aroma from the kitchen carries you back to the days of red rice cooked with sausage and ham hocks and collard greens flavored just right. If you're a one-armed fellow, there is no way that you'll be able to handle their hamburger. When you settle up the bill, you'll wonder if Raliegh undercharged you. Oldfashioned courtesy, slow cooking to perfection, homemade sauces from 60-year-old-family recipes - all are part of this little restaurant tucked amid the oaks of the Old Village.
The "H" stands for Harriet and the "R" is for Raliegh "Pat" Johnson, Sr. In 1947 Raliegh Johnson was discharged from the army and returned to Mount Pleasant where his father, Peter Johnson, owned a strip of land on the north side of Royall starting at Morrison and extending to the playground. Peter Johnson, Sr., bought the property from the school district for $150 in 1903. The Inflation calculator indicates that $150 in 1903 equates to $1,574 today. However, that amount of money was quite an investment in those days. In 109 years the property has not been out of family hands.
Years ago the Sweet Shop brought in jazz performers to entertain patrons in the club room in the rear. "Oscar and Fabian Rivers brought their Chicago-based band to Charleston," says Raliegh, and they performed here. Also performing were Nita Nelson with Donald Fields on drums, with Jack McDuff and Joy Pryor. All of this occurred when jazz was practically dead in this part of the country.
Raliegh Senior's brother Peter started the P.S. Johnson Funeral Home, now called Johnson and Hall, located on Venning Street. Together, the Johnson brothers were successful entrepreneurs in the area, and they were instrumental in the rebuilding of nearby Friendship A.M.E. Church. The Quaker Church of Philadelphia had operated a mission and a freedman's school on this land during Reconstruction. As years progressed, parcels of land were sold off to families who could afford it. The Johnsons have jealously guarded their inheritance and it appears that the H & R Sweet Shop and Major's Hats and Suit business is on track to see its 100th anniversary.
Raliegh, Sr., was both a cook and a barber in the U.S. Army. In 1947 he engaged a contractor to build the block and stucco building that you see today. On one side, Raliegh operated a barbershop and on the other, a full-service ice cream shop and diner. For a while Raliegh was the only licensed barber in Mount Pleasant. In the 1960s before desegregation, the Sweet Shop was a beehive of activity for the African-American community, and Raliegh was known to help a lot of people out when they got into a jam, financially.
Raliegh - called Pat by his friends - and his wife Harriet employed gentlemen named Edward "Poncho" Mazyck, Legrande Wilson and Carney Smalls to work at the ice cream and custard counter. Raliegh made the special barbeque sauce for the ribs that became famous around town. By the mid 1970s, Raliegh, Jr., and Anthony joined in. Neighborhood folks of both races came in for ice cream, milk shakes, hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs, pork chops, fried chicken, friend shrimp and flounder, hush puppies, fries, and all the red rice and collards. Raliegh made his own hogshead cheese and pickled eggs. Today, the ice cream and milk shakes are gone from the menu, but the soul food, hamburgers and hot dogs are the same wonderful items that folks two generations ago bragged about. Locals still come in longing for the taste of southern cooking that is so hard to find.
The other side of the H & R Sweet Shop enterprise is called "Major Hats and Suits Shop." It's the six-year-old business of Anthony Major. Note the colorful hat sign that's part of his trademark. Anthony grew up in New York and Mount Pleasant. He finished Harren High School located near 59th Street and 10th Avenue in New York, not far from the Dakota Apartment Building where John Lennon was fatally shot. Though he was of draft age during the Vietnam War, Anthony says that demonstrators burned down the draft board building so no one he knew of from his neighborhood was called to active duty. He remembers the riot that broke out in New York after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Growing up in New York, Anthony learned to get along with numerous ethnic groups, especially Greek and Hispanic.
Prior to returning to Mount Pleasant in the 1970s, Anthony worked with Synovox Productions in New York and got to know country music radio and television host, Ralph Emory. Anthony operated the reel-to-reel-tapes for many of Emory's productions. He also worked for Con-Edison for five or six years as a meter reader.
When his father became ill, Anthony returned to the Lowcountry to lend a hand at the Sweetshop. He also took a job with the Charleston County School system and became supervisor of the furniture shop where he oversaw the repair of all school desks and furnishings for the county school system. His shop built and installed cabinets, counters, and bookshelves. Anthony retired from the school system after 28 years and opened the hat and suit shop in the space where his father's barbershop had been.
The hat and suit shop annex of the H & R Sweet Shop is a hit with the "hat ladies," and the establishment also is agent for Murphy church robes. The Johnson family has long had a connection with Friendship AME Church and the Johnson and Hall Funeral Home. Anthony makes purchasing trips to New York to keep his customers satisfied with the latest fashions and his wife, Veronica, retired from a career with Eastern Airlines, assists him in the store. Veronica, or "Roni" to her friends, is a native of Mount Pleasant. Before working for Eastern Airlines she served as corporate sales manager for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor's Bureau. She's also been station manager for Chalk's International Airlines.
Though H & R Sweetshop founders Harriet and Raliegh Johnson have passed on, their memory is preserved in numerous photographs in the restaurant. Folks still come by to reminisce about the times when "Pat," "Ponch," Legrande, and Carney kept the place lively with conversation, sweets and good southern cooking.
Raliegh, Sr., hosted Christmas parties, Easter Egg hunts, and passed out school supplies. He sponsored Little League teams and bowling leagues. A faithful member of Friendship A.M.E. Church and Pisgah Lodge 169, Raliegh, Sr., was a pillar of the community. Harriet, the "H" in H & R Sweetshop, was a registered nurse and a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, Lodge 219.
Whether one is stopping by to catch up on news in the Village, to check the latest in men's and women's fashions or to visit Raliegh for some of his delicious fried shrimp and red rice, the H & R Sweet Shop is a treasured part of Old Mount Pleasant's heritage.
(Dr. Thomas B. Horton is a history teacher at Porter-Gaud School. He lives in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant. See more columns online at www.moultrienews.com. Visit his Web site at www.historyslostmoments.com).