The old port city was still recovering from the devastation to its infrastructure caused by the Civil War, compounded by major natural disasters, including hurricanes and an earthquake in 1886. In 1901, a naval base was opened on the outskirts of town, heralding a period of economic growth that would pick up steam when America entered World War I. Politicians, businessmen, and cultural brokers made concerted efforts to promote both industry and tourism, “selling” a romantic version of the antebellum South, an exotic African American subculture, and a vast pool of low-cost labor.
Like other southern states, South Carolina was slow to benefit from the influx of immigrants that had been pouring through Castle Garden (forerunner of Ellis Island) since 1880. After the turn of the century, however, the trickle became a stream. Between 1907 and 1920 the state’s Jewish population doubled, from 2,500 to 5,060. More cosmopolitan than the rest of South Carolina, Charleston attracted the bulk of immigrants, though Columbia, the capital city, and many towns in this largely rural region received their share as well. The state’s history of hospitality towards Jews and the long established Jewish presence, dating from the late 1600s, surely eased the way for the newcomers from Eastern Europe.
By 1911 Charleston’s Jewish community was supporting three congregations. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749, was Reform, indeed, had launched Reform Judaism in America. Many of the older prestigious “downtown” Jewish families worshipped in the handsome antebellum building on Hasell Street. Brith Sholom (originally spelled Berith Shalome), popularly known as the “German and Polish” shul, traced its origins to 1854; by 1874, its Orthodox congregants had built their own synagogue on St. Philip Street. With the arrival of a critical mass of Eastern Europeans, many from the area of Kaluszyn, Poland, the “greenhorns” founded a second Orthodox congregation, Beth Israel, a few blocks north of Brith Sholom.
The uptown neighborhood between and around the two shuls came to be known as “Little Jerusalem.” Many Jewish merchants first peddled and then opened stores on upper King, living in upstairs apartments or single houses a block west on St. Philip Street. (A single house is a particular architectural style, characteristic of Charleston. One room wide, with a piazza running along the side, it is designed to provide cross ventilation in every room.) One could go to Hebrew school, see a Jewish physician, attend a meeting of the Kalushiner Society or a function at the Daughters of Israel Hall, buy a sandwich and sour pickle at Elihu Mazo’s deli, and patronize Zalkin’s kosher meat market, all within a small radius. The further north one went on King Street, toward newer neighborhoods and less expensive rents, the denser the Jewish presence became, with the epicenter in the 500 block.
While many Jews lived, worked, and worshipped along the King Street/St. Philip Street corridor, others lived scattered all over town. A distinction between Charleston’s uptown and downtown Jews, with Calhoun Street as the dividing line, persisted for two generations. Older, more assimilated “Deutscher” downtown Jews felt superior to their poor Old World cousins and made efforts to acculturate them, to teach them English, hygiene, etiquette, and skills they needed to become citizens. In 1889, the women of KKBE founded the Happy Workers, which ran a sewing class for immigrant girls. The Charleston Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, organized in 1896, tried to break down the immigrants’ isolation and involve the women of Brith Sholom and Beth Israel in common projects.
Perhaps the most pronounced infusion of southern culture came from a group of people descended from the first Carolinians—African American servants hired to keep house, cook, and care for children, and black workers in stores who handled stock, swept floors, delivered merchandise, and did everything but staff the counters and cash registers. Even the poor immigrants could afford maids, cooks, and yardmen.
Post-Reconstruction race relations had settled into familiar patterns of white supremacy and Negro subordination. Since the 1600s, Jews in Carolina were considered to be white, and even the new arrivals from Eastern Europe enjoyed social and economic opportunities denied the black population. The murder of a Jewish merchant on King Street intensified racial tensions and led to the execution of a black man, whose guilt was by no means certain. (Jewish retailers, ironically, were some of the few who allowed black customers to try on clothes and advanced them credit, benefits generally unavailable in other white-owned establishments.) Two Jewish women taught in all-black schools, while one Jewish man gained fame as the prolific author of stories, books, and films enforcing negative racial stereotypes.
Many Charleston Jews born here or just passing through went on to make history. One Jewish attorney became nationally known for successfully defending a man who committed what was then called Charleston’s crime of the century—the murder of Francis W. Dawson, editor-in-chief of Charleston’s daily News and Courier. A Charleston native went on to produce Academy Award winning films; three sisters changed the status of women in Charleston and around the country. One Jewish Charlestonian became a national spokesman for the humane treatment of animals; another a Nobel Prize winner; and an immigrant from Germany, who as a youngster assimilated into the Christian majority and identified as a Methodist, emerged in the 1920s as an ardent advocate of Zionism and proud defender of Jewish culture and history.
Here are the stories of these individuals, among many other Jews who walked the streets of Charleston in the early decades of the twentieth century.