Dr. C. C. Johnson's Drugstore
A Family Affair
Free Mason Johnson, Jr.
Dr. Johnson and His Legacy
Dr. C. C. Johnson's Drugstore was founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, and was one of the earliest and longest lived "colored" businesses, not only in the city of Aiken, South Carolina but of the surrounding area as well. In order to better understand how this regional institution came about, it may be helpful to look at who Dr. Johnson was, and how he came to establish the pharmacy that bore his name.
His is a complicated story. Charles Catlett Johnson, Sr. was born in Orange County, Virginia on December 28, 1860. His mother, Mary Jane Reid, was of Scotch parentage, and his father, Louis Johnson, was an Irish immigrant.
After his father died in 1865, his mother married Nicholas Poindexter, a black man, and Charles and his two sisters grew up in Washington, DC, along with children his mother birthed for Poindexter. Throughout his life, he identified as a "colored" person, although his blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin never failed to raise eyebrows.
According to family tradition, young Charles was an ambitious lad who sold newspapers on the streets of Washington to help with his early educational expenses, while his mother ran a boarding house to keep financial ends together. With what must have been a tremendous will to succeed, the young man somehow found the means to continue his education and eventually graduate from the medical school of Howard University in 1888.
Few accounts of those early days survive, when my grandfather was a struggling young physician, but we have one, passed down by my grandmother, Cecelia Ladeveze Johnson. She told me that immediately after he finished medicine in Washington, Dr. Johnson had few patients, but he thought it important to always appear busy, regardless. He consequently developed the habit of walking briskly wherever he went. One day a man noticed him pass and called after him, "You seem to be in such a hurry, doctor; is somebody sick?" to which my grandfather answered in his usual serious tone of voice, "Somebody is always sick!" and continued on his way. My grandmother said this story was passed on to her by someone who knew him at the time in Washington.
Likewise, there are few facts known about his early days in Columbia, South Carolina, where the young doctor began a practice at 1103 Plain Street. We know from published biographical records that he was the first physician of color to practice in that city, and that he was the first doctor ever to administer smallpox vaccine there. He was also the first physician of any race to use the x-ray machine in surgical practice in Columbia. In addition, he taught chemistry at Benedict College. It was during this time that he married Harriet (Hattie) Elizabeth Pearson, and his first child, Annie Pearson Johnson, was born there in Columbia in 1891. Harriet died at 38 years old in 1902.
While in Columbia, Dr. Johnson became actively involved in the Masonic Lodge, Prince Hall Affiliation, and in time was elected Grand Master of the State of South Carolina, a position he was to hold for 27 years until his death.
He had many contacts and friendships in the lodge over the years, one of whom may have been responsible for his eventual move to Aiken. Family accounts indicate there was a Dr. George Stoney who encouraged him to come to Aiken and purchase a drugstore left vacant at the death of its owner, a Dr. Williams. Doubtless, Dr. Johnson was intrigued by the invitation because there were no physicians of color in turn of the century Aiken, and he may have felt this to be a good business move. He could continue his medical practice and also operate a drugstore.
At about the same time, in 1903, Dr. Johnson heard of my grandmother, Cecelia Ladeveze, and was introduced to her and her family in Augusta, Georgia. The two were married on June 22, 1904 and took up residence in a one story home he purchased on the corner of Richland Avenue and Kershaw Street. He also bought the pharmacy, located at the time on Richland Avenue, and opened his medical office in the rear of that small building, near the current location of the Holley Inn.
By 1915, the business had begun to prosper sufficiently to warrant transferring to larger quarters, and Dr. Johnson moved the drugstore and his medical practice to the Commercial Hotel building, where the store's entrance faced Richland Avenue. Family members recall that one of the unique features of this new location was a "new and modern" soda fountain, which afforded customers the opportunity to sit and be served.
The business relocated again in 1920, this time to a new building on Richland Avenue which had been built by local black contractors, McGhee and McGhee. The new store was located at the soutwest corner of Richland Avenue and Newberry Street. Adjacent to it, between the drugstore and what is currently the parking lot behind Palmetto Federal Savings Bank, was the city's "whites only" swimming pool. Children using that pool were among Dr. Johnson's most loyal customers, according to family remembrances.
Dr. Johnson was very much a facilitator in the community, sharing correspondence in 1921 with President Warren Harding on ways to improve community relations in the South. He was also instrumental in getting Aiken Graded Elementary School built in 1926, which brought much needed relief to the public school system for black children. Dr. Johnson was a supporter of the local public schools and of education in general. Some family members still recall one day in about 1923 when George Washington Carver appeared at the Aiken County Courthouse, and Dr. Johnson took his children out of school so they could hear the famous man speak.
Over the years, Dr. Johnson developed his own talent for oratory, and became a much sought after speaker around the state, at Masonic gatherings and other occasions. He was well educated, and it showed. In 1924, he took a trip to Glasgow, Scotland to attend the Nineteenth Annual World Sunday School Convention, and he used that opportunity to visit many points of interest to one as erudite as he, including the birthplaces of Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and other literary giants, as well as sites that were important in the history of Masonry in Scotland. He saw and sat in some of the largest and oldest cathedrals in Scotland and England, and visited Holland and France. He was particularly impressed by the grandeur that was Paris in 1924.
Dr. Johnson suffered a fatal heart attack in June of 1928, after running up a flight of stairs at home. In accordance with his wish, he was buried in Columbia, beside his first wife.
Mary Jane, Dr. Johnson's oldest child, known to family members as Mamie, took over the operation of the drugstore after his death. She was a graduate of Howard University's Pharmacy School, and she kept the business open while while her brothers, Free Mason and Charles, were off in school working on their own degrees in pharmacy.
The drugstore made another major move in 1940, relocating to the family-owned building on the corner of Park Avenue and Fairfield Street. And finally, in the 1950's, it moved for the last time -- next door -- to the actual corner of the building. I was a part of that move. From this location, at Park Avenue and Fairfield, brothers Charles, Mason and Ladeveze operated the business together until Ladeveze's death in 1968; from that time until they closed the doors in the summer of 1984, Charles and Mason ran it alone.
From its earliest days, Dr. C. C. Johnson's Pharmacy was recognized as a unique institution. It provided opportunities for young (and not so young) black medical professionals to practice their skills. The family still remembers Inez Raiford, Alvin Lindsey and Charles Johnson (unrelated), who worked there as pharmacists. Among the physicians who had their offices over the drugstore at various times were David M. Scott, Lexius H. Harper, Dr. Johnson's youngest son Reed Poindexter Johnson, and Ramsey S. Weston.
Dr. Harper deserves special mention here because he was a cousin of my grandmother, and because he was a very special person to me. I have a copy of an article taken from a publication entitled "The Voice of the Negro." copyrighted by Hertel, Jenkins & Company, Atlanta, Georgia and dated May, 1906. In a rather lengthy article by an S. P. Wadsworth, entitled "The Burruss Sanitariam" (sic), the Augusta, Georgia hospital founded and operated by black physician and pharmacist Dr. George Sanford Burruss, is discussed. From the article, it appears Dr. Burruss was quite an important black physician in Augusta in 1906. One on the first graduates of Atlanta Baptist Seminary (today Morehouse College in Atlanta), he went on to finish Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1891 and, according to the article, stood "at the head of his profession among colored physicians of Augusta," having amassed considerable money and property. Especially noteworthy in this article is the following mention of Dr. Harper:
Dr. Burruss has been especially fortunate in securing the services and active hearty co-operation of all the colored physicians of Augusta, some twelve in number, although Dr. Lexius H. Harper, of Augusta, a graduate of the Medical Department of Boston University, is his regular assistant and has his office in the same building with Dr. Burruss.Dr Harper was born September 24, 1875 in Augusta, Georgia. When I first became aware of him, he was practicing medicine in Aiken and had his office over the drugstore.This was in the 1940s. Early on, I realized Dr. Harper was a special person. I suspect that feeling arose because Mama Cele, my grandmother Cecelia, always, even in later years, spoke so highly of him. He and Mrs. Harper lived next door to us for several years before they moved into what we later became accustomed to calling "the Harper house" on Fairfield Street. Also, I knew that Dr. Harper was related to us, although I did not understand the true nature of that relationship until much later. But on a more immediate and personal level, I felt a certain closeness to him because of his friendliness toward me. I have no recollection of anything specific he ever said, but his easy going disposition and soft-spoken manner remain the way I define his personality today.
I have a very vivid mental picture of Dr. Harper from my very early years. It was his habit to come down to the drugstore from his upstairs office every day to have a Coke, and during those visits he would often engage my father and my uncles in friendly conversation. This particular scene, frozen in time like a color photographic slide, shows a very light brown skinned man, perhaps no taller than my own 5'5". He stands in the drugstore beside the soda box, nattily dressed in a dark three piece suit, a gold watch chain draped across his vest, rearing back and drinking a glass bottled Coca Cola. His neatly trimmed greying hair and moustache, together with his slightly pronounced stomach give him an air of importance indicative of his station in life. Why this particular scene stands out in my mind's eye is a mystery to this day.
But the last memory I have of Dr. Harper alive was on an early December evening in 1947, when my father took me to the Harper home. Dr. Harper was failing fast, and my father was taking me to see him for what would be the last time. My memory of the visit begins with us climbing the outside staircase leading to the upstairs bedroom in which Dr. Harper lay. We went inside, my father and I, and I saw him in bed. I do not remember who else was there, but I seem to recall there was a physician in attendance (possibly Dr. Albert Bostic Miles), along with one or two other people in the room, all of whom spoke in hushed tones. Dr. Harper recognized us, but I could tell he was very weak, and I remember feeling so uncomfortable being there. I did not know how to greet this man whom I had been accustomed to seeing so vibrant and healthy before. There were no oxygen tubes, IVs or any other type of medical equipment visible in the room. After my father spoke to him, we remained a few minutes more, and then we left. By morning he had passed. I distinctly recollect returning to the Harper home a few days later and seeing Dr. Harper's casket open for viewing in their living room.
Although Dr. Harper was sorely missed, the drugstore continued to attract black physicians. One of the more colorful practitioners who had his office over the store was Dr. David M. Scott. I do not know much about him, other than that he was a graduate of Tufts Medical College in Boston and was known as a brilliant doctor. Dark brown skinned and tall, he smoked cigars and walked with a cane when I knew him in the '40s. My father told me the story that when Dr. Scott was in medical school, he would read a page in Gray's Anatomy once, then tear it out and throw it away. Since he could remember everything he read verbatim, he would never have to read a page twice. My father also said he heard Dr. Scott had a habit during those days of studying while lying in the bathtub.
Then there was Dr. George Thomas Cherry, a dentist who practiced over the drugstore for years. He was a WWI veteran who obtained his professional education via the GI Bill of that era. Dr. Cherry was our family dentist for many years, and probably held the record for the longest running tenant of the building. He was a light brown skinned man with pattern baldness and a pronounced stomach who drove Buicks during the '40s, but switched to Cadillacs in his last years. All I know of his origins is that he was born in the rural community known as Old Ellenton (to differentiate it from New Ellenton) in Aiken County, a town which no longer exists because it was swallowed up by the Federal Government when the Savannah River Nuclear Facility came into being during the 1950s. He was a mainstay in the Aiken Gun Club, a social gathering attended by Aiken's black elite and held once yearly, highlighted by a barbecue and clay pigeon shoot.
Dr. Lewis S. Porter was a Charleston podiatrist who also had an office over the store, and who managed to keep a loyal patient following in the Aiken and Augusta area throughout the time he made his bi-monthly trips to Aiken. He was also a WWI veteran who was schooled under the GI Bill. A brown skinned man, small in size, Dr. Porter drove Lincolns during the time I know him in the late 1950s, early '60s.
And although the building is no longer in family hands today, my boyhood friend and Martha Schofield High School classmate Attorney George A. Anderson, who finished law school at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, remains in his office on the second floor even as I write.
Each of these varied professionals left his mark on the store's personality in his own way. Each made the drugstore a distinctly rich environment, different by far from any other in our area.
In addition to the black pharmacists who found employment and gained experience in the drugstore over the years, untold numbers of local high school and college students also found summer work at Dr. C. C. Johnson's Drugstore, as the sons continued their father's tradition of encouraging young people and helping the community.
Yet the store remained very much a family operation throughout its history. Dr. Johnson's two eldest sons, Charles, Jr. and Free Mason, grew up helping in the business by washing medicine bottles, delivering packages and emptying cuspidors. Like their father, both would continue the proud family tradition of attending Howard University, although they would finish in pharmacy, rather than medicine. And they would become vital elements in the future of the business.
For more of my experiences growing up in the pharmacy, check out On a More Personal Note: Remembering the Drugstore.
Note: Some of the historical information dealing with the founding of the drugstore was garnered from an article entitled "Aiken's Golden Years," written by Roddie Burris and published in the Aiken Standard and Review (newspaper) on February 20, 1994.
Last Revised: 28Dec11