I have no idea what made me, a white, female New Yorker, track down a Jim Crow era boarding house that was listed in the Green Book of South Carolina. During Jim Crow days, the Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide to places where traveling African Americans could stay and eat without encountering the suffocating restrictions of segregation. Today it's a website and free mobile app that include over 300 African American related sites across the state.
In a residential area of Columbia, I parked in front of the Harriet M. Cornwell Tourist House. The front door opened and a lithe, gray-haired, African-American man in a black hat emerged, carrying a small musical instrument case. He placed it on the railing of the porch, opened it, took out the upper and lower joints of a clarinet, and carefully assembled it. Then, unaware of my presence, he began to play. Clear, baleful notes of the blues wafted over the neighborhood.
I stood listening for a while before approaching him. "Can you tell me anything about the rooming house?" He grinned and said, "I sure can. It was my mother's house. I grew up in it."
"I'm so curious about who stayed here," I ventured.
"Well, he said, "we had a lot of musicians. Like fellows from Cab Calloway's band, and Louie Jordan's band."
"Do you have memories from that time?"
"Sure I do!"
Then he held out his hand and introduced himself. "I'm Reggie Scott. That's my professional musician name." He paused for a moment and asked, "Would you like to come inside?"
The moment I crossed the threshold, I entered a time capsule of Jim Crow days. Reggie, not a man of means, hadn't replaced the furniture, or changed the décor. In the living room, the center of the sofa where guests once sat sagged down to the floor.
I followed Reggie through the kitchen, where his mother did all the cooking until she died in 1950. Then he pointed out the bathroom, which had replaced the one-time pantry and "butler's pantry."
The dark, wooden table that filled most of the dining area and the accompanying upholstered chairs were mid-century.
"This is where the boarders ate," Reggie reminisced.
"Can you tell me about some of the musicians who came to Colombia and stayed here?" I asked.
Reggie waxed enthusiastic about black musicians who performed in the Columbia Township Auditorium. "I saw Duke, I saw Satch, I saw Nat Cole, Dizzy, Count Basie, Cab came down here. I didn't miss any musical event. I saw white bands as well. You couldn't dance but you could sit in the colored reserved section. They had 50 or 60 seats at the most."
The band members often stayed in Reggie's house. They spent one night, and were served breakfast—grits, bacon and eggs, biscuits and jelly. Reggie cleaned, swept, and was in charge of the heat in winter. Coal was delivered to the house, and each room had a little coal-burning stove near the chimney.
"Teachers stayed with us in the winter," Reggie explained. "My mother was a teacher and my aunt was a master teacher; a teacher's teacher. She went to Benedict College in Columbia. The teachers often cooked for themselves in the kitchen."
I followed Reggie from the dining room into the adjacent music room that was dominated by a drum set and an old piano. "The musicians mostly played blues," Reggie said, and 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' They played it so much I hated that song. Now I like it."
Reggie saw my eyes wander to the wooden staircase and asked if I would like to see the old bedrooms. I nodded vigorously and followed him upstairs. About six or seven doors were spaced along a corridor, which was paneled in dark wood. Reggie showed me the room where he slept, and a few of the other rooms, with single beds and peeling paint. They were kept intact for half a century.
"Reggie, this is a Jim Crow museum!" I exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like it. It's not recreated, it's not reimagined. It's exactly the way it was."
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I thought I heard the clanging of pots and pans drifting up from downstairs kitchen. I took a deep breath, and asked, "Reggie, do you ever feel the spirit of your mother here? I mean, do you sometimes sense she has come back?"
He nodded and said, "She's never left."
"Do you ever communicate with the spirits in the house?"
"All the time," he answered cheerily. "I talk to the spirits like I talk to you. They keep me company."
As we walked downstairs, Reggie told me that he was born in 1931, his father died when he was l0 months old, and his mother and her and her sister became his parents. His mother did the cooking in the rooming house and his aunt took care of all the arrangements. After his mother died, his aunt ran the rooming house alone, and it was a lot of work. She never married.
"My aunt's name was Hattie Mae Cornwell, but she changed it to Harriet. Then she became HM Cornwell, and the house is named for her. Black people were so clever. They used initials instead of first names so white folks had to address them by their title—Mr. or Mrs.—instead of their first names. All the white people were called Mr. and Mrs. and if a black person used their first name they would say, 'What did you call me?' You could get fired or insulted if you called a white by his first name. They would say you were 'uppity' or 'disrespectful' and you'd get in trouble."
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