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Posted on June 5, 2020 at 1:41 PM by Ken Kocher
J. W. Jones purchased the lot at the corner of W. Washington and S. First streets around the turn of the twentieth century, shortly after the Colored Farmers Alliance Store at this location had been destroyed by fire. The 1901 Fire Insurance Map shows a two-story brick building with a corner entrance standing on the lot presumably built by Jones. This map indicates that the first floor housed a restaurant. We assume this eatery was owned by and catered to an African American clientele as this area of Madison was the nexus of Madison’s black businesses. For the next sixty years or so, through the years of Jim Crow and segregation, this building provided a place for African Americans to conduct commerce.
Unfortunately, the names of many of those businesses have been lost to time. While old Madison newspapers are one of the best resources to learn the names of businesses past, black businesses tended to advertise less often or not at all. The name of the restaurant in 1901 or the pool hall on a 1909 map can be found nowhere in the newspapers of the day. Incorporation was something that legally required advertisement, so we know that eleven gentlemen incorporated the Star Drug Company, Madison’s second and longest-lived African American drug store. Among them was Dr. J. F. Smith.
We do not know when James Franklin Smith arrived in Madison, the first mention of Dr. Smith in the Madisonian was in 1917. A native of Alabama, he was a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. He practiced a short time in Florida before coming to Madison. James married Eva Kennedy in 1917, and according to a 1991 article by Mrs. Neal, Eva was the operator of the Star Drug Store. Upstairs, Dr. Smith had his office. An old photo with the building in the background shows his sign in the parapet: “J. F. Smith, Physician & Surgeon.”
Smith was not the only medical professional associated with the building. The September 24, 1926 Madisonian had this snippet under the title, Trained Nurse: “Sara B. Alford, colored graduate nurse, will return to Madison, and will accept all calls. Can be reached at Star Drug Co. Telephone 9106.” J. F. Smith would eventually come to own the building. The upstairs space contained not only Smith’s office, but rental space for other businesses. A 1959 article describing a fire that gutted the upstairs of the building noted that “Dr. Smith’s office, a Negro barber shop, and a radio repair shop were destroyed.” Smith continued to see patients here until retiring in 1961 after 52 years of practice.
Star Drug’s tenure was not as long as Dr. Smith’s practice. In 1928, the name changed to “The Progressive Star” for unknown reasons. Also unknown is when the drug store closed-up shop. The ground floor became the realm of restaurants again. This was the location of the notorious “DeMo's” cafe mentioned in Raymond Andrews’s memoir, The Last Radio Baby which he described as famous for fried fish, fights, and “sin.” In 1958, the Freezette, Madison’s popular ice cream shop on Hwy 441, opened up "a branch grill on West Washington St. for the colored." Folks could find The Corner Grill here in the 1970s. After this time, several offices occupied the building, primarily Conner Realty, later NBC Realty.
During the years following the fire and into the 1990s, the building underwent changes – stuccoing the brick, shortening the windows, closing the door to the upstairs, moving the main entrance from the corner – which significantly impacted the historic character of the building. So much so that when Madison’s National Register of Historic Places District was established, the building was listed as "noncontributing." The Downtown Development Authority of Madison purchased the building in 2013, later selling it to Algin Realty with an agreement to historically rehabilitate the building. The stucco was removed prompting the National Park Service to change its NR status to "contributing." Further work is underway reversing past changes and returning the building to the original look. The first floor will house Algin’s Madison office and the upstairs will be living space.
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