Former Aiken drugstore featured in the ‘Green Book’ served blacks, whites as equals
On the corner of Richland Avenue and Newberry Street in downtown Aiken is a building that has great historical significance, especially to one local family.
“This is the story of two families, the Johnson family and the McGhee family,” Bill McGhee said. “The Johnson family was headed by Dr. C.C. Johnson, who was a pharmacist and a doctor. The other family was the McGhee and McGhee family, they were contractors.”
Dr. C.C. Johnson’s Drug Store was built in 1920. It was featured in the 1940 edition of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide first published in 1936 was updated annually for decades.
The “Green Book” helped black travelers find businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, in every state that would serve them during the Jim Crow era, when segregation was legal and businesses could refuse service on racial grounds.
Johnson was a figure of historic note in the Aiken community. He was considered the first physician of color to operate in Columbia before moving to Aiken in the early 1900s. One of his many contributions to the community was becoming an important donor of the Aiken Graded School, an all-black elementary school built in 1925.
In 1920, he commissioned McGhee and McGhee, an all-black construction company, to build a new pharmacy on the corner of Richland Avenue and Newberry Street. The building became the home of Dr. C.C. Johnson’s Drug Store, which served black and white customers side-by-side during the height of segregation.
″…One of the major features of the drugstore was the soda fountain,” said Bill McGhee, a descendant of both Johnson and the McGhee family who still lives in Aiken. “The soda fountain was integrated. In the 1920s, blacks and whites could come here and be served at the counter and sit at the counter at the soda fountain.”
The business also employed a variety of black medical professionals. Mason Johnson, another descendant of Dr. C.C. Johnson, extensively detailed his grandfather’s contributions to Aiken and provided as vivid a description of what the drugstore was like.
“From its earliest days, Dr. C.C. Johnson’s Pharmacy was recognized as a unique institution, providing opportunities for young (and not so young) black medical professionals to practice their skills,” reads Johnson’s website.
While McGhee said his family have never heard of any resistance to the drugstore’s lack of segregation, not all places were as progressive. One of the family stories passed down about the drug store was that it was located close to a public pool that was for whites-only.
The building is no longer owned by descendants of Dr. C.C. Johnson. In 2017, as part of the Renaissance downtown redevelopment plan, it was considered for demolition to free up property for a parking garage.
“We would like to see it maintained,” McGhee said.
The travel guide featuring the former drugstore has garnered recent attention after being the subject of the recent award-winning movie “Green Book.”
A modern version of the book exists today. The Green Book of South Carolina website lists historic sites of African-American cultural significance across the state, including the Aiken Graded School and Carrsville in North Augusta.
Multiple editions of the “Green Book” can be read online for free in the digital collections of The New York Public Library at digitcalcollections.nypl.org.
Several other Aiken businesses were featured in the 1940 edition of the book, including the C.F. Holland tourist home on Richland Avenue and Chauffeurs Inn on Sumter Street.
Of these locations, the site of the former drugstore may be the only one that remains in Aiken today.
“Evidently, they were aware that they could come to this store,” McGhee said.