Barthwell meant business!

by Ken Coleman

Sidney Barthwell photo.jpgBeginning in the 1920s, lively blues and jazz clubs, delectable greasy-spoon restaurants, and spirited backdoor speakeasies metering out whiskey in coffee cups like John R. “Buffalo” James’ Frogs Club on East Adams Street began popping up like a piston on a Ford Motor Company Model A engine along St. Antoine and on East Adams, located just north of Gratiot.

The area was known as Paradise Valley!

By the 1930s, the great economic and social called Prohibition had ended and the federal government was no longer outlawing the sale of alcohol. About two dozen businesses lined the upside-down letter T-shaped area, many of them owned by blacks. They includedWalter Norwood’s Club Plantation in the basement of the Norwood Hotel, located at 550 East Adams at St. Antoine; and down the narrow street was Andrew “Jap”Sneed’s all-the-rage 666 Club (or Three Sixes), located at 666 East Adams; and a couple of hundred feet away was Raymond “Sportree” Jackson’s Aquarium Seafood, located at 680 East Adams. And, of course, Horace Ferguson’s St.Louis restaurant was located at 1723 St. Antoine.

The B&C Club, owned by Roy H. Lightfoot, was next door at1730 St. Antoine, and up the street was the 22-guest room Biltmore Hotel, located at 1926 St. Antoine and the Detroit Tribune, a black weekly newspaper located at 2146 St. Antoine and Columbia Street.

In 1942, the Detroit Urban League reported there were five black artists; 25 barber shops; 71 beauty shops; two bondsmen; seven building contractors; 25 dress makers and shops; 10 electricians, four employment agencies, two dairy distributors; 12 coal dealers; 36 dentists; 30 drug stores; 15 fish and poultry markets; five flowers shops; three furriers; 14 garages; 12 hat shops; 10 hospitals; 20 hotels; 9 insurance companies; 57 restaurants to go along with 85 lawyers; 151 physicians; and 140 social workers.

Several of those businesses were owned by Sidney Barthwell. During the brother-can-you-spare-a-dime Great Depression, he opened the first drug store at 8640 Russell Street in 1933. As an entrepreneur, he found it next to impossible to secure bank loans because of his brown skin and the grave economic condition of the country. He had only $500 in capital with which to operate the business.

On February 17, 1906, Sidney Barthwell was born in Cordele, Georgia, which is known to some as “the watermelon capital of the world” and located about half way between Atlanta and the Florida state line. He migrated 864 miles north to Detroit at age 14 and attended Cass Technical High School, graduating in 1925 and Detroit Technological Institute (the forerunner to Wayne State University's College of Pharmacy), graduating with a degree in pharmacy in 1929. But times were hard then. So much so, that the young Barthwell had to borrow the $25 needed to obtain his degree. But the ambitious young man stayed focused and immersed himself into the growing network of black movers and shakers. He helped to found Kappa Alpha Psi’s Wayne State University chapter in January 1927.

The great stock market crash of 1929 sent America reeling. Banks failed. Businesses closed. Bread lines surfaced. In fact, Detroit, the new bustling industrial city where tens of thousands of people just like Barthwell had flocked to secure a job, to purchase a home, and to live the American Dream had shattered like plate glass.

In 1930, the number of banks that had failed totaled 1,350. In1931, the number ballooned to 2,293. In 1933, two banks in the Motor City went bankrupt—as did the savings of their customers. By the early 1930s, it had been estimated that nearly 400,000 of the city’s residents were unemployed.

A cold soda on a warm summer day could compel someone down on their luck to feel a little better if only for a spell. A scoop of ice cream would provide a momentary escape from the harsh reality of despair… and Barthwell knew it. With the addition of a soda fountain and ice cream, his business prospered.

Eventually, Barthwell owned nine drugstores and three ice cream parlors throughout the city. Two of his stores were located on Hastings Street, the business thoroughfare destroyed and replaced by the Chrysler Freeway in early 1960s. They were located at Hastings at Benton and Hastings at Hendrie. His last store, located at 2259 Schaefer Road on the city’s southwest side, closed in 1987. “Negroes had it made in Detroit until World War II,” Barthwell, who died in 2006, told the Detroit Free Press. “We had about everything we needed in the black business community. Discrimination gave us tremendous (economic) power because we had been compacted in a small area.”


Ken Coleman writes frequently about black life in Detroit. He can be reached at