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Exploring the History of 1201 S Street NW, from the Harmon Family Grocery Store to The Coffee Bar

Delve into the fascinating history of 1201 S Street NW in DC, from the Harmon Family Grocery Store to The Coffee Bar. Learn about the Harmon family and the history of the building, plus newspaper archives and more!
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Ghosts of DC has a new favorite coffee joint at 1201 S St. NW. I went down this past Saturday with Mrs. Ghost and ran into Ms. EatMore DrinkMore (aka, Jenna). Maybe an “If Walls Could Talk” partner post with EMDM on a D.C. restaurant?

It’s been quite some time since our last IWCT post, so, to get this category going again, there’s no better place than our own Brooklyn-like coffeehouse at 12th and S St. NW, The Coffee Bar (EMDM did a review on them a short while ago).

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The Coffee Bar @ 1201 S St. NW
The Coffee Bar @ 1201 S St. NW

Old maps of 12th and S Street NW

First, take a look at the Baist Real Estate Atlas’ for the intersection at 12th and S St. starting in 1909 below. You’ll notice that 12th St. used to go through S St., where now, Garrison Elementary School sits. The school was much smaller back then, sitting on 12th St., south of S St. In this map, the building marked as #35 is where The Coffee Bar is today.

Also, for reference, pink buildings are brick structure and yellow are frame structures.

1909 Baist Real Estate Atlas of 12th and S
1909 Baist Real Estate Atlas of 12th and S

Now, take a look at the area in the 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. You’ll notice that most of the structures were there back then. One major difference is that W.E. Hodges Coal Yard occupied to lot where the Garrison School now stands.

1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 12th and S St. NW
1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 12th and S St. NW

The Harmon family grocery store (and full house)

Miss Willie M. Kelly (Washington Post)
Miss Willie M. Kelly (Washington Post)

In 1940, there was a young couple, Woodrow Young (24) and Margaret Harmon (16) who were getting married. Margaret was listed as living at 1201 S St. Pretty young to be getting married as a teenager. A few years earlier, in 1937, another announcement had her brother Robert Harmon (20) getting married to Viola F. Scruggs (19).

And, in 1939 Miss Willie M. Kelly of Raeford, NC, married John C. Harmon at the Lincoln Temple Church, 11th and R St. NW.

We did some more digging on the Harmon family, and we were able to find their household in the 1940 U.S. Census.

John Wesley and Lillie B. Harmon were an older, African-American couple, originally from Delaware. In 1940, they were both 59 years old and lived above their grocery store at 1201 S St. NW.

Also in the house that year was their 16-year-old daughter Margaret, and another daughter, 11-year-old Sacajawea.

His other daughter Ruth, 25, lived in the home with her husband, Herman Walker, 35 and an art instructor, originally from Texas. They had two young children, Evangeline, almost two, and Herman Jr., seven months.

Three additional non-family members were living with them (full house!). James Spaulding, a 60-year-old widower from North Carolina, who worked as a brick layer, Emmett Poindexter, 61, and his wife Helen, 55, both from Virginia. Emmett worked as an independent laborer and Helen worked as a domestic for a local family.

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That’s eleven people in one home! I’m guessing it only had one bathroom too.

Harmon family in the 1940 U.S. Census
Harmon family in the 1940 U.S. Census

By the way, I was also able to dig up a little more on Margaret Harmon. According to her Social Security records, she was born on March 24th, 1924 and only passed away a couple years ago, the day before Christmas Eve, 2011.

I also found some more on Lillie Harmon. She passed away in New York on August 25th, 1954, having lived 34 years in D.C. The obituary also stated that she had another daughter, Pocahontas.

That’s not all. After even more digging, I was able to find a feature in the Afro-American from Saturday, July 1st, 1939 entitled “Meet Your Neighbor” by Harry B. Anderson. John Wesley Harmon was the feature that day. (The following week would be a huge one for history, with Teddy Roosevelt‘s head on Mount Rushmore being dedicated on Sunday, July 2nd and Lou Gehrig‘s famous speech at Yankee Stadium being on Tuesday, July 4th.)

How long does the average colored business operate in Washington, for example, a grocery store?

Well, not wishing to offend nor discourage businessmen already set up in business, the answer to the above question: not over a year.

But J. Wesley Harmon, a local grocery store operator, with a flourishing business at Twelfth and S Streets, Northwest, is an exception, because he has been established for the past twenty years.

Trading in a vicinity where all the residents are members of his own group, he attributes his being able to stick to the same location to the fact that he has been patient and optimistic, always desiring to deal directly with his own race.

“Considering the many businesses of our group in the city which have dissolved almost overnight, after a brief life span, I guess it is rather an exception for me to state that I have been doing a fair business here for many years with all my patronage colored,” Mr. Harmon said, last week.

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J. Wesley Harmon in the Afro-American (1939)
J. Wesley Harmon in the Afro-American (1939)

All this Mr. Harmon has reflected in his many years of commercial enterprise since he first went into business at the age of twenty-three, selling flour as the operator of his own flour mill in Sussex County, Del.

He thinks that he might have still been there after doing business for seven years had his initial concern not been destroyed by fire. After this, he taught in the Delaware County schools for a while, then worked in several other positions until 1915, when he came to Washington and attended Howard University.

Today he has but one aim in reference to his business, “I feel I have done a good job with my store all these years, because I have been able to raise a family of six children successfully and now my future aim is to turn the operation of my business over to them,” he declared.

His philosophy on life is give all you have to the world — even if it hurts — as you will find the results return doubled.

Meet Your Neighbor by Harry B. Anderson (Afro-American)
Meet Your Neighbor by Harry B. Anderson (Afro-American)

Well Mr. Harmon, your successful grocery store is now a successful, and quite popular local coffee joint. Maybe you’ll get a drink named after you to pay homage to your years of serving the local community.

K & D Food Market

In the 1970s, the building was occupied by a neighborhood market, K and D Food Market. According to the Washington Post crime blotter, the store was robbed my two armed men on Friday, December 3rd, 1971 (a week after Christina Applegate was born). Again, on Tuesday, January 29th, 1974 (the same day Ed Helms was born), the store was robbed by two masked men.

The market lasted into the 1990s, because there was a report of another robbery, this time in 1991, by three armed and masked men. These were ambitious robbers too, as K & D was one of five stores they robbed within three hours.

1201 S St. NW
1201 S St. NW

Sadly, there wasn’t much else available in the newspaper archives about 1201 S St., but it was great learning about the Harmon family.

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Ghosts of DC stories.