I remember it like it was yesterday when the Washington family moved into my neighborhood in the early 1950s. It was the largest family I had ever seen. There were 12 siblings. William Clarence, always called W.C., was the second to the youngest and a member of my generation.
Mr. McKinley and Mrs. Rosa, W.C.'s parents, had a Christian home, and they practiced what they preached. If you saw Mrs. Rosa you saw Mr. McKinley; if she was on one side of the bed to make it up, he was on the other side. It was a joy to visit in their home. Mr. McKinley was W.C.'s role model. You felt the warmth when entering the Washington home of so many lovable people.
McKinley and Rosa Washington earned their living as farmers and textile mill workers. They lived in the Hilly
Branch community south of Lumberton before moving to Lumberton.
After doing farm work and odd jobs in his teen years to earn money during the summer, in 1959 W. C. got a part-time job cleaning floors and doing odd jobs at C.H. Larkin's clothing store at 302 Elm Street adjacent to the corner building that years later would become Washington Men's Store. Within a year he was part-time salesman. As a high school student the job helped with financial obligations of dating and other teenage activities.
It was a prestigious thing in the 1950s to have a job in retail stores downtown no matter what the job would be. You could count the blacks on one hand who had the opportunity. Sugar's store hired the late John Powell; J.C. Penny employed the late Sandy Suggs and Weinstein employed Crawford Faulk. When W.C. graduated from Hayswood High School in 1962 he became a full-time salesman for Larkin's.
Washington joined the United States Army in 1963. He served three and a half years as an assistant in the Medical Corps, stationed in Augsburg, Germany. Obtaining the rank of staff sergeant, W.C. is proud to say that he was a good medic and was honorably discharged.
After returning home W.C. worked about three months with his brother Dan's concrete business. His double-dating friends, Crawford and I had married and had two kids and jobs. Being a good friend and Samaritan, W.C. would pick up my mother-in-law who did not drive and our two children and take them to the health department for their immunization shots to keep us from taking time off from work. He was just that kind of guy and still is today.
In 1967 W.C. returned to the Larkin store. In 1968 Washington accepted a position as route sales manager. He traveled the highways of southern North Carolina and northern South Carolina peddling Larkin goods until summer of 1973.
In 1968 another momentous change occurred. W.C. and Joan Lewis were married. They established their home in the Bladenboro area where Joan had been reared by her parents. They continue to live in this rural and family oriented community, commuting to Lumberton each day.
Joan was right on time to aid W.C. in business when opportunities came their way. She was his motivator, a great asset to help fulfill the dreams of a man ready for a challenge of stepping out on faith. I see them as true soul mates. Joan has a business degree from Durham Business College. She has been employed as secretary, sales lady and head cashier at various times. The two were ready to face the challenge of working together.
The first important opportunity came in the summer of 1973 when Larkin's Elm Street store changed to Charlie O's with W.C. as manager and Joan his assistant. It was the southeastern North Carolina link of chain stores by that name with strictly high fashion men's clothes. Headquarters were in Kinston.
Playing to the new climate of experimentation in psychedelic art, music, lighting, color, self expression in clothing occurring along with equal rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, W.C. decorated Charlie O's windows with brightly colored clothing not normally seen in a straight laced men's clothing store. If you wanted to dress like Super Fly or “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, you were at the right place. Flashing lights, shopping to the beat of Isaac Hayes and James Brown and flashy clothes kept the young man at heart coming back. If a conservative man stepped in, he knew he was in the wrong place. Memories of Charlie O's are unforgettable.
On their own
After the death of Mr. Larkin in 1975 Charlie O's closed. Now well experienced as a team, Joan and W.C. decided to open their own business, Since retail was W.C.'s specialty and business was what Joan knew, they arranged to purchase the building at 304 N. Elm Street, next door to where W.C. first began cleaning floors for Larkin's. Now he could clean floors if he wanted to or hire someone to do it for him. Washington's Men's Store opened in 1975.
The first four years of business were tough and meant a lot of sacrificing. They knew it would take this to maintain the business. W.C. said, “The hardest part was financing and dealing with the banks, being a new business.” The sacrifices meant learning to value the needs more than the wants.
The business community began to take note. W.C. became a member of the Chamber of Commerce board, 1983-1994. In 1988 Washington's was given the Main Street Appearance Award by City of Lumberton Economic Advancement for Downtown Inc. In 1988 W.C. became a board member of Progressive State Bank, serving until 2006.
Wesley the older son, was only five when W.C. and Joan opened their store. He attended N.C. State University. He moved from his home in Bladenboro to Lumberton in 1994, having already spent a lot of time in the store. He has made an impact on the family business and the City of Lumberton. He has served on the United Way Board of Directors, the Robeson County Partnership for Children Board, as president of the Downtown Lumberton Association and presently is president of the Lumberton Area Chamber of Commerce and manager of the family business.
Scott the younger son, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, married Monica Byars of Pittsburgh, Pa. They live in McLean, Va. Scott enjoys politics and his goal is to become a lawyer. While in high school he served as a page for U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre in Washington, D.C.
For over 30 years Washington's Men's Store has been a cornerstone for downtown. The style of clothes, the music, and the size of the store have all changed from Charlie O's styles. What has not changed is the great customer service, something hard to find in these days of large chain-owned self service stores.
Washington's has the largest turnover in wedding orders for tuxedos in the area and receives many orders for high school and college proms. W.C.'s slogan is “tuxedo rentals for the time of your life.” The Washingtons are recognized as reputable operators in their downtown location, offering quality gentlemen's clothing. The owners know the market and what customers want. The store is full service, including alterations done by W.C. himself.
The community has come to rely on the talents and good judgment of family members, calling on them for leadership and often honoring them with special awards, some of which include: 1995 to present, Board of Trustees of Southeastern Regional Medical Center, Executive Committee of Robeson County African American Culture Center, Sunday school superintendent at Pleasant Meadow Baptist Church and deacon for 35 years, Distinguished Alumni Award-Redstone Hayswood Alumni Association, 1996 Appreciation Award-Lumberton Area Chamber of Commerce, 1997 Distinguished Service Award-NAACP, 1997 Special Recognition for Outstanding Contributions-Kappa Alpha Phi Fraternity, 1998 Community Service Citizenship Excellence-In touch with Tomorrow 4-H Club, 1998 Special Recognition Award-Ouda Temple #147, 2000 Lumberton Area Chamber of Commerce-Minority Business of the Year, 2005 Achievements in Community Service-Kappa Alpha Phi Fraternity, former member of United Way, past president of L.E.A.D.(Lumberton Economic Advancement of Downtown), member and past president of Downtown Lumberton Association, 2007 Southeastern Regional Medical Center Foundation Board of Trustees.
Despite his numerous commitments, W.C. has a favorite pastime collecting and tinkering with antique cars, which the family drives for pleasure. Washington family members are rightly proud of one another. They are well liked among the general population, who enjoy their company, their service and their dedication to making things better in the communities where they live, serve, work and play.