Charleston went into a decline after the earthquake of 1886 and remained depressed into the mid-20th century. There was a bakery on the first floor of what’s now the Heyward Washington House Museum and the buildings around it became tenements for the poor.
One description of the area comes from the novel Porgy, by DuBose Heyward. “Catfish Row, in which Porgy lived, was not a row at all, but a great brick structure that lifted its three stories about the three side of the court ….and pierced its center by a wide entrance way…..Within the high ceiling rooms, with their battered colonial mantels and broken decorations of Adam designs in plaster, governors had come and gone, and ambassadors of kings had schemed and danced….”
That “great brick structure” was a pre-Revolution building next door to the Heyward house, called Cabbage Row for the cabbages that grew in front. Novelist DuBose Heyward, of the Heyward Washington House Heywards, made the building famous when he used it as the setting for his book (which became a play and an opera) about the African American community in Charleston in the 1920s and, in particular, a couple named Porgy and Bess. Heyward lived on Church Street, not far from Cabbage Row, and it’s said that he drew inspiration from watching the residents of Cabbage Row go about their daily lives. He changed the name Cabbage Row to Catfish Row when he moved the setting from Church Street to Folly Beach, 11 miles south of downtown Charleston.
Most people will be familiar with the opera’s ballad “Summertime.” Its most famous verse goes: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good looking. So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.”
The building now houses upscale shops and seven figure residences.