Office of Dr. Huldah Josephine Prioleau, 92 Spring Street
The two small buildings currently located on the lot at 92 Spring Street were built by Dr. Huldah Josephine Prioleau, one of the first black women doctors in Charleston. She was born in Charleston on July 4, 1866, and educated at the Avery Normal Institute. In 1904 she earned her MD from Howard University’s Medical Department. After graduating from medical school, she returned to Charleston to open up her practice and to teach at the Cannon Street Hospital.
It was rare to find a Black woman serving as a doctor during the early twentieth century. The professionalization of medicine turned it into a world dominated by White men. Prioleau was one of two Black women doctors in South Carolina and one of about 130 Black women who graduated from medical school between 1864 and World War II. She purchased the property at 92 Spring St. four years after she graduated, accomplishing something else that was rare for Black women. One building served as her office and the other she rented out. Behind the two smaller buildings she had a residential building built with two apartments that she also rented out. These were more than income opportunities; Black-owned rental properties created opportunities for Black people who could not afford to purchase a building for their business or home.
Prioleau had a deep love for children. Along with her private practice and work at the Cannon Street Hospital she ran the “Home of the Better Baby” from her home at 242 Rutledge Street. There she would educate mothers on the latest scientific recommendations on how to raise healthy children. Children also influenced some of her activism. During the era of segregation, Black children in Charleston were not allowed to play at the white playgrounds, so she advocated for the construction of Harmon Park (where the Cannon. St. All Stars played) for Black children and chaired the committee that ran the park until the city parks department took over administration of the park.
Harmon Park was not the only civic work in which Prioleau was engaged. During the First World War, she was the president of Charleston’s Colored Red Cross. She recruited Black nurses and canteen workers to volunteer to provide care to Black soldiers before they left for Europe and raised money for Red Cross activities. In 1931, she was officially recognized for the care she was providing to disabled veterans as a physician and Red Cross Volunteer. The racism and sexism she experienced as a Red Cross worker helped to spur her civil rights advocacy. She worked with author John Bennett for better treatment of Black Red Cross workers and soldiers.
92 Spring Street is located in the neighborhood formed from several early suburbs of Charleston that is now called Cannonborough-Elliottborough. Settlement in the area began in the 1780s, but progress was slow. The area was marshy and dotted with creeks and ponds so settlement followed landfill. Since the area was outside of the city limits the land was cheaper and attracted working-class native Whites, free Blacks, and immigrants. The result was one of the most diverse areas in the city and an area with a large free Black population. By the early twentieth century, Spring and Cannon Streets became a popular location for Black professionals to open offices. In 1950 four Black doctors had their practices in the area.
When Dr. Prioleau passed away on December 14, 1940, she was well known and well respected. But over time her pioneering life, volunteerism, and activism have faded from historical memory. Her neighborhood has a similar story. Due to its lack of grand homes and famous residents, most of the Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood is left out of Charleston’s popular history. The area is not included in Jonathan Poston’s Buildings of Charleston, and is outside of the National Historic District. This oversight is a detriment to the city. The history of the neighborhood and its people is the history of the average Charlestonian. Without the story of Cannonborough-Elliottborough the stories of professional Blacks are missing from the popular history of Charleston, especially the story of physicians.