Note: This is the latest in a series of “Sesquicentennial Moments” delving into the history of Wilmington College during its 150th anniversary celebration.
WILMINGTON — As Wilmington College alumni from the post-World War II era through the 1960s reminisce about their halcyon days of youth at WC, stories often divert to a favorite establishment located off Grant St. between the campus and downtown — Hamie’s.
Hamie’s Snack Shop was owned and operated by Charles “Hamie” Graham, an African American real estate entrepreneur who also owned a barber shop, beauty parlor and recreational facility for youth.
His was a popular place for College students to go — when the legal drinking age was 18 — for a cold beer or glass of wine, which often served as a catalyst for the stuff of good stories.
Robert Bravard, Class of ‘57, recalled Hamie’s as “the hangout of choice by the publications, music, drama, art and wannabe radical crowd” during his era of the mid-1950s. He noted that athletes and the Greeks, “for the most part, frequented somewhere else.”
He remembered President Sam Marble stopping by occasionally in the mid-afternoon, asking Graham for a scoop of what the WC students were talking about.
“Hamie served wonderful porkchop sandwiches,” Bravard added. “We also learned to eat pork rinds with a touch of Tabasco sauce on them there. Hamie’s wife was named Waldeen, and she had a wonderful laugh and could talk to anybody about anything. She hugged me when I graduated, wished me well, waved at my parents and went on to find another of her ‘boys.’”
Bravard hearkened a courting ritual associated with Hamie’s.
“If your relationship with your young lady had progressed to a certain point, in this crowd, it was time to take her to Hamie’s and introduce her to the proprietor, closing with the following words: ‘Hamie, do you think I ought to keep her?’ Hamie would pause, then lean forward and say with great solemnity, ‘I think she’s a keeper.’
“Of course, he always said that!”
It was at Hamie’s where a lot of white WC students first heard rhythm and blues. “We listened to all the great, great artists of that era there,” he said. “We found the newborn rock-and-roll to be somewhat tame, especially compared to the versions we had all absorbed happily at Hamie’s.”
The longtime coach and dean of men, Fred Raizk, recalled having an agreement with his athletes and Graham. “As long as they were eating there, it was alright — but drinking was off-limits for athletes then,” he said. “Hamie wouldn’t allow any fracas of any kind. If you got too noisy, he would throw you out of there.”
While Bravard doesn’t recall seeing any of Raizk’s athletes in Hamie’s between 1953 and 1957, he concurred with the coach’s reference to Graham’s lack of patience for troublemakers. “We behaved ourselves there; none of us wanted to disappoint Hamie and lose our welcome,” he said.
Graham also held an affinity for many WC students well beyond their patronage of his place.
He was a champion for civil rights and a number of College students protested and stood in solidarity with him in pressuring the local school board to integrate Wilmington’s elementary schools. His son, Robert, was forced to attend the all-black Midland School in the days before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
It is widely believed that, as a result of pressure from Graham, the community and Wilmington College students, the school board chose to pursue integration over negative publicity. It is believed that Graham, Marble and WC students also played a role in the integration of the White House Restaurant in downtown Wilmington.
Carey Trevisan, Class of 1970, and friends were in Hamie’s the evening of April 4, 1968. “I remember sitting at Hamie’s when we heard Martin Luther King was shot,” he said.
Another alum in that recent conversation about the national tragedy recalled, “Hamie told his African American customers, ‘These white boys are our friends. Leave them alone and let them go back to their campus.’ They did.”
Ken McGuire attended WC in the early 1960s. Now 80 years old, he remembers the “African American corner of Wilmington” with special fondness. “When I wanted to get away from it all, I went to Hamie’s Tavern for a 3.2 beer and a bowl of Waldeen’s spaghetti chili. There I learned more about inclusion than anyplace I had previously experienced.”
Another alumnus, this one from the Class of ‘65, also has fond memories of Hamie’s. Alan N. Frankel recalled “frequenting a local establishment, bar, owned by Charles ‘Hamie’ Graham, a great guy and an area civil rights leader, besides being a fine purveyor of some good down-home cooking.”
Frankel noted an evening in 1964 or ‘65 when he walked into Hamie’s and took a seat at the bar. “Shortly after, my vision was blocked by someone twice my size, who sat down at the next stool. Hamie came over to say hello and introduced me to Wes Unseld,” Frankel said, noting Unseld was then a 6-7 teenager from Louisville. “For about an hour, I had the pleasure of his conversation. He seemed a bright, engaged and a genuinely nice person.”
Unseld went on to become a basketball standout at the University of Louisville, leader of the champion Baltimore Bullets, winner of both the Most Valuable Player and Rookie-of-the-Year awards in 1969 and a member of the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
Frankel noted that, upon Unseld’s death in 2020, “I was reminded of that long-ago day and it brought back great memories and a tear to my eyes thinking about that meeting — and about Hamie.”
Wilmington College honored Graham’s memory in 1982 by naming a meeting room in Austin Hall the “Charles ‘Hamie’ Graham Cultural Center.”