Sugar Hill: A Partial History and Contemporary Adventure
On the way to Oriental the last trip, my mother and I stopped in Kinston, North Carolina. I had been wanting to visit the part of the town known as Sugar Hill because its seamy history was an interesting part of my grandfather’s life.
My grandfather first visited Kinston when he was a young Marine during World War II. By the time the war ended, military members were almost universally loved, but in 1942, Kinston was not very friendly to servicemen. With new bases springing up frequently, the surrounding towns weren’t equipped to handle the influx of young people and didn’t have adequate accommodations or entertainment offerings. Thousands of men were now hanging around with nothing to do during their free time. In Kinston, they were fighting and disturbing the peace. Signs like Soldiers and dogs: stay off our lawns were around everywhere. Here’s my grandfather talking about the military build up after Pearl Harbor and what Kinston was like in 1942:
My grandfather recalls one hotel in Kinston where the Marines could stay overnight for liberty. The hotel was usually overflowing–he remembers it as the only place military were welcome–but the managers would let them sleep in the hallways. My grandfather slept on the floor two or three times. The floors were sometimes so packed with wall-to-wall bodies that a guest couldn’t find a place to walk.
Sometimes fights started over the visor cap, an optional part of the uniform that cost a couple of dollars and could be worn in place of the overseas cap (aka “pisscutter”). Every Marine wanted a visor cap because it indicated he was seagoing, which was prestigious: only the elite went aboard ship at the time. Of course, the patrons of the hotel took their caps off while they were sleeping and, as my grandfather says, “sticky fingers” would steal the visors and throw down their own overseas caps in their place. Brawls over these caps were part of the general trouble the military brought to Kinston.
In my grandfather’s memory, a prostitution business cropped up in Kinston to cater to the new visitors. He recalls several “houses of ill-repute,” in an area known as Sugar Hill, that were government-sponsored or gave the impression of being so. If not organized by the military, at the least they seemed to be condoned by it. Buses (no one had cars) transported people back and forth between the bases and Kinston.
Each house had a “madam,” usually a middle-aged woman, overseeing the operations. Before opening time in the evenings, and especially on Friday and Saturday nights, the servicemen lined up at the houses. The brothels were run like well-organized businesses. Some of the patrons got into fights with the establishment, usually the madams letting them know their time was up, who quickly called the military police to throw them out.
Once, my grandfather was waiting in a local restaurant for his friend Thomas, who was patronizing Sugar Hill. Thomas came in with his pants hanging loose. “Where is your belt?” my grandfather asked when he noticed he wasn’t wearing his belt–the standard GI web belt with a brass tip on one end and a latch-type buckle on the other that adjusted the length without any holes. Thomas said he couldn’t get his belt off fast enough and so he cut it with a knife and pulled it off.
Sugar Hill seemed to provide the entertainment the restless servicemen had been looking for. Here’s my grandfather talking about the Sugar Hill operations and how the disruption the military had been causing in Kinston seemed to end:
Since hearing these stories, for years I have been curious about this town and any arrangements that the prostitution business may have had with the military. So having done basically no research other than listening to my grandfather’s stories, I was hoping that we could just drive into Kinston in 2016 and Sugar Hill from 70 years ago, with its hotels and madams and johns who couldn’t get their belts off fast enough, would simply present itself.
My mother and I followed my grandfather’s descriptions of the locations of the hotel and Sugar Hill:
We saw no evidence of whatever Sugar Hill was or might continue to be, except for the Sugar Hill Pizzeria, but as far as we could tell they were only selling pizza and not prostitutes.
We decided to stop at the library. This was a great idea, probably my mother’s. It was getting later on a Friday afternoon but they were still open. I asked at the circulation desk if they could point us to Sugar Hill. The receptionist, who was friendly and polite, laughed, a knowing, amused chuckle. I explained that my grandfather had spent some time in the area during World War II.
She looked to the woman sitting next to her, who rolled her eyes and turned away, refusing to respond. Curious.
The friendly librarian then turned back to us and gestured that it was down the main road, Queen Street, a bit and on the other side. This wasn’t particularly helpful because we had driven through there and found nothing. Did they have any books on Kinston history?
She pointed me to the reference desk, and the reference librarian let us into a separate History Room, small but with books on NC history. He provided no further guidance. This library’s librarians were something else.
Left on our own, my mother and I began looking through the books. We didn’t discover anything that blew the case wide open, but I find that a library usually yields something useful. Most of what we read just confirmed that a place known as Sugar Hill existed, that it pre-dated WWII, and that the town wasn’t exactly proud of it. We were able to scan some of the materials (thank you, iPhone apps!)
When we drove back through the town again, we did find houses that seemed to match his descriptions in the area my grandfather described:
Here’s 42 seconds of muted video of us driving around trying to figure out if this was the red light district:
But it turns out, that probably wasn’t Sugar Hill. Later that evening, we were able to sift through and digest the hits that popped up while I had been attempting to conduct hours’ worth of research in twenty minutes on my phone in the car.
This dispatch on the prostitution situation in Kinston discusses more contemporary cases but references stories from the past. The prostitution in Kinston seems to date back to at least the Civil War, as described in this linked essay (“An enterprising community of prostitutes inhabits Sugar Hill”). The prostitution trade appears to have continued in Kinston, even after WWII when the military stopped patronizing, though it apparently migrated across Queen Street to the other side of town at some point between the 1940s and 2010s. We were at East Shine Street, which was the area the friendly librarian gestured to. It was across the town from the location of Sugar Hill as my grandfather recalls it and unremarkable.
The same article references another piece that is the best chronicling of of the Kinston my grandfather remembers that I have found yet, as well as the best description of the boundaries of Sugar Hill. Further research revealed it is plagiarized from a 2002 newspaper article. It notes that a current funeral home is the last known standing structure that was a madam’s house, and though we likely drove by it, we didn’t know to look for it.
Most of the madam houses seem to exist no longer, but identifying the correct hotel that my grandfather remembers, and finding it if it is still standing, has become something of an obsession. Hotel Kinston is on the National Register of Historic Places and so there’s more info on it than on others. But my grandfather says the hotel he stayed in was not eleven stories and the arches of Hotel Kinston don’t feature in his memory of the hotel. His recall of events, even at 93 years old, is better than mine.
Only the one mystery hotel stands out in my grandfather’s memory, but others seem to have existed at the time. Could it be Hotel Kinoca, which appears just across the street on this WWII-era map but doesn’t appear to be around any more? Or Caswell Hotel, which I found on the Remembering Kinston North Carolina Pinterest Board? Or any of the other hotels I came across in the various city directories, which are available online but which are hard to parse?
The trouble with figuring all this out, of course, is that it takes time, patience, an eye for detail, and the drive to get something done: I rarely find myself with all of those at once. *Sigh and collapse onto couch exhausted*
I will probably return to Kinston at some point. I’m not sure what I would expect to gain on revisiting: an old timer will materialize and regale me with stories; one of the other structures will reveal itself to be *the* hotel; that one librarian’s rolled eyes will have stuck in her head that way, like our parents always said would happen.
My grandfather went back to Kinston at least once since the 1940s:
When I go back, maybe nothing will happen except that I will have again been some place that featured in my grandfather’s life.
Here’s my grandfather concluding the story:
Photo: Hotel Kinston, now apartments, July 2016