‘Wiley paved the way’: Locals reflect on impact of Lash grocery store

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 14, 2021

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — Wiley Lash is known by many as the first Black mayor of Salisbury and a leading force behind school integration, but his downtown family grocery store also is remembered fondly for its role as a community hub for decades.

Born in 1908, Lash would go on to be remembered decades later as one of the most significant people in Salisbury’s history.

Lash began at Howard University in 1927 with the goal of becoming a lawyer. But after the Great Depression devastated several of his family’s string of grocery stores, Lash returned home. Of his family’s seven stores, only four survived. His mother, Mayzonetta “Mary” Grundy Lash, had started the grocery store chain to supplement the family’s income. Lash’s father, Wiley H. Lash, was a minister.

Lash ultimately graduated from Livingstone College in 1934 with a sociology degree. He and his brother, Traugott, took over the downtown grocery store that soon was renamed Lash’s Self-Service Store on East Council Street.

Salisbury resident PJ Ricks said she grew up at the store. Her mother, Elizabeth Young Greene, worked at Lash’s Self-Service Grocery for 10-15 years before she earned a master’s degree and worked in post-secondary education.

“We didn’t have daycares and after-school programs,” Ricks said. “So I went there and stayed until it was time to go home.”

She recalls memories of various community members visiting the store to speak with Lash about religion, politics, neighborhood issues or just general problems. It was easy to talk with him as he ran the store, she added.

At the time, Salisbury didn’t have a central place for people of all backgrounds to obtain information. So, the community visited Lash at his store to ask about resources available to them in the community. Ricks recalls Lash helping locals who needed food, providing information about medical care and using his word to get an extension on a water bill for someone struggling to make it.

“(His store) was a hub for both communities, both the Black and white community,” Ricks said. “It was a place where people met.”

Ricks likened Lash to a “gentle giant” who was soft-spoken but “carried a big stick.” Due to his involvement in boards and organizations that touched all areas of the community, he had his hands in many things without any of the fanfare, she said.

“He had relationships with the men in hoods. Men in hoods were in disguise,” Ricks said. “But Wiley was able to calm some of the more radical members of the county. He was able to talk to people regardless of other beliefs.”

Salisbury resident, retired educator and historian Raemi Evans said Lash’s family made quite the contribution to the grocery business in Salisbury because his mom led one located on Innes Street and his brother led one in the West End. His store was the largest one at the time for the Black community.

“It helped make Wiley accessible to the community because they had to go to the store,” Evans said.

Part of Lash’s legacy is his leading force in getting schools and businesses integrated, Ricks said. He served on a committee to determine how to implement integration following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. He joined the Board of Education in 1964 and stayed for 15 years. A vocational building at Salisbury High School is named in his honor.

He began his political career early. When he was 21 years old, he used the help of a professor to spearhead voter registration drives for Black residents. He was a charter member of the Negro Civic League, which worked for better streets, lighting, water and recreational centers for children. But as Lash spent more time involved in local politics and activism, he would eventually retire from the grocery industry as his downtown store was purchased in 1979. He spent the 1950s and ’60s working on local elections before making his own run for city council a decade later. He worked on the campaigns of A.R. Kelsey, Dr. J.P. Johnson and O.K. Beatty.

In 1979, Lash served as Mayor Pro Tem on the Salisbury City Council. Two years later, he became Salisbury’s first Black mayor. After two terms, he’d later hold the inaugural “honorary mayor” title.

Evans credits Lash with promoting his activism in a way that didn’t cause a disturbance in the community.

“He carried himself in a way that there was no negativity,” she said.

Former Mayor Margaret Kluttz said Lash impacted her as a young woman who wanted to be involved. Kluttz told the Post she was particularly struck by his patience, quietness and willingness to listen before speaking.

Around the time he was elected mayor, Kluttz said Salisbury was growing, and leaders were motivated by a civic duty, not politics, to serve on the city council.

“Folks were proud he was the first Black mayor, but they were also proud because he was a good, talented person to be there,” Kluttz said. “He was the right person to be the mayor.”

Kluttz said Lash fostered an atmosphere at the grocery store that welcomed everyone and respected everyone.

Today, both a head start in East Spencer and the Crown in Glory Outreach Ministries are named after his honor. And in 2009, Lash’s family gathered as the city installed a plaque honoring him at the corner of Main and Council streets. The plaque states that his store was a place “where the deserving poor were never turned away.”

“It was easier to get things done because Wiley paved the way,” Ricks said. “Nine times out of 10, you never knew he had his hand in it until it was done.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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