John Hill, with a black tie lying over a white button-up shirt and a work apron that hangs below his knees, stands in front of the Hill Grocery Store. The two large shop windows behind him advertise Gardner Goodness purity bread and ice cold Coca Cola. The Hill Grocery store was one of the first Black owned businesses and one of the longest single-family owned businesses in Madison, operating for nearly 70 years.
The Hills, John and his wife Amanda Hill, moved to Madison from Atlanta in 1910. Within five years, they already owned a Shoe Shining Parlor but they were concerned about having enough money to put their three children — Edwin, Freddie and Chestena — through college.
John told the Capital Times he sought advice from his pastor Reverend Thomas of St. Paul’s African Methodist Church, who owned the grocery store at the time, and the pastor told John to take it over. The Hills purchased the store in 1915 for $45; John was 30 years old and Amanda just 28.
For nearly the next 70 years, the store operated at 649 East Dayton Street. It was open seven days a week with reduced hours on the weekends and the occasional holiday off. The Hills never hired any help, the only people that ever worked in the store were John and Amanda and their three children. It was always a family centered business.
Granddaughter Charlyne Hill Singley can recount the inside of the store like she was there yesterday. The Hills sold fresh bread and sweat rolls, canned goods and old-fashioned ice cream. The store had a coke machine at the back, which was kept cold by large blocks of ice and there was a deli with salami, bologna and summer sausage. Charlyne remembers her grandfather slicing meet and throwing it on the scale, adding pieces little by little to get the exact weight.
She also remembers asking her grandparents for penny-candy out of the crystal dishes that lined the counter. Charlyne and her eight siblings lived next door to their grandparents and saw them everyday.
“We had the most delightful childhood,” Charlyne said. “Everybody loved Papawill, they would come in (the store) and shoot the breeze. And Mamawill was the most exemplary women, so soft spoken. I remember when she’d wash our little faces after we’d come inside, us sweaty little children.”
Charlyne recalls her grandfather sat on the back porch of the house every night in the summer time on East Dayton Street and listened to the baseball game with his friend Mr. Oaki. Amanda was often cooking in the kitchen; Charlyne still uses her custard bread pudding recipe.
In addition to running the grocery store, John was appointed to several city Committees, including the Committee on Minority Housing and the Advisory Committee, which encouraged citizen participation in community improvement projects. Amanda served as the Parliamentarian to the Utopia Club, a Black woman’s club that tried to improve social conditions for different marginalized groups in Madison.
The Hills reached their goal and put all three of their children through college. In 1928 Freddie Mae became the first Black woman to graduate the University of Wisconsin Madison. She majored in Home Economics.
Their store became one of longest-running single family owned businesses in the city. It was operational until shortly before John Hill passed away in 1983. Today, both the store and the housing attached to it are designated Madison landmarks. The Hills’ eight granddaughters started a non-profit foundation to restore the legacy of their family and their grandparents.