On his route as a FedEx courier, Chad Mansfield frequently turns the corner at 84th and Lindbergh Avenue in Southwest Philly and does a hungry double take.
Rows and rows of watermelons are stacked at the Carter family’s roadside stand, there daily during the warmer months, each carefully piled mound topped with a juicy wedge of colorful summer temptation. Multiple hues of red, from crimson to blushing pink. Electric yellow. Even white watermelons, on rare occasions, beckon with the curiosity of nearly translucent flesh. When they catch the light just right, this jewel-like array of wedges glows like a stained glass masterpiece.
“It was emanating like an aura,” said Mansfield, recalling a moment he passed by the stand recently late in the day. “The sun came through the trees and lit up this one golden watermelon like the Holy Grail. And it was telling me: ‘Stop here and get a watermelon.’ It was saying: ‘Chad, eat this watermelon!’”
Mansfield, the consummate pro, somehow resisted and returned melon-less to the FedEx station to end his shift. But he would return shortly after in his own car to load up with a heavy cargo of juicy summer treasure: “It was so good!” said Mansfield, still savoring the sweetness of the yellow-fleshed melon that had been his siren call. “One of the best watermelons I’ve ever had, if not the best.”
That verdict would be no surprise to regular customers of the Carter Watermelon stand like Quincy Jonas. The West Philadelphian pulled up recently for his trimonthly purchase of an old-school red melon with black seeds — “They have the best flavor, and they’re always fresh here” — and let the three generations of the Carter family tap, tap, tap their way across their sprawling stash to pick the fruit.
“It’s all about the vibrations," says Jeremiah Carter, 42, who gave the long side of several melons a practiced pop with his palm until a fruit rang just right. “I listen for the echo, that high hollow sound. That means it’s crunchy.”
“This one has a fatter sound, so it’s reeeaaal ripe,” says Jeremiah’s father, Joshua, 74, tapping a squat melon that thunked like a washtub. “We’ve discounted this one, because you’ve gotta eat that right way or use it for juice. It all depends on what you want. How do you know a good melon? It’s just like meeting somebody — you feel that vibe."
There’s a finely honed intuition to buying, not to mention selling, a good watermelon. It’s a lost art among the anonymous aisles of most supermarkets where usually there are just a couple varieties of generic seedless melons for sale: “Most supermarket cashiers don’t know (about) melons,” says Joshua. “Plus, we have melons with seeds.”
“Everyone’s going back to seeds,” says his brother Elijah, 72, noting a recent trend at their stand (a micro-trend, perhaps, considering the rest of the U.S. still buys 31 times more seedless watermelons, according to the USDA). “Seedless watermelons are sweet. But they smell different. They don’t have that old-fashioned watermelon flavor.”
There may be five or more varieties on any given day emerging from beneath the umbrellas that shade the Carters' old Ford van, from the icebox-friendly round Sugar Babies during their short season to classic Georgia Rattlesnakes known for the serpent-like striping on their rind, to crunchy pink Sangria hybrids and, yes, seedless melons, too.
But at Carter Watermelon, you’re also buying a legacy of family expertise that dates back four generations to a corner stand in Mantua launched by patriarch — and civil rights hero — Dover V. Carter. At nearly 70 years and counting, with several of the grandchildren now helping out, they’ve carried on one of the oldest family food businesses in Philadelphia.
"Watermelons run in my family — nothing but watermelons since 1950,” says Elijah, who’s been selling melons at this particular corner in Southwest Philly seven days a week from May through October since 1985, when Joshua helped him get started in the Eastwick neighborhood just north of Philadelphia International Airport. “And we’ve mastered one thing.”
The two brothers, both Vietnam War veterans, followed in the footsteps of their father, Dover, who began his business at a lot around Brown Street and Mantua Avenue in 1950 where he became known as Deacon Carter the Watermelon Man, renowned for such deep colors that a false rumor persisted he put red dye in his fruit.
“He just knew how to cut it (lengthwise) and display it so the sun would caramelize the natural sugars and turn it bloody red,” says Joshua, who still hears the dye myth from customers today. “People back then also used to see so many melons coming out of our house, where we stored them, they thought we grew the melons in the basement, too!”
The Carters' melons grow on farms, of course (as most melons do), tracking from Florida in early spring north to Delaware and New Jersey by fall. But very few of their customers knew why Dover Carter came to Philadelphia — and got into the watermelon trade — to begin with. It had to do with his dangerous fight for voting rights in the South as a younger man.
Joshua was an adult with his own children before he ever learned that his father was a civil rights activist who brought his wife, Bessie, and family of 10 children to Pennsylvania to escape racially-motivated violence directed at them in his hometown of Alston, Ga.
Dover, who had been president of the NAACP in Montgomery County, Ga., was brutally beaten by two white men with brass knuckles while shuttling Black voters to the polls during the Democratic primary in 1948. Carter’s good friend, farmer Isaiah Nixon, was shot dead. And despite warnings not to talk, Carter would not remain silent. He drove to Atlanta to tell his story to the FBI, which opened an extensive case file and investigation that ultimately went cold without convictions. For the safety of his family, they needed to leave.
“My father never discussed or publicized that,” says Joshua. “He was a quiet, God-fearing man … and he would also vote religiously. We all vote.”
But the history was not forgotten. The story of Carter and Nixon was resurrected in 2018 by the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University and retold in chilling detail during the Peabody Award-winning first season of the NPR podcast Buried Truths, hosted by former Inquirer editor Hank Klibanoff.
“This entire podcast was built on the foundation of the courage of Dover Carter to tell his stories to federal authorities,” says Klibanoff.
As a Southern sharecropper transplanted to Philadelphia, Carter turned to his roots to earn his livelihood, focusing on a lifelong appreciation of watermelons, a steady diet of which, Joshua says, his father always attributed his good health.
“My father told me, ‘Go by what you know, stick to one thing, and do that work,’” says Joshua, whose father would loosely paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. “He’d say: ’If you’re going to be a street sweeper, sweep your street so well that everyone makes a path to your door.'”
Enough customers came to Dover’s watermelon stand over the years that it sustained a family that took root in Philly and grew, with 42 nieces and nephews descending from his own children, followed by 42 grandchildren to date.
Among them, Jeremiah’s son Jared, 15, worked four days a week with his grandfather this summer, hauling and polishing and sounding-out melon vibes before starting his sophomore year at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne this week.
“It’s been different, learning to deal with all kinds of customers,” said Jared, wiping his brow as the afternoon heat beat down.
“It takes a certain kind of person who’s going to invest a couple thousand dollars in melons and stand out here in all kinds of weather and hot sun,” says Joshua. “It’s no joke out here. But I want to teach my grands how to make a dollar. We come from a family of go-getters and hustlers.”
Joshua and Elijah weren’t the only siblings to follow their father’s roadside trade. Aaron, 81, recently retired after many years of selling nuts and watermelons from a truck at Broad and Spring Garden. The oldest brother, Benny, sold watermelons at 52nd and Sansom streets. Caleb, who passed away last year, introduced the siblings to the water ice business with a pretzel and hot dog truck called Quick Treat.
Even after retiring from a 21-year career as a payroll technician for the Department of Defense, Joshua could not resist the call of the family’s entrepreneurial DNA, starting a water ice and pretzel stand that ran seven days a week for the past 12 years out of the back of his house in Southwest Philadelphia. It was called Homeboy, named in honor of his oldest grandson.
But with the onset of the coronavirus, Joshua decided this year to close Homeboy and rejoin his brother Elijah at the watermelon stand for the first time in a decade. With Aaron and 88-year-old brother David also lending an occasional hand (“He doesn’t do any of the lifting,” says Elijah. "We don’t want wear him out.”) the timing couldn’t be better. The stand has experienced an uptick in sales during the pandemic as customers avoid the crowds shopping inside.
“My brother Elijah’s been working hard all these years — he’s the Watermelon Man now — and it was time to give him an opportunity to finally take some breaks,” said Joshua, who is also pondering retirement. “But I guess I like working outside, dealing with a variety of people and getting that good feeling of selling folks something they enjoy. Plus, us Carters, we always come back to watermelons.”