‘The watermelon man’: Southwest Philly merchants have been selling popular fruit for 35 years

The watermelon stand is on the corner of 83rd and Lindbergh Boulevard, across from St. Paul’s AME Church. (Chantale Belefanti)

The watermelon stand is on the corner of 83rd and Lindbergh Boulevard, across from St. Paul’s AME Church. (Chantale Belefanti)

This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

The popular watermelon stand on the corner of 83rd Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, across from St. Paul’s AME Church, is a staple in the community.

Elijah Carter, 72, is the owner of Carter’s Watermelons. Along with his brothers Joshua and Aaron, his grandson Jeremiah and nephews, Carter sell watermelons out of his truck.

“I’ve been selling watermelons since the age of 2 years old,” Carter said. “My father was in the watermelon business and I wanted to carry my father’s name on and I enjoyed it.”

Elijah Carter inherited the business from his late father, Dover Carter, a sharecropper who was founder and president of the NAACP branch in Montgomery County, Georgia.

Dover Carter and his wife Bessie, along with their 10 children, migrated from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1948 after Carter was brutally beaten for trying to vote.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Joshua Carter. “They beat him up and thought that he was dead and they threatened to kill all of us, the family.”

Carter’s Watermelon started in Philadelphia around 1954, Joshua said. “We started out on 35th and Mantua and 37th and Brown. That’s where we originated from.” The stand has been on the corner of 83rd and Lindbergh for 35 years.

The grey watermelon truck isn’t branded with the company’s name, but customers are familiar with Carter’s Watermelon, and the community loves supporting the business.

A passing SEPTA driver beeps his horn and slows down to say “hi” to the men.

“I get watermelons from them every year. They’ve been great. They’re very professional. They have the best watermelon to be,” said Preston Christian of Clifton Heights.

“It’s a whole new day,” said Ha-zuce Ha-zuce from Southwest Philadelphia. “Black people’s lives matter. We’re going to support our own businesses and keep the money in the community and that’s why I’m here.”

Carter’s Watermelons sells out every day, sun or rain. Watermelons are for sale every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for prices ranging from $7 to $13, depending on the wholesaler’s price.

Carter works seven days a week for six months straight, from May to October, and says selling watermelon is “long, hard work.”

He’s a Vietnam veteran who served as a medic and received a Purple Heart in the late 1960s.

“He never talks about it, but he was a medic, airborne, his whole team was wiped out and he was the only survivor,” said Joshua Carter, who also served in the military but didn’t find out about his older brother’s honor until years later.

Elijah Carter didn’t hold back from talking about watermelons.

Carter’s Watermelons prides itself on having the juiciest watermelon in town. “I get joy from people coming from New York, Philadelphia, Jersey, Delaware and Maryland,” Carter said.

Carter said there’s a method for eating and storing watermelons.

“The best way to store it is at room temperature,” he said. “Some people like them hard, some people like them soft inside. Some like them crunchy, some like them juicy. We always have what they want.”

For a small family, Carter suggests cutting the watermelon in half, eating the “short half” and storing the rest in the refrigerator.

Carter sells watermelons that you won’t find at a grocery or produce store. “There are yellow, red, orange and white watermelons,” he said, although he admits he hasn’t seen a white watermelon since the age of 5.

And when asked how watermelons grow, his reply was followed with a laugh. “I’m 72 years old and I’ve never seen a watermelon grow.”

“Our watermelons come from different places,” Joshua Carter said. “Some of them come from Georgia, Florida, Louisiana. We don’t grow them. We specialize in them.”

Elijah Carter’s favorite watermelon is the Sugar Baby, a dark green, round watermelon, preferably seeded, that weighs up to 8 to 10 pounds. They are also called “icebox” watermelons because they fit perfectly into an icebox.

“They live up to their name, Sugar Baby,” he chuckles.

Picking out watermelon is a skill that the Carter brothers learned early on.

“We go by the sound,” Joshua Carter said. “If it’s a hollow sound, that means it’s a nice firm melon, you can eat it right away or you can save it for a while. If it has a flat sound, you have to eat it right away. A lot of people like juicy watermelons.”

Carter’s Watermelons selects the right watermelon for each customer, wipes it down, and carries it to a customer’s car if needed. Elijah Carter’s great-nephews help out on the weekends, hoping to earn tips. Elijah has faith that one of his children or grandchildren will carry on the family business.

“I have over 50 grand nieces and nephews,” he said. “Someone will carry it on.”

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