Whether Charlotte should protect one of the oldest African-American cemeteries of the post-slavery era is up for a vote Monday night before Charlotte City Council.
The Biddleville Cemetery, founded in 1873, is one of three properties nominated for protection by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The other two include a west coast “Airplane Bungalow” built in 1925 on Park Road in Dilworth, and Midwood Elementary School, built in 1935 to serve the “streetcar suburbs” of Charlotte.
Stewart Gray of the Historic Landmarks Commission says none of the three sites is currently in danger from Charlotte’s booming development push. Historic designation at this point is a precaution, he says.
Gray doesn’t expect any opposition among council members, particularly in the case of Biddleville Cemetery.
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Protecting the nation’s once-ignored African-American cultural and historical sites has become a national priority. The recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is part of the trend, which has also touched Charlotte. Last year, the city’s Trail of History erected its first statue of an African-American who is credited with contributing to local history: businessman Thaddeus Lincoln Tate.
Biddleville Cemetery is considered vital on several counts: It wasn’t a slave cemetery, but was instead a rare neighborhood cemetery for free blacks. It’s also the resting place of some of the city’s most notable black citizens, including veterans of the Spanish-American war, World War I and World War II.
Historians note the cemetery contains examples of a largely extinct form of African-American funerary art found in cemeteries from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century. (The oldest extant grave marker at the site dates to 1894.)
Sites given historic landmark status aren’t immune from developers. However, the designation can delay proposed changes for up to a year, as historians work to dissuade owners from redevelopment. This includes the offer of tax credits for preservation. In some cases, the landmarks commission can recommend property be purchased, particularly if the site has state-wide significance.
One such site is under negotiation between the commission and a developer: the Charles E. Barnhardt House.
The home, built in 1938 on Country Club Lane in Plaza Midwood, is in imminent danger of demolition as part of a housing development. However, talks are underway with the property owner to “re-purpose” the home on the site, says Gray.
The home was originally going to be part of the council vote Monday, but was removed until those negotiations are completed, he said. The Barnhardt home is valued because two families important to Charlotte industry owned it: the Barnhardt family of Barnhardt Manufacturing Co., and Stuart Cramer, a textile mill owner and designer whose other mills included Highland Mill No. 3 in NoDa and who built the mill town of Cramerton in Gaston County.
Kay Peninger, president of the Charlotte Museum of History, says the mix of sites up for a vote Monday says a lot about the push to protect places that have survived Charlotte’s booming history of economic development.
“What’s really cool about this group,” she says, “is the range of history that they reflect. You have an African American cemetery in one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods, to a school for a middle-class neighborhood on Central Avenue, to an architecturally unusual bungalow in Dilworth.”