The bulk of Black History Month is devoted to recognizing historical figures, but Charlotte’s historians say they can’t help but also think of historic sites in a city famous for remaking itself in the name of progress.
This is particularly true now, when historically black neighborhoods surrounding uptown are seeing aggressive gentrification and redevelopment.
Historians such as Brenda Tindal at the Levine Museum of the New South stop short of accusing gentrification of wiping clean part of local African-American history, but she will say it “disrupts the narrative.”
Tindal has a list of African-American historic sites she says need to be better regarded by the community. Among them are the Morgan School and Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in the Cherry community near uptown, where neighbors have lodged complaints against ongoing redevelopment.
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Other local historians have lists, too, including sites such as the century-old Excelsior Club in west Charlotte and the original gym for the McCrorey YMCA, which sits largely ignored behind United Way of Central Carolinas in uptown.
“There is a tremendous amount of African-American heritage hidden in plain view in Charlotte, while others have been a casualty to beautification or the eradication of Urban Renewal,” Tindal said.
“I think Charlotte is becoming more conscious of that, but it (the city) does have a history of erasure, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, when historic neighborhoods were essentially dismantled. Gentrification has the ability to erase heritage from our landscape.”
Local historian Tom Hanchett is researching the history of the McCrorey Heights neighborhood in west Charlotte, founded by Johnson C. Smith University President H.L. McCrorey in the early 1900s. The neighborhood, along the north side of Beatties Ford Road beyond the campus, was home to the city’s black professional class, many of them associated with the college.
McCrorey Heights is a wonderfully intact ’50s and ’60s suburb, where some of the major civil rights leaders lived, and that whole district is worth paying attention to.
Tom Hanchett, local historian
“McCrorey Heights is a wonderfully intact ’50s and ’60s suburb, where some of the major civil rights leaders live, and that whole district is worth paying attention to,” Hanchett said, adding that race has sometimes played a role in the lack of value placed on historic areas.
“When I was growing up, there was almost no attention paid in the mainstream to African-American historic sites. That has really changed over the last generations. ... I’ve been impressed with how the Historic Landmarks Commission has consciously tried to find and honor African-American sites.”
Plenty has been lost, however. Among them: The Good Samaritan Hospital for blacks that sat where Bank of America Stadium is today, and Second Ward High, the first public high school for blacks. It opened in 1923 and closed in 1969.
A place like the quad at Johnson C. Smith University, you’re talking about not just buildings. These are symbols. They highlight entire traditions and values to the African-American community.
Kay Peninger, head of the Charlotte Museum of History
Kay Peninger, head of the Charlotte Museum of History, says the significance of such sites transcends their quaint facades and even their role as “firsts” for the black community.
“If you are talking about a place like the quad at Johnson C. Smith University, you’re talking about not just buildings. These are symbols. They highlight entire traditions and values to the African-American community,” she said.
The Florida-based National Association for the Preservation of African-American History and Culture has been working the past three years to raise awareness across the country about what’s at stake.
The birthplace and childhood home of jazz legend and civil rights icon Nina Simone in Tryon made a list released in January of threatened African-American Historical Properties.
In January, the association released its first list of threatened African-American Historical Properties, and at the top of that list was a home in Tryon: the birthplace and childhood home of jazz legend and civil rights icon Nina Simone. The home was to be demolished until a campaign brought in hope of creating a museum, the association says.
Lack of money is a common obstacle for such projects, but the association says there’s also a problem with communities not recognizing that such sites are significant parts of the African-American experience.
Hanchett says there can also be a tendency for African-American sites to be seen as “relics of segregation” and therefore best removed to make way for something better. That was the case with Good Samaritan Hospital, he says, which was abandoned in the wake of integrated health care and fell into disrepair before being torn down.
“One problem with every aspect of Charlotte history is that we’ve always been a striving and struggling town, rather than a town of great power or opulence,” he says. “So both black and white buildings have been seen as less than the finest things worth keeping.
“It has taken a while for buildings to get enough mileage on them for people to look back and say: ‘That’s history.’ Many buildings have been torn down here before that magic moment arrived.”
Easily missed history
Alexander Slave Cemetery: At 9920 Brickleberry Lane in the Thornberry Apartments sits the largest, best preserved slave burial site in Mecklenburg County. At least 25 graves are believed to be on the property, which is surrounded by an iron fence. The cemetery was originally part of a plantation purchased by William Tasse Alexander I in the early 19th century, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. A marker has been placed near the entrance to the apartment complex designating the location.
Original McCrorey YMCA, corner of Third and Caldwell streets: One of the South’s first black YMCAs is gone now, but its gym still sits behind the United Way building in uptown Charlotte. Originally named the Second Street Y, it was part of the Brooklyn neighborhood until being relocated in 1969 to Beatties Ford Road. United Way uses the site for storage space now, noting it has no heat and has asbestos issues.
The Excelsior Club, 921 Beatties Ford Road: For many years, The Excelsior was the leading private black social club in the Southeast, and one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. It eventually became a political focal point.