Excelsior Club named one of most endangered places in US. Is this enough to save it?

The Excelsior Club, a decades-old landmark that once stood at the heart of the African-American community in Charlotte, was added to the list of the nation’s 11 most endangered historic places Wednesday.

The list from the National Trust for Historic Preservation includes sites that are “at risk of destruction or irreparable damage,” according to a press release from the group. And it’s the first North Carolina property to ever make the list, said Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

Morrill said being on the list will help make Charlotte’s cultural community aware of the club’s significance, and help influence future plans for the site.

“There come moments in the history of a community when it makes fundamental decisions that reflect what it really is,” Morrill said. “What Charlotte decides to do with this building is going to be very reflective of what exactly this place is.”

The club off of Beatties Ford Road closed in 2016. It was listed for sale in April for $1.5 million, according to New River Brokerage’s Facebook page.

The building, which was designated an historic landmark by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Historic Landmarks Commission, is owned by Carla Cunningham, a Democratic state representative. Last year, Cunningham filed paperwork to permit demolition. After June 12, Cunningham, or whoever the new owner is, can tear down the building.

Cunningham told the Observer in April that nearly $400,000 was needed to restore the property, which requires extensive repairs and has building code violations.

Barbara Pahl, senior vice president for field services at the National Trust, said the organization’s goal is to raise the profile of the sites on the list. Fewer than 5% of the more than 300 places that have been on the list over the years have been lost, the National Trust said in its press release.

There’s more at stake here than just real estate,” Pahl said. “There’s a story and a place associated with the story.”

Forgotten history

The Excelsior Club opened in 1944 and was central to African-American social and political life in Charlotte.

It hosted musicians like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigned there, and it’s where locals celebrated Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president.

Community activist Colette Forrest organized various events there, from fish fries to kick off early voting to fundraisers for African American candidates.

“I always felt that the spirits of my ancestors, they were there with us,” she said. “It just made it even more special and empowering.”

The club was also featured in the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that included nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and other locations that welcomed African Americans during the era of segregation. The book was the subject of a Hollywood film last year starring Mahershala Ali.

The club’s association with the film, and its civil rights history, were important factors in the National Trust’s decision to add it to the list, Pahl said.

After the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Pahl said the National Trust placed a greater emphasis on recognizing sites that are important in the African American community.

“This is history that’s either never been known or has been forgotten,” she said. “There seems to be a need to educate us more about African Americans in this country.”

Community resilience

The club is an emblem of the strength of Washington Heights, the west Charlotte neighborhood that surrounds it, said Mattie Marshall, president of the Historic Washington Heights area. The neighborhood, which dates back to 1910, was named after Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and became one of the most influential African American intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marshall said that connection to slavery shouldn’t be shied away from.

“We should be teaching it more, and how people endured that to rise up to become historic Washington Heights or how we became Johnson C. Smith University, or how we ended up having an Excelsior Club,” she said.

Aisha Dew, a community activist, has known local civil rights attorney James Ferguson, the former owner, and his family since she was a child. She said she saw everyone from politicians to domestic workers patronize the club.

“(In) the black community before urban renewal and now gentrification, you had these self-sustaining communities in a lot of ways, where everyone across all spectrums kind of interacted,” she said. “And the Excelsior was a place for that.”

Looking for ‘deep pockets’

Former state Sen. Malcom Graham said the club was part of his “introduction to Charlotte” when he arrived in the city to attend Johnson C. Smith University in 1981.

Over the years, longtime residents have decried the loss of Charlotte’s history to make way for new development. Graham said it’s even harder to find relics of the African American community’s past.

“You have to look really hard to find African American history in Charlotte,” he said. “And it’s not promoted with the same energy as other historical sites within the city.”

Mary Newsom, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees at the Charlotte Museum of History, wrote the application for the Excelsior to be added to the National Trust’s list. She said she decided to apply, not through her position the museum, but as a citizen worried the club’s history would be lost.

“The goal is to bring national attention for a purchaser with deep enough pockets,” she said. “But also with deep understanding of the importance of the building.”

A broader struggle

Elsewhere in Charlotte, another historic site in Charlotte has received help for its renovation.

The Foundation for the Carolinas is spending $40 million to renovate the now-defunct Carolina Theatre, the Observer has reported. Morrill pointed out that when the Carolina Theatre first opened, it was a segregated facility.

Amid segregation, the Excelsior was one of the only social clubs where African Americans were welcome.

“Until really, very recently in our history as a community, there were very few places that African Americans could go and feel respected,” Morrill said.

In October, Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted against a proposal to save the club. The deal would have given the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission a year to either find a buyer or purchase the property.

But the board found the asking price of $350,000 too high when combined with the more than half a million needed to repair it, former commissioner Bill James told the Observer at the time.

Forrest said the news around the Excelsior is emblematic of the struggle to preserve African American community history in the face of gentrification.

“(The Excelsior) is the glue that kept that corridor together for a very long time,” she said. “Way before all of this gentrification, people came to Beatties Ford Road to go to the Excelsior.”

“This was for us, by us, belonging to us, and to lose that is just yet another sign of the times that blacks don’t matter.”

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