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Brooklyn was the center of black life in Charlotte. Until the bulldozers arrived.

Brooklyn: How a black community was erased from uptown Charlotte

The Charlotte Observer takes a look at a black community that was erased from Charlotte's uptown area due to Urban Renewal. Plans to develop the area with apartments and stores have been controversial due to the history.
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The Charlotte Observer takes a look at a black community that was erased from Charlotte's uptown area due to Urban Renewal. Plans to develop the area with apartments and stores have been controversial due to the history.

Like many cities, Charlotte has a street named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And with the national holiday honoring his life Monday, it’s a perfect opportunity to remember a time when that uptown Charlotte street bearing King’s name was in the heart of a neighborhood called Brooklyn.

For most of the 20th century, when Southern blacks and whites were separated by segregation, it was the center of African-American life in Charlotte.

These days, the area that was once Brooklyn is where you’ll find the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, Marshall Park and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In the future, it will also be the locale for Brooklyn Village, a retail, residential and office development.

But for many black Charlotteans now in their senior years, that stretch of streets — including McDowell, Brevard, Second — was home during their growing up years to other, beloved places.

Like Second Ward High School, the city’s most prominent African-American churches, the Colored Library, a building for black doctors, shops, groceries, restaurants, and homes that ranged from shotgun shacks to palatial gated mansions.

Then the bulldozers of “urban renewal” arrived. By the late 1960s, Brooklyn was gone, its residents, pastors and shop owners spread all over Charlotte. Decades later, many still grieve for their loss of this place they called home.

The Observer asked six Charlotteans to share their memories of Brooklyn.

The Savoy Theater
The Savoy theater, in the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, was one of several Charlotte theaters File photo, Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Mecklenburg library

‘People felt comfortable’

“We were a community within a community because we had everything that we needed right in that vicinity. We had a YWCA (on Davidson Street) for women and a YMCA (on Caldwell Street) for boys. We had movie theaters. We had churches. Grocery stores. And we just had a wonderful time there.” — Gwen Moore Lucus, 70, retired nurse, born and raised in Brooklyn.

“I know that some ‘powers that be’ didn’t think much of Brooklyn because of its location and what they considered ‘not the best place to live.’ But it was. People cared, and you knew they cared. And people felt comfortable with each other. We shared. We even fought sometimes, but that didn’t last very long. It was just a beautiful place to grow up.” — Grace Hoey, 79, retired educator, raised in Brooklyn.

“On some streets, you could find someone with a big house, someone with a small house. You could find a bootlegger and a lawyer living next door to each other. There was nowhere else to live. People felt very comfortable living next to each other. Nobody felt uncomfortable living in Brooklyn. I didn’t want to live anywhere else.” — Robert Parks, 77, retired Charlotte city employee.

Brooklyn neighborhood
For most of the 20th century, when Southern blacks and whites were separated by segregation, it was the center of African-American life in Charlotte. KEN STURGEON File photo, The Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

‘An economic center’

“People don’t realize how important Brooklyn was — not only as a hub for black people, but also as an economic center for the African-American community. You had shoe shops, you had tailoring. You had restaurants. You name it — you had folks who could do wrought iron fences. They were great masons. Carpenters. All of the funeral homes were there. My doctor, Dr. Robert Greene — his office was on Brevard Street in the doctors’ building there. Likewise, my dentist was there. I didn’t have a white anything back then. They were all African-American back then.” — Arthur Griffin, 70, former chairman of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, raised in neighboring First Ward, but “spent all my time” in Brooklyn.

“We had the old Alexander Hotel on McDowell Street. When I was a kid and Count Basie and his band came through — that’s the only place they could stay.” — Roosevelt Gary, 84, retired military and federal employee, born and raised in Brooklyn.

“We had one restaurant called El Chico that was located at the corner of Third and McDowell streets. It was operated by black proprietors. El Chico served everything — including ice cream cones. They had a sandwich called ‘Mix Ham,’ which was really nothing but a thick slice of bologna, fried, with chili, mustard, ketchup and slaw. It was very good. El Chico also sold home-cooked meals. People would go there Sundays when they left church to eat dinner.” — Lucus.

“At Lucille’s Grill, we had collard greens and black eyed peas, pinto beans, corn, sweet potato pie, apple pie. That was some good times. Eat for 65 cents.” — Ted Little, 78, retired truck driver, grew up in Grier Town, but spent a lot of time in Brooklyn.

The Varick Memorial Building
The Varick Memorial Building at the corner of Brevard and Second Streets was in the busy heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood’s business zone. The building was once home to the headquarters of the AME Zion Publication House and the office of dentist Reginald Hawkins. It was torn down along with most structures in the historically black Brooklyn neighborhood (also called Second Ward) during the urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s. JAMES PEELER

‘A foundation for perseverance’

“I felt loved at Second Ward (High School). And I had some tremendous teachers. Everybody will tell you about Mattie Hall. That woman was absolutely fabulous. She was an English teacher. And she was tough. You never skipped Mattie Hall’s class because you would be in big trouble. We had Mrs. McCorkle, and Miss Pettis. We had so many teachers who made sure that you were going to be successful.” — Hoey.

“I look at Brooklyn (now) as a foundation for perseverance, for not giving up in life. The teachers were always saying, ‘You’ve got to do better than this. You’ve got to do twice as much. If you’re on the track team, you’ve got to run faster than anybody else.’ I just took it to heart. I grew up in Brooklyn, so I was tough mentally.” — Gary.

“We walked over to Second Street to get our books at the Colored Library. Miss Allegra Westbrooks was the boss of the library and she did her very best to help us poor kids think about reading.” — Griffin.

‘Hand-me-down uniforms’

“If you look at where Central Piedmont College is now— that’s the old Central High School. That was a Caucasian high school. And the reason we (at Second Ward High) had blue and white uniforms and their football team had blue and white was because we got the hand-me-down uniforms from those guys. All our chemical lab (equipment), all our beakers, test tubes — when they got new equipment, they gave (the old ones) to us.” — Gary.

“We could go anywhere in the black community and feel safe and do what we wanted to do. We understood that when we (went) downtown to Kress (five-and-dime store) or wherever, there were separate lunch counters. So it didn’t bother us. As a matter of fact, the women who worked in the kitchens downtown at Kress and all those stores were from our neighborhood.” — Parks..

‘Sweet Daddy’ Grace

“All of our churches were very, very influential in our lives. St. Paul, Little Rock, all of them. And we loved going to church. On Sundays, you wake up in the morning, you turn on the radio to WGIV and you hear the Gospel songs as you get ready to go to church. You walk out of your house. Down the street, you see three or four more people coming. You just join the crowd.” — Hoey, who attended Friendship Baptist, then on the corner of Brevard and First streets.

“The biggest parade in the black community at that time was the United House of Prayer’s annual parade on McDowell Street. This was the largest congregation area for “Sweet Daddy” Grace, the original (bishop).” — Griffin.

“I would be there every time Daddy Grace (was) in town for the parade. It got started down on Long Street. Then there was a new church up there on McDowell. Yeah, that Daddy looked out for the (church) members. Had that long hair and long fingernails. And the girls fanning him and the limousine. Barrels of money. They’d be throwing it in the barrels, on the floor, everywhere.” — Little.

Brooklyn neighborhood church
Grace Hoey said all of Brooklyn’s churches were influential. “On Sundays, you wake up in the morning, you turn on the radio to WGIV and you hear the Gospel songs as you get ready to go to church. You walk out of your house. Down the street, you see three or four more people coming. You just join the crowd,” she said. PHIL MORGAN File photo, Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

‘The Ballantyne for African-Americans’

“You had professional African-Americans down to laborers living in Brooklyn. You had very big ornate homes down to the three-room shotgun houses. ‘Sweet Daddy’ Grace had a spacious spread in Brooklyn. And as a kid, you could walk by his house. It had a wrought-iron fence. And we all knew that’s where Daddy Grace lived. When people ask me now about Brooklyn, I say: ‘Brooklyn was the Ballantyne for the African-American community back in the day.’” — Griffin.

“We ran the gamut in Brooklyn. There were some of what they called shotgun houses — I lived in one. But right up the street from me, there were houses that were what you would call very middle class. And, of course, we had professionals. We had domestic workers. We had shop owners. And they all lived within walking distance of each other. And we socialized with each other.” — Hoey.

“Back in the day, in that time, every house had a grand mamma in there. So the grandmothers ruled the street. If I was at your house, and someone acted up, that grandmother would whip everybody.” — Gary.

“The neighborhood was safe. I can remember that when we went off shopping or anything, we left our doors open and our windows up.” — Lucus.

“The very first African-American police officers worked in Brooklyn. Because, for a very short period of time, they could only arrest black people. They couldn’t arrest white folks.” — Griffin.

‘Anything to stay busy’

“The Lincoln Theater was right next to the library on Second Street. That was the original black theater. It didn’t have air conditioning. And you could bring your own popcorn if you couldn’t afford it. They’d show something with cowboys and Indians.” — Griffin.

“We played baseball, skated, made sling shots. Didn’t have scooters. So we took two-by-fours from a lumber place somewhere and used worn-out skates to make a scooter out of it. Played with tires. Anything to stay busy.” — Gary.

“As a teenager, they sent me to pay the bills. I’d walk to downtown. I’d walk to Sears & Roebuck, which was on 10th. Paid the rent, the light bill, the water. Paid with cash.” — Parks.

‘Death knell for dreams’

“At first, we were kind of glad (urban renewal) was coming along. But we did not understand that it was the end of Brooklyn until almost too late. We thought we were going to be able to move back into Brooklyn. We thought they’d build houses and stuff for us. And it just didn’t happen that way.” — Parks.

“Once the word went out that the class of ’69 would be the last class (at Second Ward High), that was a shocker. That was the death knell for all of those dreams of people being able to come back. If they’re getting ready to tear down Second Ward, then nothing is going to be here.” — Griffin.

“You had to uproot everything. You just had to pick up and move. And at that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to do things with. My mother was a domestic. That was OK, that was great, she was good at her job and very much appreciated. But when you have to just pack up and move because somebody said that you lived in the ghetto or you’re living in slums... We never saw Brooklyn in that light. So, yes, it made me angry. And it still makes me angry when I think about it.” — Hoey.

“We not only lost businesses, we also lost that wealth capacity, which would have been just hundreds of millions of dollars. Then you were scattered out all around Charlotte and you didn’t have that same sense of community.” — Griffin.

“You could no longer walk to places. So you had to ride the bus.” — Hoey.

“They spread us all out across town. Some went to the west side. Some went to north Charlotte. Nobody knew who their neighbors were. They knew them, but they didn’t have history with them.” — Parks.

Tim Funk has covered faith & values for the Charlotte Observer for 15 years. He has won three national awards from the Religion News Association and numerous awards from the North Carolina Press Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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