In tumultuous week, West Charlotte’s Lions fought back ‘the right way’

It might as well have been a home game after all.

Though the state quarterfinals against Ardrey Kell had been moved away from West Charlotte High School, nearly all of the basketball fans packed in the stands on Tuesday evening were there to cheer on the Lions.

Alumni descended on the school’s campus to purchase maroon and gold T-shirts made especially for the game. Several hundred teachers and students carpooled over to the gym at Vance High School together, waiting for hours in line. Taking over all but a small corner of the stands, they chanted, “Dub-C! You know.”

It was their high-minded response, they said, to a series of incidents this week that underscored the stark gaps between the two public high schools – one, attended mostly by low-income African-American students, with a cramped gym deemed too small to host the big game; and the other, a more affluent, suburban school, whose top starter was suspended after he wrote he was about to go “f--- some more n-----s in the hood.”

“We could be ignorant and be here and be mean,” said Kentrell Steele, a senior watching from the student section. “But we’re fighting in a way where we’re going to be heard. By doing it the right way.”

Like many of his classmates at the game on Tuesday, Steele recited a line by Michelle Obama that has become a kind of mantra around the halls of West Charlotte, especially in the past week: When they go low, we go high.

On Tuesday night, they went high, said Kayla Gaymon, the school’s student body president. And it wasn’t the score – a resounding 69 to 53 victory — but the spirit that Lions fans brought to the relocated game, she said.

“There’s always something negative being said about us,” she told the Observer. “But it’s always positive vibes, positive energy. It’s just a positive place.”

Much of that positivity, students and alumni said, comes from West Charlotte’s historic role as a cornerstone for the city’s west side.

But it’s a history that also tells of this city’s past of integration and re-segregation, explains the game’s relocation — and shows why, to some, the racist comment was not a surprise.

Pride and history

When it opened as one of the city’s two black high schools during Jim Crow era segregation, the school was seen as a symbol of what could be achieved through education. And when a court order in the early 1970s mandated busing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, West Charlotte, the district’s flagship, emerged as a national model for school integration.

“It became the pride of the city,” said Pamela Grundy, who chronicled the school’s history in her 2017 book, “Color and Character.” “It was the example of how Charlotteans were able to deal with these issues of race in a constructive way, and bring something really good about it.”

The end of busing in 1999 resulted in a stark demographic shift among West Charlotte’s student body, undoing what busing brought.

Deeply-rooted Lion pride never went away. Even those with some tenuous connection — maybe their parents went there, or their niece or nephew attend now — supported the school, said Charles Robinson, a community organizer who has mentored students there.

That history is what fueled the outpouring of support on display on Tuesday.

“For a lot of families, this is where their parents went to school, where they went to school, where their kids got to school,” Robinson said. “That’s why this was stirring a hornet’s nest.”

When the state athletic association moved the game from higher-seeded West Charlotte to the 1100-seat facility at Vance High, taking away what many had felt was a hard-earned home-court advantage, it felt like nothing short of a blow.

The school district had previously said West Charlotte’s gym was simply too small to host a game that had attracted such interest.

But for Ta’tierra Hemphill, a junior on the women’s basketball team, it felt like a sign that people did not want to visit a neighborhood that had been falsely perceived as dangerous. Or, at the very least, a sign that her school, which already faced an inequitable system, had been slighted again.

Two different schools

Today, just over four-fifths of West Charlotte’s student body is African-American. In the most recent school year, 95 percent of students were classified by the district as coming from families with low socioeconomic status.

But as the student body’s demographics have shifted, the school’s facilities have not seen much change in recent decades, besides renovated locker rooms a few years ago.

Plans are in place to build a new, $110 million, 125-classroom building and gym by 2022 as part of a schools bond package that was approved by voters in 2017.

Across town, Ardrey Kell, built in 2006 to serve the booming Ballantyne area, has a student body that is just over 50 percent white.

Last year, 95 percent of students at the school, which is ranked among the top 10 in the state, were classified by the district as coming from families with a high socioeconomic status.

Grundy, the historian, said the differences between the two schools’ populations serve to illustrate how the end of busing re-segregated CMS. Wealthy families flocked to Ballantyne. Many lower-income African American families stayed in west Charlotte.

Both schools, she said, were left without much interaction across race — and especially class — lines.

Another kind of gap

When news broke that AK’s top player had made racist comments about West Charlotte on Snapchat, it was painful. But not surprising.

“This is not new,” said Dr. Timisha Barnes-Jones, the school’s principal, before the game. “We know that those views are out there. The shock factor was that it came the way it came.”

Indeed, across the gym in the student section, senior Kai Hall said that the comments from the Snapchat played into stereotypes about the school he has grown used to hearing.

“People perceive us wrong because of what neighborhood we live in and they think we’re all bad,” Hall said. “People perceive us as a ghetto, violent or loud school, but we’re very intelligent.”

Kevin Poirier, a multi-classroom leader at West Charlotte, said he thought that the segregated educational system — and the resulting lack of relationships across lines of difference — was a factor that caused AK player to think of West Charlotte as “the hood” in a derogatory way.

“Has he been to Beatties Ford Road? Does he know anyone who lives on Beatties Ford Road?” he said. “You can live in south Charlotte and chances are you’ve never been, and chances are you don’t know anyone.”

The player’s comment was not the first time that AK made headlines for its students’ racist behavior. At a football game in 2017, principal David Switzer disciplined a group of intoxicated students who taunted a visiting African American middle school student.

A few of them yelled, “Black boy, you better watch your back! Black boy, you better keep your head on a swivel,” The Observer reported at the time.

Afterward, Poirier called out those students’ “white privilege,” in a Facebook post that prompted each school’s leadership collaborated to bring students together for a program they dubbed “West Kell.”

But a year later, with many of the students having graduated, the program has not been revived, said Barnes-Jones, the West Charlotte principal.

Another proud moment

If things hadn’t been already tense enough this week, a fake Snapchat made waves around social media on Tuesday, depicting a West Charlotte starter as saying he would “shoot up” the Ardrey Kell player. The Observer is not naming the player.

In the few rows at the Vance High gym taken up by AK fans, most parents declined to answer a reporter’s questions about this and other controversies. But Jon McLaughlin, whose niece goes to AK, said that this week would be an incident to learn from.

“People mess up sometimes,” he said. “If you ask all the high school students, they’ll tell you all kinds of stuff you can’t write.”

Boris Cheek, 60, a former career technical education education teacher at AK, said the first Snapchat message did not represent the school’s basketball program.

“The school is doing the best it can to make itself diverse,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”

And besides, he said, look at the court: All but one of the AK players was African-American.

Without their suspended teammate, though, the AK Knights couldn’t keep up.

As West Charlotte sealed the win, the Lions fans rose to their feet. The cheerleaders sang, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” In the end, after the game relocation, a racist Snapchat and another fake one, it was another moment to be proud of. They went high.

Staff writers Bruce Henderson and Langston Wertz Jr. contributed.

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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