Grier Heights celebrates a bygone pride with reopening of restored school

Jonathan Belton in front of the Wall of Fame in the Grier Heights community’s  88-year-old Billingsville School, a historic Rosenwald school fully restored. Grier Heights will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Labor Day homecoming and parade and the reopening of its beloved - and restored -Billingsville School on Monday.
Jonathan Belton in front of the Wall of Fame in the Grier Heights community’s 88-year-old Billingsville School, a historic Rosenwald school fully restored. Grier Heights will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Labor Day homecoming and parade and the reopening of its beloved - and restored -Billingsville School on Monday. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Long before Grier Heights got its unshakable image as one of Charlotte’s most distressed and feared neighborhoods, the community that 67-year-old Marvin Price grew up in had nothing to do with guns, drugs and gang violence.

His heroes lived in the mostly African-American community 3 miles south of uptown. They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, artists and writers.

As a boy, it was impossible for him to stray – too many eyes watching.

“This was a proud neighborhood,” said Price, a semi-retired barber whose shop is in Grier Heights. “I used to know everybody in Grier Heights and could tell you where they lived. We couldn’t get away with nothing without someone picking up the phone and calling our moms.

“We all looked out for each other.”

That version of the Grier Heights story will be on display Monday, when the neighborhood celebrates its 50th annual Labor Day homecoming, with former residents expected from across the country. The Labor Day parade – billed as the biggest one yet – will wind through the neighborhood and end at 3100 Leroy St. for a ribbon-cutting to reopen the sturdy 88-year-old Billingsville School that since October has undergone a $500,000 restoration.

The restored school, now a community center and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has become a motivating symbol for Grier Heights’ latest attempt at rebirth.

Even after integration enticed Price’s heroes out of the neighborhood and urban renewal ushered in low-income renters who cared little about the neighborhood, “the school” was the center of life in Grier Heights.

It’s where many of the long-timers saw their first movies, where the Grier Heights Community Improvements Organization plotted its moves. It’s where Grier Heights celebrates its heritage and pays tribute to its most important residents with photos lining its longest hall.

Over the years, the school – a historic Rosenwald school built with the help of philanthropic money and bricked by masons from the community – had declined with the neighborhood.

That was until a nonprofit organization called Crossroads Corp., seeded with $1.5 million by Myers Park Presbyterian Church in 2008, began knocking on doors and asking neighbors what they could do to help.

Hundreds of volunteers from the church and neighborhood met to discuss what was needed to get Grier Heights beyond its image of a hardscrabble, troubled community. From 2011 to 2013, the rate of violent crimes stayed about the same but were roughly five times Charlotte’s average, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer.

Property crimes – arson, burglary and larceny – dropped 17 percent during that time, the data base shows.

But last year, crime numbers were the lowest in years, said CMPD Lt. Shawn Crooks, who oversees the response area that includes Grier Heights.

“Extraordinary things are happening in that neighborhood,” Crooks said. He attributes those improvements to work by Crossroads, churches, neighborhood leaders and CMPD building relationships. Still, only 13 percent of residents live in homes they own. The dropout rate remains twice as high as the city average.

“It’s an ongoing effort to work with property owners to bring in the right type of people and to remove the criminal element and keep them out,” Crooks said. “You can have one or two individuals that can raise your crime statistics overnight.”

New life in Grier Heights

The neighbors agreed they needed a preschool so children could get a better start in school. They needed better housing and job preparation training and a high-school diploma equivalency program, so residents would have a better chance at landing decent jobs.

Crossroads, partnering with Self-Help Community Development Corp., used the seed money to buy 36 lots mostly on Heflin Street to build mixed-income housing. So far, 12 have been built and 12 sold, using federal HUD incentives. Next week, ground will be broken for another eight houses.

“It’s not been a hard sell,” said Don Gately, Crossroads’ executive director and an elder at Myers Park Presbyterian. “The buyers have been diverse racially and economically.” Along Heflin, he said, are teachers, chefs, a wine salesman and a physician in his first year of residency and his young family. The nonprofit and The Learning Collaborative are building a preschool and provide parenting classes.

Crossroads and neighbors decided to turn the old school into a community center for recreation and education programs and wellness and vocational training services. But it needed significant work. After working out a 15-year lease with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which owns the four-room building, the restoration money was raised through local and national foundations.

They persuaded Jonathan Belton, a former Billingsville student raised in Grier Heights, to be the center’s director.

“It would be real easy to bring financial resources to a neighborhood like Grier Heights and say, ‘Here’s your problems, we’re going to fix it,’” Gately said. “But that’s not sustainable change.

“Our goal is to help the neighbors improve their quality of life.”

A school to last

The neighborhood, which stretches on prime land from Randolph Road to Monroe near the affluent Eastover and Elizabeth communities, was organized by former slaves. It largely sprang from farms owned in the late 1800s by Arthur Grier and Sam Billings.

Grier Heights (once called The Quarter or Griertown) wasn’t a planned suburb. When Belton and Marvin Price were growing up, the neighborhood was outside the city. “It was country,” Belton said. “There was a sense of family here.”

In the mid-1920s, community leaders, including Grier and Billings, petitioned Mecklenburg’s school board for a neighborhood school. The board told them to wait until they could buy a site. The neighborhood assembled the land themselves, buying two acres from Billings, who donated a third acre.

In 1927, the school board and Rosenwald Foundation of Chicago built the four-room school and named it for Billings. The Rosenwald fund, financed by Sears Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald, spent millions helping to build 5,300 schools for Southern black children at a time when little money was spent to educate them. Twenty-six schools were built in Mecklenburg.

Like most Rosenwald schools, Billingsville School was initially a frame structure. But soon, the community held fish fries to raise $500, and masons who lived in the neighborhood covered it in brick.

“That speaks to the lasting pride of this community,” Belton said. “This building was built to last.”

‘We’re moving forward’

Even as the neighborhood fell on hard times in the 1970s and ’80s, as drug dealers and crime moved in and longtime residents moved out, the old school stood as a solid reminder of a proud past.

There are other reminders. Many of its streets are named for important people in the neighborhood’s history. Framed portraits of them and others are displayed on the school’s “Wall of Fame.”

Barbara Simpson has lived in Grier Heights for 66 years, since she was 10. One day last week, she looked across Leroy Street from the school and pointed to houses built in the last seven years.

“Those houses and other new ones on Heflin Street could be anywhere in Charlotte,” she said. “They stand as a testament to what we’re trying to do here. We want people to come into Grier Heights, buy houses and build the kind of pride in this community that we had when I was a girl.

“We know gentrification is coming. But as long as it’s done with pride, and they’re working with us and we know what’s taking place – and they’re not kicking out our people – then we’ll be OK as long as we’re moving forward.”

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Want to go?

The 50th annual Grier Heights Labor Day Parade starts 10 a.m. Monday at Fannie Circle and Orange Street but will wind throughout the community and end at the Billingsville School on Leroy Street. At 11:30 a.m., there’ll be a ribbon-cutting ceremony that includes speeches to reopen the restored school that is now a community center.