Charlotte’s Trail of History to honor black business leader

A statue of Thad Tate by artist Ed Dwight just after being placed near the Metropolitan on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015.
A statue of Thad Tate by artist Ed Dwight just after being placed near the Metropolitan on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

A business entrepreneur from the first half of the 20th century is poised to make history this week as the first black Charlottean to be honored with a monument for contributing to the city’s history.

The statue of Thaddeus Lincoln Tate (1865-1951) was erected Monday in front of the Metropolitan near uptown, along the privately funded Trail of History project. It will be unveiled at 10 a.m. Thursday in a public ceremony that will include two of his granddaughters.

Most Charlotte residents probably haven’t heard of Tate, but he is recognized by historians as the man who helped local African-Americans gain access to a free library, job training, insurance coverage and prominent office space – all before the civil rights era.

Plans to honor Tate date back three years, so it’s coincidental that the statue is being installed at a time when scrutiny of Confederate monuments has also exposed a lack of tributes to Southern blacks.

Backers of the Tate project are embracing the statue’s added resonance and hope it suggests the community is now taking a broader approach to recognizing its history.

“This counts as an ounce when you need 100 pounds, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said David Taylor, CEO of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. He is also project manager for the Tate statue.

“There are many African-Americans who have contributed much to Charlotte, and I would hope that Thaddeus Tate’s statue is a start of honoring that legacy.”

He hopes the effort goes beyond the Trail of History to include government buildings and public spaces.

Sixth of 21 statues

It was a group of community leaders who decided the time was right to raise money for a statue honoring a black Charlottean.

The Trail of History is backed by corporate, educational and religious leaders who joined to raise money for 21 statues to be placed along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Tate will be the sixth, and fundraising is in progress for three more. The group plans to honor other African-Americans, likely from the civil rights era.

All 21 honorees will be people who contributed to the evolution of Charlotte, from its founding to its development as a business hub, officials say.

Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, is a driving force behind the trail, and he says a committee of historians nominated Tate.

“Everything he did was for the betterment of the community,” Zeiss said.

Tate, who was known as “Pop,” operated a barber shop at Trade and Tryon streets, where he catered to the city’s white elite, including prominent civic leaders such as Gov. Cameron Morrison and store owners William Henry Belk and J.B. Ivey.

Historians believe he cultivated their influence and connections to start his projects, including the first free library and a YMCA branch for blacks.

Tate also created the state’s first insurance company for blacks and later built the city’s first office building (at Third and Brevard streets) that offered space for African-American businesses and professionals. He was active in the faith community, too, helping to found Grace AME Zion Church.

Taylor of the Gantt Center marvels that Tate made all this happen despite the financial and social limitations placed on blacks in the Jim Crow era.

“He created change at a time when it wasn’t easy for a (black) man to make changes. He did it by leveraging his relationships with white community leaders and challenging their conscience,” Taylor said.

A lack of memorials

Wells Fargo Foundation gave $225,000 for the Tate statue, and the AME Zion Church contributed another $25,000.

Jay Everette of Wells Fargo said the bank felt Tate’s statue represents a part of Charlotte history that is often untold.

“I recall someone looked up during the review committee meeting and said Thad Tate was the kind of leader we’d love to have more of in Charlotte today: a savvy business leader with a strong civic commitment,” Everette said.

The Trail of History’s organizers sought out an African-American sculptor and selected Ed Dwight of Denver, Colo., known for his work on a series of black historical figures in other cities.

African-Americans already honored with statues in Charlotte include Martin Luther King Jr. at Marshall Park and the late Panthers player Sam Mills in front of Bank of America stadium.

The lack of memorials to black Charlotteans seems all the more surprising when taking into account that the city’s namesake – Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – is a German believed to have descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family.

The Levine Museum of the New South has long acknowledged Tate’s legacy. A sign from his Uptown Barber Shop at the Central Hotel is on display as part of the museum’s Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers exhibit. It was donated by Tate’s now deceased grandson, museum officials said.

Historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum says the move to finally erect a statue to Tate says a lot about philosophical changes occurring in the city, which is about one-third African-American.

“Charlotte is a city that has been chasing the future for a long time. We are becoming confident in who we are, and I think it’s significant that leaders of this new Charlotte are passionate about opening the city’s eyes to what got us here,” Hanchett said, echoing Taylor’s comments that more statues of African-Americans need to follow.

“As valuable as a single statue is, history is made by many people working together.”

Former Charlottean Maye Tyson Jackson, 92, is among the descendents of Tate who will attend the unveiling of the statue. Jackson, a granddaughter, lives in Greenville, N.C.

She says Tate would be more surprised than anyone to hear he is being honored by a city that is no longer home to his descendants.

“I don’t think he realized his worth in that capacity, and I guess the family didn’t either,” she says. “He was not a pompous person. He was a humble man who worked hard, spent his money wisely and gave to those who were less fortunate.”

About the sculptor

Charlotte’s Tate statue was created by man who is himself a ground-breaking African-American, but on a national scale.

Sculptor Ed Dwight of Denver, Colo., is a former Air Force test pilot who was the nation’s first African-American astronaut candidate. Like Tate, he has had a diverse career that includes serving as a computer systems engineer, aviation consultant, restauranteur and real estate developer.

The Tate statue is one in a long series of African-American leaders Dwight has been commissioned to do in the past three decades, including the statue of former slave Denmark Vesey in Charleston’s Hampton Park. (Vesey was one of more than 30 people publicly hanged in 1822 for plotting an insurrection to liberate slaves.)

Dwight says he created his image of Tate using photos, and by trying to put himself in Tate’s shoes as a turn-of-the-century black Charlottean. He ultimately settled on a pose that suggests Tate is raising his hand to speak to a different generation.

“And with a look that says people ought to stop and listen,” said Dwight, noting it’s a mistake for anyone to assume Tate “was just a barber.”

“In his day, a black barber was the hottest dude in town, like a medical doctor, respected and adopted by the men who were his customers. He listened as the (white) businessmen and the politicians sat waiting in his chairs. They revealed their secrets in front of this man, and they trusted him.”

And in the end, he says, Tate used that knowledge to help the people who needed it most in Charlotte. Mark Price