Lake Norman & Mooresville

A neighborhood tries to regain its glory

For years, Smithville was a center of rural black culture in Cornelius.

Families gathered on the neighborhood's porches in the evenings. Children attended the Rosenwald School, located at the center of the community. And on Friday and Saturday evenings, the neighbors gathered for social dances and other activities.

But over the years, development in the rest of the town and the Lake Norman area outpaced the historically black community, leaving it behind.

The town of Cornelius will celebrate the community's longstanding history on Feb. 25.

"Celebrate Smithville" will include oral and written history, performances by local singing and dancing groups, memorabilia, the crafting of a community quilt and more.

Organizers hope the event demonstrates the special qualities of Smithville, a small community off Catawba Avenue near Exit 28. They also want to build support for the community's revitalization efforts.

Local officials, activists and residents hope to restore Smithville to its former glory through a series of small- and large-scale projects over the next five years.

At the center of the revitalization efforts is the Rosenwald School.

Built in the early 1920s, the school was funded by The Rosenwald School Building Program. Julius Rosenwald, future president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., created the fund with his family in 1917 to bring education to black children living in the rural South.

By 1954, the Mecklenburg County Board of Education had auctioned off the school. Five local men subsequently formed The Better Community Club at the former school, which housed everything from a barber shop to a vaccination clinic.

The community also regularly hosted community dances on Friday and Saturday nights.

"The community center itself was literally the heartbeat of the community. It was their Peninsula Club," said Cornelius Commissioner Lynette Rinker. "There's just so much history there."

But since the community's heyday, it has fallen into disrepair, as has the old school.

"Smithville has really been left behind in local economic growth," said Rinker. "We want to make this a vital part of the fabric of Cornelius once again, but we want to do so in a way that respects its history."

Recently, the newly formed Smithville CommUNITY Coalition released its tentative plans for revitalizing Smithville. The plans include adding senior activities and children's programming.

The coalition wants to add accessible and safe sidewalks, a community garden and a playground.

There's even talk of bringing a satellite police station to the community.

These community improvements would be open to all residents of Cornelius, not just Smithville residents, Rinker said.

Rinker and fellow Commissioner Chuck Travis suggested that the movement will take a big step toward achieving those goals within the next few weeks.

Travis said the town will likely begin conversations about purchasing the old Rosenwald School during its budget retreat in March. tCharlotte resident Milton Howard owns the property.

Although he successfully requested the town give the school a historic landmark designation in 2006, the building today sits largely vacant.

For Travis, acquiring the old school - or a nearby building that could function as a community center - is an important step toward revitalization efforts.

"The ideal situation would be to purchase the Rosenwald School, renovate and restore it and have that become a significant part of the community again," he said.

Travis noted many Cornelius Elementary School students are bussed to the Ada Jenkins center in Davidson for such programs. The center has a waiting list.

"Those are critical early years in education so we want to make sure that the kids that are struggling a little bit get that extra support," he said.

Eudene Knox, a longtime Smithville resident, said she's been moved by how much the community has come together to restore the historically black neighborhood.

She noted how several local organizations have pitched in to offer their advice and services, including Lake Norman Baptist Church, the Ada Jenkins Center and Our Towns Habitat for Humanity.

"The main thing is getting the people together and coming together as one big family," she said. "We want to develop the community to a higher standard than what it is now and we need the support of the surrounding areas to do that."