Politics & Government

Foreclosure latest setback for venerable Excelsior Club

The Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road.
The Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road. Observer archives

Charlotte’s historic Excelsior Club, a touchstone for generations of African-Americans, faces an uncertain future after foreclosure proceedings began last week.

The Beatties Ford Road landmark, which has hosted the likes of Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong as well as a future president, has been closed since June.

“My fear is that it will ultimately fall into hands that will tear it down and put up a marker that says ‘the Excelsior Club once stood here,” Ken Koontz, a former owner, said Sunday.

State Rep. Carla Cunningham, who inherited the club from her husband, foreclosed last week on James Ferguson, a prominent civil rights attorney who bought the club from Pete Cunningham in 2006.

“We’re going to try to figure out what we need to do,” Ferguson said Sunday. “We would like to see the club stay open.”

But that appears problematic.

“It’s at the point where we’re going to have to wait and see,” said Carla Cunningham. “I haven’t made any final decisions on what I’m going to do with the property…

“It seems like everything just changed overnight. It’s been quite upsetting that its been closed.”

Opened in 1944

The Excelsior opened in 1944. Owner Jimmie McKee had bought the seven-room, two-story house in Washington Heights for $3,510 and transformed it into a private club. At a time when African Americans had little access to other social clubs, the Excelsior became a magnet.

Cole, Armstrong and Charlottean Wilbert Harrison – who recorded “Kansas City” – entertained there. Presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore, like an array of governors and other politicians, stumped there.

Bridge clubs, fraternities and church groups met there. Over the years it hosted wedding receptions, voter rallies and Tuesday Night Fish Fries. It’s where giddy patrons gathered on a November night in 2008 to celebrate the election of America’s first black president.

“The legacy of the Excelsior Club has been extremely important,” said Koontz. “It was the bedrock of black participation, involvement and collaboration with the bigger political community.”

Beatrice Thompson, a veteran broadcaster, said, “There’s been so many things that have happened there, from political to social.

“In its heyday,” she said, “people went to be a part of Charlotte’s upper crust.”

Historic landmark

Not long after Koontz and a partner bought the club in 1985, they secured its status as a local historic landmark. The county’s Historic Landmarks Commission called it “perhaps the finest example of the Art Moderne style in Mecklenburg County.”

“It clearly is a dramatic artifact of African American history in Charlotte,” said Dan Morrill, the commission’s consulting director.

It’s not clear what will happen to the club. It’s no small irony that foreclosure comes during Black History Month. If it doesn’t re-open, it would join a long list of other African American properties including Good Samaritan Hospital, Second Ward High, the first public high school for blacks, and Brooklyn, a neighborhood destroyed by urban renewal.

“It would be in my estimation one of the worst things that could happen,” Thompson said. “It’s one of the few, if not the last, continuously operated black social club on the east coast.”

Carla Cunningham, who said she hasn’t been in the club for six years, said she hopes the club can re-open. But she said the Excelsior’s future will be a business decision, not personal.

“I will be looking at the community too,” she said. “But when you’re making business decisions you have to do what’s in the best interests not only of the community but of your family.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill