“How could this happen in Charlotte?”
That question was on many incredulous lips during last week’s nationally televised unrest in the streets of uptown. It got some answers Wednesday night at the Levine Museum of the New South.
Staff historian – and Charlotte native – Brenda Tindal told a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 that most of those answers can be found in the city’s own history, from the urban renewal that uprooted historic black neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s to now-nearly-forgotten police shootings of unarmed black motorists in the 1990s.
Charlotte’s image as a welcoming New South city on the move contrasted with last week’s pictures of violence and tear gas, prompting many – including some local officials – to insist that “We’re not Ferguson, we’re not Baltimore.”
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But Tindal, who’s 35, said there is danger in believing just a “single story” about any place – even Charlotte, which does have many laudable episodes in its past that have fostered a tradition of cooperation and collaboration.
But to get at the roots of the racial tension on display after the police shooting last week of Keith Lamont Scott, it’s necessary to “pull back the layers,” Tindal said. “If this was an onion and we started pulling back those layers, all of our eyes would burn.”
Signs that not everybody is experiencing the same Charlotte, she said, are hiding in plain sight: “We know that behind the skyscrapers, if you go just a block away from the beautiful central city, the landscape changes immensely.”
Take North Tryon Street, Tindal said, with its homeless men’s shelter “that is always bursting at the seams.”
She also spoke about how the thriving Brooklyn neighborhood of downtown Charlotte, once home to 200 black-owned businesses and more than 1,000 African-American families, was demolished in the 1960s and ’70s in the name of “urban renewal.”
“We know that urban renewal is a devastating process for those who are subjected to it,” she said. “And while it does a great deal of beautification and brings new people to urban areas, it also uproots folks ... and brings economic fragility.”
While Charlotte’s history is also full of proud moments of racial progress – including electing Harvey Gantt the city’s first black mayor in 1983 – it has also struggled in ways that lit the fuse that exploded last week.
After emerging in the 1970s as “the city that made school desegregation work” through busing, Tindal said, it became in the 1990s and beyond the city that reverted to mostly segregated schools.
And the police shootings of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man, in 2013, and Scott last week were hardly the first, Tindal said.
“We need to be reminded that this is not new,” she said, citing the 1996 shooting of black motorist James Cooper and, six months later, the shooting death of Carolyn Sue Boetticher. The car she was riding in was shot at 22 times after the driver went through a police checkpoint.
Finally, Tindal pointed to a 2013 study by Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley that scored Charlotte dead last in a social mobility survey of 50 U.S. cities. That means the poor have a harder time rising in Charlotte than in any other large city.
So, Tindal told the crowd before they formed into a roomful of small discussion groups, the next time you hear the city’s upbeat slogan – “Charlotte’s Got a Lot” – “the follow-up is: ‘For who?’ ”