By Fannie Flono
Charlotte is often listed among the best places for African Americans to live and work. It placed sixth on the 2018 Forbes magazine list of cities where Blacks are doing best economically. And, with more than 13,000 Black-owned businesses, Black Enterprise has called the city a mecca for Black entrepreneurs.
Access to such prosperity is uneven, and ongoing challenges for African Americans remain. Yet those achievements are a testament to the resilience and perseverance of Blacks who’ve played a vital role in the area’s development since Charlottetown was incorporated in 1768.
The story of African Americans here begins where you’d expect – in slavery. The enslaved population of Mecklenburg County hovered around 40 percent through the 1860s. Most slaves worked on farms with five or fewer other Black people.
With that free labor, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County prospered as a trading center, farm community, cotton producer and gold mining site.
Enslaved Blacks agitated for freedom. With the help of a group of free Blacks (they were about 1 percent of Mecklenburg’s population), a rebellion was hatched, but failed, in the fall of 1852. The enslaved workers were undaunted. They practiced daily resistance – destroying farm equipment, stealing money and food, pulling down fences. And many escaped. Newspapers were peppered with ads offering rewards for Mecklenburg County runaways.
The Civil War brought freedom, but Blacks faced bleak prospects. With few possessions and encountering white resentment and violence, they struggled to become self-sufficient. But by the 1890s, many were sharecroppers and some owned farms. A few even had enough resources to hire whites as well as Blacks to work their land. Many became barbers, blacksmiths, bakers, laundry women and domestic servants – building on the skills they had honed during slavery.
Though Jim Crow laws were quickly approved to restrict the Black success, some Blacks became college-educated – many at Johnson C. Smith University, established in 1867 (first called Biddle Memorial Institute). Among its graduates were Thad Tate, whose statue stands on the Sugar Creek Greenway near Central Piedmont Community College. He cofounded several businesses during the 1920s, including the Afro-American Mutual Insurance Company and the Mecklenburg Investment Company. Others would include John Taylor (J.T.) Williams, a teacher, physician and respected businessman, who U.S. President William McKinley appointed consul to Sierra Leone in the late 1800s.
Many of those Black professionals lived in Charlotte’s Second Ward, also known as Brooklyn, which stretched from South Tryon eastward to South McDowell Street. This was home to the city’s largest and most vibrant African American community. It was known as Logtown in the 1860s, but by the early 1900s, it was called Brooklyn. It was the site of thriving businesses, schools, theaters, nightclubs, bars, restaurants and churches.
Among those churches was the United House of Prayer, founded by the charismatic Charles Emmanuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace in 1925. Grace AME Zion, founded in 1886, is the only church from Brooklyn’s heyday still standing. Today, it is a national historic landmark, though no longer used as a church.
Brooklyn also contained the first free Black library in the South – the Brevard Street Library. It had the first public high school for Blacks in the state – Second Ward, which operated from 1925-1969. Only the school’s gym remains. The Mecklenburg Courthouse complex now sits in the heart of the Brooklyn community, which was bulldozed and destroyed during the city’s urban renewal of the 1960s and ‘70s. A redevelopment effort is also underway.
Brooklyn was located near Good Samaritan Hospital, the first private independent hospital in North Carolina built exclusively for treating Blacks. Good Sam, as it came to be known, was built in 1891 in the city’s Third Ward, between Mint and Graham streets, on a site where Bank of America Stadium now stands.
When urban renewal took their homes and businesses in Brooklyn, many Blacks relocated to another historically significant Black area – Washington Heights. Located along Beatties Ford Road, the community was established in 1913 as the first streetcar suburb built specifically for Charlotte’s Black middle class. Residents could take the five-cent trolley to work downtown. In 1938, West Charlotte High School was built in the neighborhood as the second Black high school in the city.
Washington Heights and Biddleville (the oldest surviving Black community in Charlotte, established in the 1800s) became centers of civil rights activism. The Excelsior Club, built in Washington Heights in 1910 as a private social club, emerged as an important political gathering and strategizing place for African Americans.
In the 1960s, Johnson C. Smith University became a force in the Civil Rights Movement.
Students participated in sit-ins and protests. Charlotte dentist and activist Reginald Hawkins recruited hundreds to march against local segregated facilities. That led to the end of segregated restaurants. Hawkins, whose home was firebombed in 1965, along with the homes of lawyer Julius Chambers and political activists Fred and Kelly Alexander over school desegregation efforts, became the first Black person to run for N.C. governor in 1968.
Both Alexander brothers were influential in Charlotte politics. Kelly became president of the state NAACP and chairman of the national NAACP board. Fred was the first African American elected to the Charlotte City Council. In 1974, he became the first Black person to serve in the N.C. Senate since Reconstruction.
The Alexanders were instrumental in the nationally publicized attempts to desegregate Charlotte’s public schools in 1957. Dorothy Counts was one of four Blacks to integrate formerly all-white schools in the city that year. Her stoic determination, while being jeered at and spat upon by an angry mob of white students, was captured in an iconic photo that became a catalyst for desegregation efforts across the nation.
Charlotte’s school desegregation received national attention again in a landmark case that was argued all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971. The Swann case established Julius Chambers as one of the preeminent civil rights attorneys in the nation, and set busing as a remedy for school segregation nationwide.
Charlotte again was in the national spotlight when Harvey Gantt became the first Black person elected mayor of Charlotte, in 1983. The Gantt Museum is named for him.
African Americans have had great impact on Charlotte’s arts and culture. Romare Bearden Park, built in 2013, honors Charlotte-born and internationally acclaimed visual artist Romare Bearden.
Today, African Americans in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are business, community and political leaders who have both influence and support. One testament to that progress is this: Blacks hold most of top political leadership spots in the city and county. Mayor Vi Lyles, Mecklenburg County commissioners’ chairman George Dunlap, Police Chief Kerr Putney, Sheriff Garry McFadden, District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston and retiring school board chair Mary McCray are all African American.
Still, Charlotte has stalled and retrenched on African American progress. Studies show it’s harder to find affordable housing or move out of poverty here than in most cities. The public schools have resegregated, and frustration over police shootings of Black men led to a clash between protesters and police in 2016 that left one person dead.
Yet, history shows resilience and perseverance are part of the DNA of Black Charlotte. New ways are being forged to tackle challenges and to continue the legacy of Blacks who paved the way for others.