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Black History of Charlotte Part 2: The Building of Brooklyn

A community to call their own

The following is the second in a five-part history of Black culture in Charlotte, looking at the construction of Brooklyn, Charlotte’s most storied Black community. Read Part 1 here and stay tuned for the continuation of the series.

For a stretch of time in the mid 1910s, anyone who took a late-night ramble past Johnson C. Smith University and onto Martin Street could see the darkened silhouette of Samuel Banks Pride as he sat on his porch, shotgun close to hand, watching for potential trouble.

Born into slavery in 1857, Pride had risen rapidly after the Civil War. He trained as a barber and used his earnings to finance a college education. He then became a mathematics professor, postmaster, active Republican, prominent Presbyterian, and board member of the Black-owned Coleman Cotton Mill.

Samuel Pride (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

After the violent white supremacy campaign of 1898 pushed Black North Carolinians out of politics and dashed hopes for equality, many of Charlotte’s African Americans left for the North. Samuel and his wife Jessie stayed to rebuild. They both took teaching jobs at the Myers Street School, founded in 1882 as Charlotte’s first public school for African Americans. In 1906 Samuel succeeded Isabella Wyche as principal. Charlotte opened its first public high school for whites in 1908, and Samuel began to lobby for a Black high school as well.

In their pursuit of racial uplift, Samuel and Jessie Pride walked a fine line between opportunity and peril.

Many white southerners saw any hint of Black advance as an insult to white supremacy. Violence remained common. The Prides’ prominence made them the target of periodic threats — hence the need for Samuel’s armed vigil on the family porch.

But the Prides and their compatriots also found white allies. Charlotte’s business leaders — then as now — were obsessed with building up their city. They could not succeed without African Americans, who continued to fill the low-status but essential jobs at the bottom rungs of the economy.

By the 1910s, Charlotte’s white business elite had grown anxious about that workforce. Barred from the ballot box, Black southerners were increasingly voting with their feet in the Great Migration to northern cities. In an effort to stem that tide, some of North Carolina’s white leaders began to respond to African-American concerns — especially regarding schools.

In the fall of 1923 came a victory. Second Ward High School opened its doors at the corner of East 1st and South Alexander streets. The handsome brick structure with its imposing front stairway became the heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Second Ward High School in Brooklyn became Charlotte’s first Black public high school in 1923. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Brooklyn Becomes a Bastion of Charlotte’s Black Community

Like most African-American communities, Charlotte’s Brooklyn encompassed a rich mix of hardship, ambition and achievement. Charlotte’s white residents had sorted themselves by income, separating into wealthy suburbs such as Myers Park and working-class enclaves such as the mill villages around North Davidson Street. The constraints of segregation, which sharply limited where African Americans could live, meant that Black communities were far more varied, with janitors and housekeepers often living just down the street from doctors and professors.

Brooklyn encompassed nearly 50 city blocks in the southeast quadrant of Charlotte, bounded by 4th, Brevard, and Morehead streets, with the southeastern border defined by the now-vanished Long Street, just east of McDowell, where I-277 now runs. Like Black communities across the South, Brooklyn was located in one of the less desirable parts of Charlotte — parts of it low-lying and swampy. Sugar Creek ran along its eastern boundary. A railroad yard marked the western end. Fine homes and substantial churches sat near ramshackle rental shotgun houses. Amenities such as paved streets were few and far between.

Brooklyn Charlotte
The 50 or so square blocks of Brooklyn, roughly bounded by 4th, Brevard, Morehead and Long streets once held more than 1,000 structures, ranging from shotgun rental houses to stately offices, churches and homes. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

“After a heavy rain or snow, the sidewalks often became almost impassable because of the deep sticky mud,” Rose Leary Love wrote in a memoir of Brooklyn’s early years. “Grown-ups and children would slip and slide along the street trying their best to maintain an upright position. Occasionally, an unfortunate person would lose his balance and fall screaming into the gooey mixture. Sometimes, a lonely overshoe was left sticking up in the mud, a sign that there had been a struggle between its owner and the mud.”

Still, Brooklyn quickly filled with a growing range of Charlotte’s independent institutions, from churches to dance halls to funeral homes. At the Black-run AME Zion Publishing House, a handsome three-story brick building on Brevard Street, African-American editors and printers pumped out hymnals, newsletters and other materials for a worldwide audience. Just across the street sat the branch office of the Afro-American Insurance Company, designed by Black builder W.W. Smith and headed by barber and businessman Thad Tate.

A long-running tent revival run by evangelist “Sweet Daddy” Grace made Brooklyn and Charlotte a center for the United House of Prayer for All People, a charismatic denomination that would eventually count 3 million adherents around the world. The House of Prayer’s exuberant annual parade, accompanied by the church’s jazzy trombone “shout band,” became a Brooklyn institution. “It never rained on the Sunday when Daddy was in town and had his parade,” longtime resident Vermelle Ely recalled.

Brooklyn Charlotte
Brooklyn business district on South Brevard Street in Charlotte, with Mecklenburg Investment Company Building in foreground, Grace AME Zion church in background. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Social organizations also thrived. Caesar Blake, Jr., who lived on East 1st Street, headed the nation’s Prince Hall Shriners from 1919 to 1931, and in 1929 won a Supreme Court case that prevented white Shriners from expelling Black organizations from the order. Mary McCrorey, wife of Johnson C. Smith president, H.L. McCrorey, started the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA on South Davidson Street, became an influential figure in the national black club women’s movement, and played a key role in integrating the YWCA’s national leadership.

All this activity meant that despite the racism and hostility that suffused the outside world, Brooklyn felt like home or Charlotte’s black population.

“Brooklyn was the best place in the world to live. I’m telling you the truth,” Connie Patton told an interviewer in 2007. “You really didn’t have to go out of Brooklyn for anything. Everything was right there. Social life, everything. Right there . . . They didn’t have many businesses way out, so we could walk to work. Everything was downtown.”

“We never had keys to our houses, everybody left their doors open, a skeleton key would fit everybody’s door in Brooklyn,” Barbara Steele recalled. “And everybody knew everybody and we went to each other’s homes and if you were at my house when we got ready to eat my momma sat a place on the table for you to eat, I went to your house to eat your mom would do the same thing . . . Everybody knew everybody and everybody was somebody and God was for all, right there in Brooklyn.”

Civility Politics

African Americans also began to step cautiously back into politics. The Negro Citizens League, founded in 1917, took a more public role in civic affairs, holding monthly meetings and regularly presenting Black community concerns to elected officials.

The League’s interactions with white officials followed a code that historian William Chafe would later term “civility.” If Black leaders politely presented modest requests, white leaders would politely listen, and probably grant some of them. Any sign of anger or rudeness, however, brought the negotiations to an end. The strategy allowed whites to appear reasonable and magnanimous while staying fully in control.

Board members of the Afro-American Mutual Insurance Company: Thad Tate is standing; Samuel Pride is seated at far left; Henry Houston, founder of the Charlotte Post, is at center, staring at the camera. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

When, for example, League members called on the city to rebuild the dilapidated Myers Street School, the editors of the Observer judged the request “within bounds” and predicted “that the council will proceed to meet their requirements to the best of its ability under existing circumstances.”

The editorial, titled “Negro Citizenship,” went on to remind readers that the Observer had frequently praised the city’s African-American population “as among the most orderly and the most intelligent of any city in the South.”
When, however, the League asked the city school board to create a separate Black board that would select teachers for and manage the Black schools, the Observer tone shifted to condescending dismissal.

“It would seem to be a case of the leaders of this race seeking a desirable objective and mistakenly concluding that the only way to secure such an objective is to have placed racial rulership in this matter in their hands,” editors wrote.

Members of the Friday Evening Social Club, all of whom taught at the Myers Street School. Jessie Pride is third from left. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Still, they added, since the group’s goal of improving Black schools was “altogether reasonable and valid,” the request would serve to remind white school board members of their “duty to be more alert and scrupulous and conscientious in their official management of the matters appertaining to negro school administration.”

Police, Prisons and the Story of Clyde Fowler

Black leaders also targeted police and prisons, a prominent arena of abuse. Police harassment and beatings were routine, and courts often handed down harsh sentences on flimsy evidence. Men could be sentenced to death for burglary. Between 1910 and 1930 North Carolina executed 15 white men and 93 Black men, 24 of whom had been convicted of crimes other than murder.

Chain gangs were still in use, and a 1935 scandal at a Mecklenburg prison camp revealed such brutality that an all-white state inspection team, which had come to Charlotte “in a rather skeptical mood,” emerged shaken from the hearings and announced, “We cannot see how human beings could do things that we are forced to believe have been done.”

A 1929 shooting illustrates the harassment Black residents endured. On Jan. 22, the Observer reported, detectives Ed Correll and W.H. Cousar “invaded” a house on Long Street to search for “stolen stuff.” Correll headed to a back room, where Clyde Fowler and Rosalee White were in bed. Fowler shot Correll twice in the chest and fled. Correll died on the scene.

Brooklyn Charlotte
Rental homes at the lower end of the Brooklyn neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Police blocked off highways, isolated Black neighborhoods and searched dozens of homes. Over the next three weeks, “scores of city policemen, detectives and rural officers, augmented by several hundred armed citizens” scoured the area for Fowler, accosting and arresting many innocent men along the way. Officials jailed Rosalee White and beat her until she agreed to testify for the prosecution.

South Carolina deputies captured Fowler on Feb. 10, following a late-night chase through the woods outside Grier, South Carolina. He was taken to the Spartanburg jail, where he maintained he did not know that the man who burst into his bedroom was a police officer.

North Carolina officers quickly whisked him off to the state prison in Raleigh “for safe keeping.” They put him in a cell on death row.

In Charlotte, however, the situation proved a bit more complicated. Black Charlotteans were fed up with having officers burst into their homes unannounced, and they made their dissatisfaction known to public officials. In response, former mayor Thomas LeRoy Kirkpatrick accepted the NAACP’s request to defend Fowler.

At the trial, Kirkpatrick argued that Fowler did not realize Correll was a police officer, and that he was “protecting the sanctity of his home” when he pulled out his gun and shot. If the jury members did not give Fowler “even-handed justice,” he concluded, “you are cringing cowards.”

The argument did not get Fowler acquitted. The jury convicted him of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 20 years in jail. But it marked the first time in North Carolina history that a Black man accused of killing a white police officer was not sentenced to death. It also held other lessons, for both whites and African Americans.

“The trial without question will have a tremendous effect upon the Negroes of the southland,” wrote local Black journalist Trezzvant Anderson. “White policemen were told publicly to cease rushing into Negro homes without giving warning. White policemen saw one of their members shot down and another wounded by a southern black man who [had] the courage to protect his home against white officers who forget the law. And white policemen saw this Negro murderer perform another unusual feat — he escaped the electric chair.”

Voting

African Americans continued to make slow, cautious moves into the public arena. By the late 1930s, the growth of independent Black institutions meant that a few people could even run for office without risking white retaliation.

In 1937, Mary McCrorey of JCSU entered the race for the Charlotte Board of Education, making her North Carolina’s first-ever black female candidate. That same year, A.E. Spears of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company and Zechariah Alexander of the Alexander Funeral Home vied unsuccessfully for city council seats.

Fifth Annual Session: Colored Undertakers Association of North Carolina in 1932 in front of the Alexander Funeral Home at 323 S. Brevard St. in Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

The Black vote remained small — a mere 625 of Charlotte’s 35,000 African-American residents had successfully registered to vote in 1936, compared to nearly 10,000 white registrants. No African American would win a Charlotte election until Zechariah Alexander’s son, Fredrick Douglas Alexander, was elected to the city council in 1965.

Still, the groundwork was being laid.

Resources

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996, new edition 2019).

Thomas Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998, new edition 2020).

Rose Leary Love, Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir (Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996).

Vann R. Newkirk, “The Development of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Metropolitan Charlotte, North Carolina 1919-1965 (Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 2002)

Sarah Thuesen, Greater than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina, 1919-1965 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1980, 1981).

Brooklyn Oral History Project, UNC Charlotte

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