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Black History of Charlotte Part 3: Civil Rights in the New South

Shifting attitudes and actions in Charlotte

The following is the third in a five-part history of Black culture in Charlotte. Read Part 1 and  Part 2, and stay tuned for the continuation of the series in upcoming issues.

In the spring of 1939, 32-year-old John T. Richmond sat down to take a federal civil service exam. The son of a laundress and a railroad brakeman, Richmond aspired to be a mail carrier, a job typically denied to African Americans in Charlotte. The civil service exam was his first step.

By all accounts, Richmond passed with flying colors, but Charlotte postmaster Paul Younts refused to promote him above the traditionally “Black” job of janitor. White mail carriers, Younts claimed, simply would not work with African Americans. Richmond, he suggested, should be happy to have a job at all.

Black Charlotteans sprang into action. “Charlotte Fighting for Mailman,” proclaimed the state’s most prominent Black newspaper, the Carolina Times. “Hundreds Sign Petition.”

That September, residents packed the Second Ward High gymnasium to hear representatives of the NAACP and the National Association of Postal Employees denounce Younts’ decision and call for change.

The assertive tone signaled a new era in Charlotte activism, as a new generation came on the scene. Along with longtime community leaders, the campaign organizers included two younger men: journalist Trezzvant Anderson and Kelly Alexander, the son of influential funeral home director Zechariah Alexander. 

civil rights in Charlotte
Writer and activist Trezzvant Anderson, 1938. (Photo courtesy of National Civil Service Personnel Records)

These new activists were operating amid a new political reality. For decades, the rest of the country had ignored or actively supported the South’s racial apartheid. But growing Black voting strength was beginning to shift attitudes and actions, especially at the federal level. If the post office petitioners did not “get satisfaction in Charlotte,” the Carolina Times noted, “they intend to take the matter to Washington.”

Although Paul Younts was one of Charlotte’s most prominent political powerbrokers, he soon found himself the target of a federal investigation into his election-related activities. Part of the evidence used against him had been provided by Black Charlotteans. In July of 1941, the Postal Service fired him.

The Double V Campaign and the Postwar Boom

Five months later, the U.S. entered World War II. African Americans, among them Richmond and Anderson, signed up in droves and performed with distinction. Black leaders described their participation as part of a “Double V” Campaign, linking victory over fascism abroad with victory over racism at home. They won a major home-front victory in 1948, when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the armed forces.

Charlotte’s Black activists kept pushing — through the war and beyond. Trezzvant Anderson and Johnson C. Smith Student Council President Reginald Hawkins organized student protests at the post office to demand better jobs for college graduates. Charlotte’s Black teachers joined colleagues across the state to successfully lobby for equal pay with whites.

Kelly Alexander revitalized Charlotte’s NAACP and launched projects that included a “Votes for Freedom” campaign that registered more than 5,000 new Black voters.

This energy was fed by a booming economy that helped African Americans build up their communities. Charlotte’s Black residents, who represented just under a third of the city’s total population, nearly doubled their numbers between 1940 and 1960, growing from 31,000 to 56,000 residents. This influx fueled an expansion of Black-owned businesses that included restaurants, banks, insurance companies, beauty parlors, gas stations, dry cleaners, photography studios and more.

Charlotte’s Black residents began building a community on the west side of Charlotte in the postwar era. (Photo by James Peeler; Courtesy of the Peeler Family and the Inez Moore Parker Archives at Johnson C Smith University)

Much of this growth took place around Beatties Ford Road. In the 1910s, as segregation hardened, Charlotte developers had used restrictive covenants and unwritten agreements to designate the west side as the Black side of town. By the 1930s, as downtown Black neighborhoods grew crowded, growing numbers of families headed to west-side communities such as Biddleville, Greenville and Washington Heights.

In the 1950s, in another example of federal influence, growth on the west side got a boost from the Federal Housing Administration, the engine behind the nation’s postwar suburban boom. The FHA channeled most of its resources into all-white developments.

Its refusal to back investments in historically Black or integrated neighborhoods, a policy that became known as redlining, would have far-reaching, destructive effects in older parts of town.

But it provided some support for building new Black neighborhoods.

Ever entrepreneurial — especially when money could be made without challenging the racial status quo — Charlotte developers, both Black and white, seized on these opportunities. The west side began to fill with neat brick homes in developments such as University Park, Oaklawn Park, Dalebrook and Northwood Estates.

In the fall of 1954, west-side residents marveled at the modern, million-dollar campus of the new West Charlotte Senior High School, built at the heart of University Park. The original West Charlotte, which had opened on Beatties Ford Road in 1938, became Northwest Junior High.

The Effects of “Moderation”

The new West Charlotte High opened at a moment of anticipation and anxiety. A few months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued one of the most far-reaching decisions in its history, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation violated the Constitution.

The decision brought howls of protest and promises of defiance from around the South. North Carolina’s white leaders, in contrast, took their usual “moderate” path. 

Four days after the ruling, the keynote speaker at a gathering of the state’s ruling Democrats announced that “as good citizens we have no other course except to obey the law laid down by the United States Supreme Court.” After this display of progressivism, however, legislators turned around and created the Pearsall Plan, which gave local school boards full control of the desegregation process.

This approach, which allowed districts to move at a snail’s pace, forestalled both school integration and federal sanctions.

“You North Carolinians have devised one of the cleverest techniques of perpetuating segregation that we have seen,” an Arkansas admirer would later write.

Not until September 1957 would North Carolina’s first handful of Black students enter historically white public schools. Four of them were in Charlotte: Gus Roberts at Central High School, his sister Girvaud at Piedmont Junior High; Delois Huntley at Alexander Graham Junior High; and Dorothy Counts at Harding High.

Dorothy Counts walking to Harding High School in 1957 has since become an iconic image. (Photo by Don Sturkey/Charlotte Observer)

Delois Huntley and the Roberts siblings arrived at their schools with little fanfare. Dorothy Counts’ debut was another matter.

Encouraged in part by members of a newly organized “White Citizens’ Council,” a mob was waiting when 15-year-old Counts, wearing a new dress made by her grandmother, arrived at Harding.

Dramatic photos of the composed young woman wading through a sea of angry whites circled the globe. Johnson C. Smith graduates Vera and Darius Swann, who knew the Counts family well, saw them in a newspaper in India.

They made a profound impression on writer James Baldwin, just back from Paris and planning a reporting trip South. He would make Charlotte his first stop.

Counts and her family were shaken – “I expected something,” Counts told a reporter. “But, really, I didn’t expect it to be like that.”

Charlotte police warned Citizens’ Council members to stay off school grounds, and made sure there were no more mobs to photograph.

But a few days later, after students continued to harass Counts in class, and after a rock crashed through the back window of her brother’s car as he arrived at school to take her home, she withdrew. She enrolled in an integrated private school in Pennsylvania, and national attention turned to the protracted standoff between Arkansas governor Oral Faubus and president Dwight Eisenhower over the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. Charlotte’s white leaders breathed a sigh of relief.

When James Baldwin came to town, shortly after Counts left Harding, the city appeared calm. He described it as “a bourgeois town, Presbyterian, pretty – if you like towns.” He summed up the racial atmosphere in measured tones: “I was told several times, by white people, that ‘race relations there were excellent,’” he wrote in Partisan Review. “I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this.”

Still, what the Counts family called “the situation with Dot,” referencing Dorothy’s nickname, served as a warning. The photographs of Counts amid the angry crowd undercut the vision of orderly progress that Charlotte’s image-conscious business leaders saw as essential to growth and prosperity.

Anxiety about the city’s image heightened as civil rights activity around the South, along with the often-violent retaliation it provoked, claimed a growing share of national attention.

Civil Rights in the New South

Early in 1960, yet another generation of activists emerged on the Charlotte scene. The strategy they deployed turned North Carolina’s obsession with civility and image-building to their advantage.

On Feb. 1 of that year, four students from North Carolina A&T walked into Greensboro’s Woolworth’s, took seats at the whites-only lunch counter, and refused to leave until they were served. The bold gesture spoke directly to restless young African Americans across the South.

civil rights in Charlotte
Students stage a sit-in at a Woolworths in Charlotte on Feb. 1, 1960 kicking off the civil rights movement locally. (Charlotte Observer photo, courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library)

Two days later, Johnson C. Smith students Charles Jones and B.B. DeLaine called a meeting about starting sit-ins in Charlotte. More than 200 students showed up. They headed downtown the next day.

Sit-ins turned the concept of civility — so often used to retard progress — on its head. The calm, well-dressed students who sat at lunch counters and politely asked to be served embodied civility’s rules. When whites reacted with anger or violence, it was they who violated the code.

The well-organized Smith students made regular treks downtown for five months. Combined with a Black boycott of downtown businesses, the action turned the center city into a ghost town. By July, store owners gave in.

As police held back shouting hecklers, Black students were ushered to the lunch counters, where they sat and finally ate.

In the years that followed, black activists pressed forward, and white leaders strategically retreated.

The Freedom Riders, including future Congressman John Lewis, came to town in 1961, testing a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in interstate travel. Further South, the Riders would endure some of the most extreme violence that civil rights activists had yet experienced. Their stop in Charlotte, however, passed almost without incident.

Joseph Perkins staged a “shoe-in” at a shoeshine chair in an all-white barbershop. He was arrested and spent two nights in jail. But as soon as he appeared in court, to everyone’s great surprise, the judge ruled in his favor and sent him on his way.

Two years later, Reginald Hawkins, who had become one of the city’s most outspoken civil rights leaders, organized a march to protest segregation at Charlotte hotels and restaurants. In Birmingham, such marches were met with fire hoses and police dogs. In Charlotte, Chamber of Commerce members called a meeting and then announced that the city’s hotel and restaurant owners had agreed to serve all patrons equally.

The mid-1960s saw a spate of federal action, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that gave local activists new tools to work with. In 1964 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent rising star Julius Chambers to open a Charlotte office dedicated to civil rights law. In the fall of 1965 Kelly Alexander’s brother, Fred, became Charlotte’s first Black city council member since the 1890s.

Still, tensions simmered. In September of 1965, residents of the west side went before the city council to report two disturbing incidents: a cross burned on the Johnson C. Smith campus, and shots fired into Reginald Hawkins’ home.

Then, early in the morning of Nov. 22, bombs exploded at four west-side houses: those of Hawkins, Fred Alexander, Kelly Alexander and Julius Chambers.

Investigators comb Kelly Alexander Sr.’s home top to bottom the morning after it was bombed. (All photos courtesy of UNC Charlotte’s Special Collection)

The blasts did extensive damage. Teenager Kelly Alexander, Jr., asleep in his front-facing bedroom, felt one of the bombs explode against his wall, and glass from the shattered windows shot across the room. He described the experience on Episode 11 of our Nooze Hounds podcast. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. City leaders, Black and white, immediately denounced the act, and a community fund drive quickly raised the money needed to repair the homes. The bombers were never identified.

Bombs were far from the only forces of destruction in the mid-1960s Charlotte. Bulldozers funded by the federal highway and “urban renewal” funds were systematically demolishing the historic Brooklyn neighborhood and destabilizing communities across the city. As pressure for school desegregation grew, the newly consolidated Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education began to shutter historically Black schools that had sat at the heart of communities for decades. It would take longer for that story to be fully told.

Resources

Willie James Griffin, “News and Views of the Postal Service: Trezzvant W. Anderson and Black Labor Journalism in the New Deal Era,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History, 2018.

Emily Ethridge, “How a Local Historian Uncovered Trezzvant Anderson, the Charlotte Civil Rights Hero You’ve Never Heard Of,” Charlotte Magazine, 11 August 2020

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).

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

Ron Stodghill, ed., Let There Be Light: Exploring How Charlotte’s Historic West End is Shaping a New South (Johnson C. Smith University, 2014).

Pamela Grundy, Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liverright Publishing Corporation, 2017)

Michael Graff, “Dorothy Counts Scoggins,” Charlotte Magazine, 20 November 2017.

Emiene Wright, “The Militant Dentist: Dr Reginald Hawkins,” Creative Loafing, 6 February 2013.

Richard Rosen and Joseph Mosnier, Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

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