The following is the fourth in a five-part history of Black culture in Charlotte, looking at the history of urban renewal, redlining, and blockbusting. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 and stay tuned for the final installation of the series in our upcoming issue.
On February 9, 1960, two hundred well-dressed Johnson C. Smith students walked out of the campus gates and began the two-mile trek down Beatties Ford Road to the center of town. Their journey took them through a city shaped by six decades of Jim Crow segregation. Behind them, a network of Black neighborhoods fanned out to the north and west, including Biddleville, University Park, Lincoln Heights, Druid Hills, and Greenville.
Just down the road, they passed through the western edge of a circle of white neighborhoods that ringed the center city, among them Seversville, Wilmore, Dilworth, Belmont, and Midwood. Closer in, they walked by two of the smaller Black communities scattered around the city: Fairview, which centered on Fairview Elementary School, and the Black section of Third Ward, grouped around Isabella Wyche Elementary and the historically Black Good Samaritan Hospital.
Once downtown, they headed for stores where they were allowed to shop but not to eat. They took seats at the lunch counters and asked politely to be served. The Charlotte sit-ins had begun. Across the South, student-led sit-ins galvanized national attention and brought new energy to the civil rights movement. But they were far from the only forces affecting Black communities.
In many cities, including Charlotte, civil rights gains took place against a backdrop of community destruction. On January 19, 1960, Charlotte’s city council approved a “slum razing” project funded by a massive federal program called “urban renewal.” It targeted the Brooklyn neighborhood — the historic heart of Charlotte’s Black community. On April 8, the city unveiled plans for a massive new highway system that routed two major expressways — I-77 and the Northwest Expressway (now the Brookshire Freeway) — through Black neighborhoods on the west side of town.
Over the next decade, even as the civil rights movement won African Americans new opportunities, urban renewal and highway construction tore at the social fabric that Black Charlotteans had woven during the long era of Jim Crow. “The church I attended: leveled,” recalled Ed Anderson, whose childhood home fell victim to the bulldozers. “The elementary school I attended: leveled. My home: erased. All of our little community was just wiped out and we were scattered everywhere.”
Charlotte’s white leaders had set their sights on Brooklyn as early as 1912, reasoning that “this section, because of its proximity to the center city, must sooner or later be utilized by the white population.”
In general, Charlotte’s white business and political elite championed small government and resisted federal involvement in local affairs. But when the Housing Act of 1949 allocated federal funds to purchase and demolish “slum housing,” they leaped at the chance to wipe Brooklyn off the map. The rhetoric that accompanied the city’s efforts no longer focused on race. Rather, white leaders lamented that some of Charlotte’s “potentially most valuable property” was “covered with houses that are among the worst in the entire city.”
This theme of substandard housing saturated the urban renewal endeavor. In December 1961, at the ceremony that marked the project’s start, Mayor Stan Brookshire picked up a sledgehammer, sent it crashing into the porch of the dilapidated house at 310 South Davidson. He then turned to Redevelopment Commission Chairman Elmer Rozier, who stood waiting with a second hammer at the other end.
“In the years to come,” Rozier proclaimed before taking his swing, “no one in Charlotte will have to live in a house like this.”
That simple statement obscured far more than it revealed. Most important, it ignored the many lovingly maintained dwellings that contradicted claims that Brooklyn was simply a “slum” that needed to be “razed.”
“My momma had renovated that house,” Barbara Crawford Steele recalled of her Brooklyn home. “We had electric lights — they put electric lights in the house and they put a furnace in. We had three bedrooms, we had a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a great big front yard and a great big back yard. It meant everything to us. We loved that house.”
It was far from easy to improve buildings in Brooklyn. The federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which underwrote a massive expansion of home ownership in the postwar era, uniformly designated Black neighborhoods as bad investments. This designation — which became known as “redlining” — made it almost impossible for African Americans to get bank loans to buy or improve property in historically Black neighborhoods.
White leaders’ proclamations about the need for better housing also conveniently overlooked a key reason substandard housing existed to begin with: Renting rundown dwellings to low-income African Americans was highly profitable. “The investment is low, return high and taxes negligible,” Charlotte Observer writer Joe Doster explained in a 1960 article.
According to Doster’s assessment, the average Brooklyn rental had a tax value of about $1,000, cost just over $15 in annual property taxes, and if rented at the typical $10 a week could bring in $520 a year. Rental houses were often owned by absentee white landlords who had acquired Brooklyn property in the 1920s and ’30s.
“As many of the older [Black] citizens died out, their property was turned over to new landlords,” recalled Rose Leary Love, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1910s. “Large lots were dissected. New alleys were created and lined with undesirable houses that were packed one on the other with hardly any space between them . . . In other places, creeks and ditches were used as homesites, and homes were placed as near the water as possible in the owners’ efforts to eke out a spot on which to erect four walls for a house.”
The house at which Stan Brookshire took his ceremonial first swing, 310 South Davidson, was a prime example. Built in the early 1910s, it sat on a on a parcel of land that had been purchased by AME Zion Bishop Thomas Lomax in 1900. After Lomax died in 1908, the land ended up in the hands of retired white physician Alexander Redfern. Although the Redfern family left Charlotte for Virginia in the 1930s, they continued to own the property and rent the houses on it until the Redevelopment Commission purchased it in 1961.
Development at any cost
Finding better homes for families was also not the Redevelopment Commission’s top priority. As Observer columnist Kays Gary noted, the Commission chose to start Phase One of the project in one of Brooklyn’s most prosperous areas, a place that held plenty of houses “in good condition,” as well as “smoke shops, grills, drug stores, one of the city’s two Negro theaters, a few food stores, barber and beauty shops . . . some churches and the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.”
Urban renewal, Gary made clear, had far more to do with white leaders’ desire to remake downtown than with the welfare of Brooklyn residents. “Thoroughfare planners have cited an immediate need for rights-of-way here,” he continued, referencing the highway plan. “One block of the area is required for the new government center.”
The area was also “closest to the central business section and consists of land most readily marketable for most-needed building sites in expansion of the midtown business district.”
The sweeping changes underscored African Americans’ limited political and economic power. “Everybody in Brooklyn was very upset about it,” Barbara Steele explained. “Somebody was always speaking out, you’d see people standing on the streets speaking out about it, how they were taking homes from people. But whatever they wanted to do that’s what they did.”
The Redevelopment Commission began buying Brooklyn land early in 1961 and started tearing down houses at the end of the year. But the process moved slowly, leaving devastation in its wake. By August of 1963, Brooklyn held several hundred “vacant, rotting buildings.” Fires became common. Highway construction extended the disruption into neighborhoods on the Black west side.
Expressways consumed huge amounts of land — the roads themselves could be 200 to 300 feet wide, and interchanges covered as much as 50 acres each. Charlotte’s plan sent I-77 plunging through Lincoln Heights, joined it to the Northwest Expressway (now the Brookshire Freeway) in the heart of Greenville, and then to the Independence Expressway (now I-277) at the edge of Third Ward. The Northwest Expressway continued on through Biddleville, just above the Johnson C. Smith campus, on its way out to I-85.
What had once been a landscape of closely linked communities became a group of islands divided by wide swaths of concrete.
As Brooklyn’s residents scrambled to find new homes, Black leaders such as Reginald Hawkins and Kelly Alexander called on the city to build more public housing. But city officials were more responsive to Charlotte’s powerful real estate sector, which staunchly opposed the idea. While federal regulations finally forced the city to build some new public housing — most prominently First Ward’s Earle Village — most Black families ended up fending for themselves on the open market.
Then as now, Charlotte suffered from a shortage of affordable housing. Urban renewal added to the problem. The housing shortage, along with persisting discrimination, sharply limited options for low-income Black renters, who often ended up paying higher rents than whites for comparable dwellings.
The relatively low prices paid for Brooklyn homes also limited homeowners’ choices. “From what they gave us for our house, we couldn’t buy another house, we had to pay down on a house in order to move in,” Barbara Steele explained. “We had to move in a house that wasn’t as nice as the one we were in, but we had no choice, we didn’t have enough money to get something else.”
As growing numbers of Black renters looked for new places to live, entrepreneurial investors turned their eyes to the white working-class neighborhoods just outside downtown. By 1965, homeowners in Belmont, Seversville and similar communities were inundated by a “flood of real estate men” eager to make money by purchasing homes that they could rent to Black tenants. Blockbusting — using the threat of an influx of Black neighbors to frighten white owners into leaving — became a common tactic. “He asked me if I were interested in selling,” one Belmont resident told a reporter about the man who stopped by her home in the fall of 1965. “I said ‘No.’ He said he just thought with so many colored people moving in I might want to sell it.”
Neighborhoods tried to rally together, and city officials denounced blockbusting on several occasions. But by the mid-1970s the ring of close-in neighborhoods had become predominantly Black. Market economics also influenced which businesses and institutions populated the new downtown. Cleared Brooklyn land was sold to the highest bidders — at prices few Black institutions could afford. In 1965, for example, white First Baptist Church made plans to move to Brooklyn, spending $439,000 on 8.5 acres of land between Caldwell and Davidson streets.
Barely a block away sat Friendship Baptist, an African-American church that had occupied the corner of First and Brevard since 1893. As the bulldozers neared, Friendship’s members decided to spend $35,000 on land for a new, larger building in suburban Northwood Estates.
“There were questions as to why First Baptist can move [to Brooklyn] and we can’t,” Friendship pastor Coleman Kerry, Jr. said of his parishioners. “They have to accept the answer. They know we didn’t have $400,000.”
In addition to the disruptions caused by urban renewal and highway construction, African Americans had to contend with the closing of many of their beloved schools. Faced with growing federal pressure to desegregate, the Charlotte Mecklenburg school board adopted a strategy common across the South: Instead of working to integrate Black schools, it simply closed them. In the summer of 1969, board members voted to shutter all of the center city’s historically Black schools: Fairview, Alexander Street, Bethune, Isabella Wyche, and — the greatest shock of all — Second Ward High School.
The announcement sparked widespread outrage. A protest petition gathered 19,000 signatures. African-American residents packed the next school board meeting. “You force our back against the wall and you ask us once again to have good faith,” A.M.E. Zion minister George Leake thundered at board members. “Every time we have faith, you treat us like a bunch of dogs.”
Coleman Kerry Jr., the board’s only Black member, called on his colleagues to rethink the plan. But the majority stood fast. None of the targeted schools opened that fall.
“There was a lot of ‘Uh-oh. I see what they’re going to do to us,’” recalled Angela Wood Fritz, whose father worked at Second Ward. “‘They’re going to close down all of our schools and make us move.’ . . . It was just all of a sudden. Bam: ‘This is how it’s going to be. Deal with it.’ There was a lot of anger.”
In 1960, Brooklyn held more than a thousand structures and nearly 9,000 residents. The other affected communities —Third Ward, First Ward, Greenville, a corner of Dilworth — contained still more. By the early 1970s, the people had been scattered and most of the buildings were gone. The endeavor had cost nearly $60 million in public funds.
Only four of Brooklyn’s buildings remain today: Second Ward High’s gymnasium, on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; Grace AME Zion Church and the offices of the Mecklenburg Investment Company, both at Third and Brevard streets; and the former McCrorey YMCA, at Third and Caldwell. Three historically Black buildings remain in First Ward: First United Presbyterian at Seventh and College, Little Rock AME Zion at Seventh and Myers, and the United House of Prayer for All People on South Davidson.
Black Charlotteans tried to make the best of a situation over which they had almost no control. At the end of the last service conducted at Brooklyn United Presbyterian Church, parishioners held hands and formed a friendship chain around the sanctuary, just as the church’s founders had done more than 50 years before. Singing and praying, they pledged to carry on. They eventually joined with First Ward’s Seventh Street Presbyterian to form First United Presbyterian.
Displaced businesses sought out new locations, primarily on the west side. But with their customers dispersed across the city, they faced an uphill climb. Some prospered. Many did not.
In 1972, residents of Greenville filed a lawsuit that eventually forced the city to create more low-income housing for displaced residents. The supply, however, would continue to fall far short of the need. Most Black homeowners in the west side’s newer suburban neighborhoods remained in the neat, modern homes they had worked so hard to acquire. Families able to buy new homes could for the first time look beyond the old Jim Crow boundaries. Those were forced to rent had fewer choices.
Some found homes in the city’s few public housing complexes. Others moved from one rental to another, dependent once again on absentee landlords who profited from renting to low-income Black tenants. Contending with the “root shock” of displacement, many families struggled to reweave the supportive social fabric that had served them so well during segregation.
“We lost contact with a lot of people,” Ed Anderson recalled.
The results of that trauma remain with us today.
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).
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).
Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (One World Books, 2005).
Brooklyn Oral History Project (Barbara Crawford Steele interview)
Willie Griffin (curator) “Brooklyn: Once a City Within a City,” Levine Museum of the New South