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Brooklyn Collective Picks up the Torch of Charlotte’s Black History

Going back to Brooklyn

There’s a popular t-shirt geared to Black Americans that displays a quote reading, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” When The Mecklenburg Investment Company (MIC) was constructed in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood in 1922, few would have imagined that it would be one of the only buildings to survive the tragic razing of the historically Black neighborhood that would take place during the 1960s.

In the late 1800s, the area now known as Second Ward in Uptown was a place where some of the area’s newly emancipated slaves came to do something they had never done before: live life as free men, women, and children. Originally known as Logtown, the neighborhood took on the name Brooklyn sometime around 1917 and became a thriving Black business center.

Nearly a century after The Mecklenburg Investment Co.’s founding, amid great racial injustice and a global pandemic, The MIC has been resurrected as the home of The Brooklyn Collective, a potential leader in Charlotte’s emerging art scene and supporter of nonprofits and small businesses.

Brooklyn
The Mecklenburg Investment Company (MIC) was constructed in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood in 1922. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Through partnerships like a recent collaborative effort with SouthEnd ARTS, the collective aims to amplify the voices of history, heritage, science and art through equity art exhibitions featuring a curated group of artists in a variety of mediums.

“Our goal is to make sure that we are honoring the history of where we are, that we are the stewards of social consciousness and the programming, and things that we have here are all going towards enriching the community,” said Monique Douglas of The Brooklyn Collective. “We celebrate the arts at The MIC. We provide our location as a space where local musical artists, as well as visual artists, can feel like they have a home or place where they can be showcased.”

The formerly enslaved Americans who founded Brooklyn built schools where teachers taught Black children how to read and write, once an illegal act. A “colored library” served as the local brain trust. Churches served as monuments of great faith and with an omnipotent presence. Brooklyn had shotgun shacks adjacent to domineering mansions that occupied the neighborhood streets.

The reflection that people saw in each other took precedence over the contrast of rich and poor. Pride resided in their collective existence. Black doctors’ offices and law firms countered the myth that Blacks were less intelligent than whites. Black-owned restaurants, grocery stores, and shops were havens where Black faces were seen, welcomed, and embraced. Since Blacks were excluded from white markets, Black business leaders organized real estate, textile, insurance, and publishing companies.

 

Housing a drug store, restaurants, small businesses, and fraternal social gatherings, the Mecklenburg Investment Co. was a financial force that mobilized Black upward mobility, free enterprise, and civil rights. It’s a relevant cause that Douglas and The Brooklyn Collective want to revisit.

“We basically have gone back to that very same model,” she said.

The Brooklyn Collective is born

Jason Wolf, who purchased The MIC, Studio 229 On Brevard, and Grace AME Zion Church in 2016, has partnered with Douglas and her husband Kevin, who became co-owners of Studio 229. Their goal is to honor the legacy of The Mecklenburg Investment Co.’s original mission to foster entrepreneurship while giving artists a venue to hone their craft.

The group is currently incubating nine small businesses and nonprofits, one artist-in-residence program, and a creator maker space, Douglas said.

On the second and third floors, numerous offices are occupied and active. There’s a conference room, a sewing machine and embroidery studio, and the owners are currently building a sound studio to produce podcasts. Kevin, who’s a photographer, plans to host photography workshops for children with special needs and students from underserved schools.

Monique Douglas (Photo by Tracy Jones)

Through her Grooming Greatness Foundation, Douglas will work to inform and empower special-needs children. Wolf said the Collective also plans to offer artist grants and other opportunities. He pointed out that, though they’ll always stand in the shadow of the founders, everything they do is inspired and in honor of them.

The MIC’s bottom floor hosts TBC’s latest exhibit, The Soul of Brooklyn, which explores the legacy and story of the once-prominent enclave. The exhibit features work from quiltmaker Beverly Smith, former NFL defensive back and sculptor Percy King, and California designer and painter Dr. Dimeji Onafuwa.

 

The artists’ different mediums give multiple dimensions and alternative access to the emergence of discovered history; brown humans contrasting colorful minimalist spaces; and the variation of depth, layers, colors, and shapes through sculpture and portraiture.

The killing of Black bodies and the foreign perception that some African-Americans have toward the place that they consider home are themes that run through the exhibit.

Passing the MIC

At The Mecklenburg Investment Company, the building’s founders — Thaddeus Tate, Arthur Eugene Spears, J.T. Williams, and Ceasar Robert Blake, Jr. — used the third floor, known as “The Lodge,” to strategize and develop plans. They did this for almost 40 years as their power and money grew. Away from the presence of overseers, they were finally free to flourish, though when that prosperity became too obvious, whites took notice and feared that they were losing control. 

Under the threat of white violence and segregation, Brooklyn was still hot, and like the immigrant communities spread across America today, the Second Ward supported its own. From the late 1800s through the mid 20th century, the neighborhood was alive and booming. Like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and other Black towns that eventually perished at the hands of white terror or systemic racism, Brooklyn was a branch of America’s Black Wall Street. Money and wealth circulated throughout its community.

Brooklyn
A mural depicting Thad Tate, J.T. Williams, and W.T. Smith on the wall of Studio 229 on Brevard. (Photo by Grant Baldwin, Artwork by Abel Jackson)

Brooklyn was a gleaming sanctuary, known as a city within a city, but this Black Mecca wasn’t like the New York City borough for which it was named. Brooklyn was a Southern enclave of Charlotte’s Uptown. In the late 1960’s, local government planned to remove Blacks from coveted areas like Brooklyn, displacing them under the guise of so-called “urban renewal,” upending their lives and leaving thousands of residents scattered and looking for a place to resettle.

Over the next 11 years, 1,480 homes and buildings were bulldozed, leveling the whole beloved neighborhood. Only The Mecklenburg Investment Co. and Grace AME Zion Church remained unscathed. In the 2010s, it seemed efforts to restore Brooklyn’s incredible history were gaining positive ground, but Restorative Justice CLT, a local anti-racist group formed in response to increased scrutiny of the ongoing $683-million dollar plan to redevelop the former site of Brooklyn into Brooklyn Village, have claimed the city and public sector are not doing enough. Members of the group say officials don’t understand the scope and damage that systemic racism and urban renewal has done to Charlotte’s Black community.   

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The MIC, now a historical site, was the first Brooklyn building to be designed, financed, and owned by Blacks. Its four founding members were the Byron Allens of their day. Tate, a successful proprietor of a high-end barbershop, catered to influential white entrepreneurs and politicians. Spears, a venture capitalist and manager of one of the largest African-American companies in the South, sold insurance. Williams was one of the first African-American licensed doctors in the state of North Carolina and a U.S. diplomat to Sierra Leone. Blake, a young talented real-estate broker, became president of The Mecklenburg Investment Co.

At the entrance of Studio 229, the narrative artist Charles Edward Williams was commissioned to paint portraits of The MIC’s founding members. A mural of the three founders by local artist Abel Jackson also graces the wall of Grace A.M.E., facing drivers on the one-way South Brevard Street in Uptown. Jackson’s mural incorporates an infamous photo of young boys watching the demolition of buildings in Brooklyn in the 1960s.   

Artists reinvigorate former spiritual and financial centers

I didn’t know about the history of Brooklyn or TBC when I stumbled upon the gallery on the corner of South Brevard and East Third streets. Peaking through the windows of the closed exhibit, I was awestruck to see Smith’s quilts, which have an ethereal presence about them. It was the first time that I’d seen them.

Smith is a Charlottean and recently retired art teacher. She taught in the predominantly Black area of Charlotte’s west side for 33 years.

“I never really knew about Brooklyn. I had siblings that were much older than myself and I would hear them going back and forth about what high school was the best,” she said.

West Charlotte and Second Ward high schools were apparent rivalries, but that was all she knew. While preparing work for The Soul of Brooklyn, she was given a tour of the buildings and heard about the first emancipated slaves that came to Brooklyn from South Carolina. She toured Grace AME, one of the first Zion churches, which is over 100 years old.

“Of course, the church was the foundation of the community,” Smith said. The curators suggested that she move her studio to the church’s basement, but by then she was tired from putting up her work and taking the tour. “I became very lightheaded. It became overwhelming for me,” she said. She went home intending to take a nap, but instead looked up Brooklyn’s history.

 

Smith has traced her own family tree back to the 1700s. Since she was a child, she had always heard about her great uncle that died at the pulpit of Grace Church while preaching a sermon.

“As a child, in my mind I’m thinking about, how did he fall? Did he fall on top of the pulpit? What were the people thinking in the church? And it was such a thing with my family, constantly talking about it, like hearing about West Charlotte and Second Ward, it became an imprint in my brain. But I’m not knowing any of this until my work is on exhibit at the intersection of Brevard and East Third Street,” she said.

Since the resurgence of The Mecklenburg Investment Company, perhaps there’s other living descendants of Brooklyn that share similar stories of recollecting forgotten memories. Smith considers the space to be sacred.

‘It lives right here in the city’

Four-time Emmy Award winning poet Boris “Bluz” Rogers performed at a small private event held at Studio 229 on Valentine’s Day. The renowned poet has been performing and living in Charlotte for 20 years. For him, working with The Brooklyn Collective is an amazing opportunity.

“It’s really cool to see what they’ve been able to do with the property in terms of bringing back the life and the echoes of culture that came from the Brooklyn neighborhood,” he said.

With Wolf’s blessing, Bluz will do upcoming live shows in Grace Church.

 

“That space really gives us a chance to bring in a lot of our Charlotte artists, a lot of our surrounding Charlotte artists who are looking for a space that’s different, that allows them to get expansive and creative and imaginative,” Bluz said. “This is something different. It’s about giving artists that opportunity to grow and be who they need to be inside that space.”

But does Charlotte have the talent to fill and invigorate the space?

“The National Poetry Slam Team of Charlotte has won the national championship three times, which has never been done in the history of the National Poetry Slam. Those are absolute facts. Some of the greatest poets and writers live here in Mecklenburg County, in Charlotte, NC,” Bluz said.

Brooklyn
Artwork at the Brooklyn Collective. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

He rattled off notable locals that most people would know, including DaBaby, Fantasia, Anthony Hamilton, Deniro Farrar, and Lute West, who signed to J.Cole’s Dreamville, but then there are also visual artists like Dammit Wesley and Bree Stallings.

“You don’t have to necessarily go all the way to Atlanta to see high-caliber global work. It lives right here in the city, and The Brooklyn Collective is where you can come and see it.”


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Tracy Jones

Tracy Jones is a writer, originally from central Florida. He's written for Huffpost, Bandcamp, LA Weekly, Tokyo Weekender, and other outlets.

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