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OPINION: Why I Support the Cherry Community Organization’s Fight for Morgan School

In 2018 I moved to Cherry. I needed more space for my kids, and a beautiful almost-new house on the park was perfect for us. I knew Cherry was undergoing  gentrification, and had read about the local Cherry Community Organization and its commitment to affordable housing. Within a few months of moving in, I went to my first quarterly community meeting, which was advertised by red signs posted around the church block. I soon learned that the signs were necessary because electronic communication was not a given for many of the community members. 

The meeting started with an invocation led by Ms. Doris Dennis. Mr. Myron Patton and Barbara Rainey greeted entrants from their seats near the door. Yvonne Bittle updated the attendance lists. Dr. Sylvia Bittle-Patton kept the meeting moving along with a Powerpoint presentation, with updates about crime, future rezonings, and development. 

When the floor was opened for questions, things rapidly got heated. Some newer residents were concerned about public drinking and whether the Cherry store would carry alcohol when it reopened. Some long-time residents were outspoken about being policed in their lifestyle choices by people who just got there. Issues of class and race came to the fore. It got loud. Dr. Bittle-Patton allowed everyone their say, but wrapped it up within the time allotted and  cheerfully met with folks who wanted to stay after the meeting, while the other leaders introduced newcomers to elders of the community and thanked the police and affordable-housing liaisons who attended.

Over the last three years, I’ve heard countless new residents complain about the way “things are done” in Cherry. I’ve even complained myself, not understanding that commitments to putting community first and affordable housing are diametrically opposed to commitments to property values and putting individuals’ needs first. “Why isn’t MY voice important?” the newcomer wonders. “Can’t we all get on the same page?” 

morgan school, cherry community
Members of the Cherry Community Organization, including the author Stephanie Gardner (fourth from right) outside of Morgan School in the Cherry neighborhood. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

When I decided to put community first, I began to understand Cherry better. I was invited to participate in committees to reinstate the bus stop (so elders could get to their appointments), to challenge rezonings that would increase dangerous cut-through traffic for everyone, and I was cautiously trusted with introductions and stories about the people of this amazing neighborhood, whose prized asset, since 1925, has been The Morgan School.

The Cherry Community has been waiting patiently, asking insistently, and following all the rules laid out by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools regarding Morgan School and how to restore it to Cherry’s use. There have been excuses, policies that must be followed, entities that must be consulted, and periodic “moratoria” that may or may not have been official. 

For 50 years — since white students refused to attend the school after integration, making it an albatross — it has sat, proud and crumbling, in plain sight of the people it was promised to. Meanwhile, short-term tenants with no formal lease agreements have left items carelessly strewn about the classrooms, and left their organizations’ names on signs on the grounds. 

My understanding of Cherry’s fight for Morgan School has been informed by my own passion for ancestry research and genealogy, my evolving understanding of the meaning of justice, and my belief that while property and power continue to be passed down the white male lines, women are the ones who carry the stories. 

What does it mean to do “ancestor work” as a white-bodied woman of privilege? For me it meant a commitment to get to know the people behind the male surnames and family stories that centered on achievement, patriarchy and the ideals of white supremacy. In this regard, a weekend at a local activist’s workshop on ancestry and self-care proved utterly life-changing.

I cannot do the Amplify & Activate 2019 Honoring Ancestry Summit justice here. Curated by local visionary Jasmine Hines, the experience was a revelation in how it transformed my perception of who might be defined as an ancestor, which profoundly impacted my ancestor work. 

For example, I now view my childhood neighbor Pat — a woman who taught me radical humor and relentless love — as an ancestor. Her warm, powerful presence — and the fact she did not care what anyone thought of her — left an indelible impression. 

Genealogical ancestry is now a spiritual pursuit for me. Thanks to my experience at Amplify & Activate, I have been freed from having to focus on the male names and achievements; now I focus on the Pats, where I never fail to find the richest and most powerful stories.

When I first reached out to a person named Tracy via a genealogy site, I was a little worried; my family’s stories had erased her ancestor. She was a “first wife” and my male ancestor reportedly never spoke of her. We descendants all came from his second wife. When Tracy’s response arrived in my inbox more than a week later, there were stories about our ancestors and great harms done. A death. A promise. Unreturned heirlooms. 

Tracy’s stories filled in the missing pieces of my own puzzle — and the finished portrait was dark, if not downright sinister. Tracy was apologetic — we had only just met — but clear in repeating the promise her ancestors had passed down through generations of women in her family. 

“He promised to give them back to our family,” she said of the heirlooms. In the long-ago time she referred to, property rights were for white males. The rest of us relied on promises, memories, and exquisitely stewarded stories. 

When the legacy Cherry community members insist that Morgan School is “for Cherry,” they are relying on an oral history more developed than Tracy’s or mine, due to the needs of a community far more oppressed than ours. 

“Mr. Myers gifted it to our community, to the Black people of Cherry, because there was nowhere else we could go,” they say, referring to John Myers, who platted the neighborhood in 1891. “It’s in the deed,” they insist. They are reaching backward up generations to the same decades Tracy and I are discussing. It feels like yesterday to all of us.

How does my shared history with Tracy and Cherry’s history with Morgan School intersect with justice? Tracy’s family has held and passed on these stories not to stew in misery or save them up to make my family feel bad. They may not even know why they held onto them. I do not entirely know why I sought out information about the woman erased from my family tree, but here we are. 

There are items — maybe long gone … maybe in my cousin’s attic — that mean very little to my family, other than whatever “market value” we could get for them as antiques. But they mean a lot to the women in Tracy’s family. Justice, to me, in this situation, is making my best effort to return the items, or pictures of them, or information about them, to Tracy. We are both healing through this process. Tracy’s family was harmed by someone who harmed others in my family. I cannot undo that harm, but maybe I can help restore a little piece of what was taken away from all of us. Maybe Tracy and I can create a new story.

“Mr. Myers gave it to us,” says Ms. Bynum, who, at 95, may have heard it from someone who heard it from Myers himself. “He gifted it to Cherry for our betterment. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere else.” 

This promise, passed among generations of Cherry families, may not have any more legal standing than the promise made to Tracy’s family by my ancestors. Our legal system still protects the property passed down among white men and white organizations. But maybe there can still be justice. Maybe CMS, Mecklenburg County, and the Cherry Community, can create a new story.

Check out our latest episode of the Nooze Hounds podcast, featuring two Cherry residents with differing perspectives on the fight for Morgan School. 

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