Barbara Rainey has seen a lot of change in Cherry over her 70 years.
Having lived the first 33 years of her life on a house on Cherry Street, then the next 37 on nearby Baldwin Avenue, Rainey looks back to a time when her mother and aunt lived in a duplex and she could hop the banister to visit between the two, then walk up the street to her grandmother’s house. Though her grandmother has passed on and one of her brothers has been displaced, she still has plenty of family in the historically Black neighborhood.
Rainey’s aunt, Virginia Bynum, is 93 years old, and like Rainey, a proud member of the Cherry Community Organization (CCO), a community development corporation that formed in 1977 to fight gentrification and displacement following the razing of their neighbors’ homes in Brooklyn. CCO operates as a land trust of sorts, buying and managing properties to keep housing affordable for longtime tenants.
Rainey knows that, despite CCO’s efforts, change is occurring in Cherry. New neighbors are moving in and having an impact on the neighborhood — many of them white and more well off than the established families who have lived there for generations.
“We know change is gon’ come, but it’s how you make the change come about,” Rainey told me on a recent Sunday afternoon. “Some people feel privileged or entitled because of income bracket or what your home cost or that sort of thing. I own my little cracker box and I love it, and every morning I wake up I thank God that I’m where I want to be. People all over Charlotte, they’re not happy where they are, and I couldn’t be happier to be around these people.”
Rainey was referring to the 15 or so neighbors who had gathered that day in Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in the heart of Cherry. They were there to discuss their recent fight to “reclaim Morgan School,” the nearly 100-year-old school building that sits across Cherry Park from the church.
The group is pushing back against a new plan by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to lease the building, which has sat empty since 2017, to local youth arts organization Arts+. CCO would like to claim the building for itself and run its own learning and resource center out of it. The organization has been pushing to reclaim Morgan School since the late 1970s, they say, and old news articles confirm that the efforts go back at least 36 years to 1984.
I go deeper into that specific debate in this week’s news feature, and it’s a nuanced one, but one thing I noticed while reporting on the story was how the fight over Morgan School is about more than Arts+. In fact, just about everyone involved agrees that Arts+ is a great organization. At its deepest levels, this fight is about respect.
While CCO is serious in its decades-long efforts to purchase Morgan School and make it a center run by the community, for the community, those efforts are inspired by a larger feeling of ongoing disrespect — disrespect from CMS, disrespect from city and county leaders, disrespect from gentrifying neighbors.
In describing her new neighbors’ behavior, Rainey made it clear how small actions that may seem like simple things are impactful microaggressions that longtime residents won’t stand for.
“To have people bring their animals in your yard to do what they do. I can kind of get past it if they pick it up, but the ones who don’t, to me that’s total disrespect, and I’ve never seen so much of it in my life,” Rainey told me. “There’s so much disrespect … just feeling like what we think doesn’t matter.”
In the 40 minutes we spent in that church basement before crossing the park to the school, CCO members uttered the words “respect” or “disrespect” a total of 13 times. It’s an ongoing theme that has driven the organization to stand up for each other ever since Yvonne Bittle, still active with CCO, and other Cherry parents came together to buy a bus for their children to get to their newly assigned schools after Morgan School closed in 1968, marking the informal beginning of what would become the Cherry Community Organization.
For Rainey, the fight for respect in their own community is one she wishes she could leave behind, but refuses to do so until she feels comfortable knowing the youth of Cherry won’t be disrespected either.
“If we could just live in peace, not always fighting, fighting, fighting. When is enough enough?” Rainey exclaimed. “We have taken a lot as a people … but it’s the way you do things and how you respect people … It’s how you go about making that change. Don’t walk over people. That’s disrespect.”