Founders of the Cherry Community Organization began organizing in 1969 after the neighborhood’s Morgan School was closed and its students were “bused” to Myers Park, Elizabeth and Eastover elementary schools. There was just one thing missing from this busing plan: the bus.
Children living in Cherry were expected to walk to their assigned schools, so local parents chipped in and bought a bus, calling it the Blue Goose, and took turns driving the children to their respective schools.
Over the next decade, this group of community organizers continued to fight for their neighborhood, which was platted by John Myers in 1891 to serve as a home for Black workers. The residents had watched so-called “urban renewal” policies level Brooklyn, which bordered Cherry to the northwest, and they didn’t want to see the same fate for their community.
In 1977, the Cherry Community Organization (CCO) filed their articles of incorporation with the state as a nonprofit organization, and two years later received 501c3 tax-exempt status.
Sitting in a meeting room with about 15 CCO members in Cherry’s Pleasant Hill Baptist Church on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was plain to see how those roots still run deep with the organization. Present that day were Yvonne Bittle, the last living co-founder of the Cherry Community Organization; her daughter Dr. Sylvia Bittle-Patton, one of the students who rode the Blue Goose back in 1969; and Sylvia’s son Mylon Patton, a 20-year-old University of Chicago student who has become active with CCO while attending school remotely from Charlotte.
Them and the others in the room, some of whom had lived in Cherry for anywhere between 70 and 93 years, had gathered to discuss their latest mission — though one that they’ve been at for some time: reclaiming Morgan School.
The historic 10-classroom school building has sat vacant since Community Charter School left in June 2017. Recent news that the building’s owner, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is planning to lease the space to local youth arts organization Arts+ has created a rift in the community, with Cherry Community Organization claiming to have been left out of any talks regarding its new use.
The organization wants to open a learning resource center in the building for all Cherry residents, and they’ve been fighting this fight since the early 1980s at least, judging by an article archived by Dr. Biddle-Patton in which the late Jim Ross scolds the city for reneging on a promise to return Morgan School to the community.
“We have a vision for that school and we’ve had a vision for 30 years for the school, which is why we’re asking for the school,” Bittle-Patton said. “Arts can be one part of that, but arts is not all of that. We think about the ability of what that school can do and how it can serve our community, and I mean all of our community … We can make it, conceivably, a 21st-century community learning and resource center.”
Officials with CMS and the county say CCO hasn’t come to the table with a proposal. Organizers with CCO claim that, until the Arts+ deal was made public in January, they were told repeatedly by CMS that there was a moratorium on any new actions involving the Morgan School.
Before that, Bittle-Patton said CCO had the blessing of previous CMS superintendents Ann Clark and Dr. Clayton Wilcox, but were repeatedly stymied by some unknown party within CMS before a deal could come to fruition.
“Our efforts are on record, our efforts are documented,” Bittle-Patton said. “We have never, ever ceased in saying to CMS, ‘We want to reclaim the Morgan School for Cherry.’ This is not something new. This is something we’ve been doing now for almost 35 years and we are just not wavering on this.”
What’s the plan?
Proponents of the Arts+ deal say it’s a win-win, providing Cherry youth with a new arts resource and allowing Arts+ to upfit the crumbling facility. CCO, however, says the deal is just another example of Cherry residents being told what they need by outsiders, then ignored when they object.
There’s one thing people on both sides of the issue seem to agree on: that Arts+ is a good organization that has a positive impact on the community.
Over more than 50 years, Arts+ has been working to expand arts accessibility to children of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds through music and visual arts instruction, offering private and group music lessons, visual art classes and workshops, summer camps, early childhood art education and the Charlotte Children’s Choir, among other programs, according to Devlin McNeil, president and executive director of Arts+.
Arts+ hopes to use Morgan School as a home for Project Harmony, its free orchestra program that serves 2nd-5th-grade students; and Studio 345, a free digital arts program offered to all Mecklenburg high school students. The school would also be the site for Arts+ summer camps serving kids of all ages.
According to CMS Board of Education District 4 representative Carol Sawyer, Arts+ approached CMS about potentially leasing the Morgan School as a new home after reconstruction at the Uptown Charlotte Mecklenburg Library location forced the organization from its home in Spirit Square across the street.
Under the proposed lease, Arts+ will not pay a monthly rent, but will be responsible for all upkeep of the facility throughout the 10-year duration of the lease. The organization will also invest $1.2 million in upfitting the building and bringing it up to current standards.
Sawyer said the moratorium CCO leaders referred to only applied to the sale of buildings, but the lease proposal from Arts+ fit well with CMS goals.
“I think it’s a tremendous win for the community and for the youth of the community to have that arts resource right there,” Sawyer said. “Arts+ has done some amazing programs pairing adults and youth. Hannah Hasan just did a storytelling program where she paired elected officials and other community leaders with youth to create these joint stories, so there are tremendous possibilities of pairing community youth with the seniors in the community to collect stories and build on that. It strikes me as something that would be a natural fit.”
McNeil agreed, stating that Arts+ would like to build dialogue with community leaders to “hear their specific wants and needs for the building,” then eventually hold community events and festivals at the property and offer financial assistance to help community members access arts education.
“Arts+ sees this as just the beginning of a relationship built on inclusivity and reverence for the historic neighborhood, one that celebrates the intentional adaptive reuse of a significant building,” McNeil said.
Some don’t see it that way.
“What goes inside [Morgan School] will be something that will benefit the community itself, and we’ll be working with the community to determine what are the needs,” Bittle-Patton said. “It’s about asset mapping and needs assessment, not having a program come in and say to us, ‘We’ll try to fit you in.’ Art can be a part of it, but Morgan School is so much more than arts.”
At an April 6 Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting, the board had planned to vote on right to refusal for the Morgan School deal, giving them veto power over the deal, in a way. The board was expected to pass on that power and allow the deal to go through, until CCO’s pleas to their representative Mark Jerrell led him to ask for more time.
“As we look at this issue, what we’re faced with tonight is one of equity, opportunity and respect,” Jerrell said. “The county has been placed in a difficult position: essentially being asked to unring a bell that we had no part of. This issue has divided a community. Most of us would agree that Arts+ adds tremendous value to the community, but the Morgan School and what it represents is essentially a microcosm and a symbol of public issues that essentially promote and perpetuate a system of inequality and racism, frankly, and whether it’s intentional or not, it appears to me that that is the outcome.”
The board voted to table the matter until county manager Dena Diorio could mediate more communication between the opposing sides in hopes that they will find a way to compromise and potentially collaborate. It’s expected to return to the commissioners for a vote and discussion in May.
What’s in a deal?
There are multiple state statutes and land deeds at play that need to be taken into consideration with any deal involving Morgan School.
First, according to a land deed dating back at least to the 1930s, the building must be used for educational purposes. Since its closing in 1968, the building has been used as a night school for adults, then a school for teenage parents, then a behavioral modification school. It’s even been used for a short time as a training ground for police K9 units, though because they were K9 units with the CMS Police Department, that counts under the umbrella of an educational institution.
According to Bittle-Patton, the CCO is looking into historic records to flesh out whether, with all the different members of the Myers families who at some time or another owned parcels of the Morgan School property, that deed still applies.
For the most part, however, the organization is OK with the deed restrictions.
“We’ve got kids, but we also have seniors in our community, and they would absolutely love to have some night classes. They would also like some science, technology, engineering and math. People can always learn,” she said. “They want to learn computers, they want to learn financial literacy. There is a restriction on the deed, we can find something to do that’s consistent with the deed.”
According to state statute, any building that CMS sells has to be sold at full market value. It cannot be gifted or sold at a discount, regardless of what good cause it might serve.
CCO is no stranger to real estate dealings. The group isn’t just any old neighborhood association, it was one of Charlotte’s first community development corporations. That means the organization owns and manages properties in the neighborhood, ensuring that homes stay affordable so residents can live out their lives there without worrying about being priced out or displaced.
CCO currently manages 15 properties in Cherry, and that number is only as low as it is now because of a deal in which the organization was taken advantage of in 2007.
Around that time, a man representing a little-known company bought a majority of the properties under CCO’s care with promises to rebuild 16 affordable housing units. He then displaced the folks living there and flipped the properties to the highest bidder. The lots are now home to extravagant Saussy Burbank houses, the most visible signs of gentrification in a high-demand neighborhood that’s long struggled to keep generational residents paying affordable rates.
CCO took the house flipper to court, and in 2018 the organization was awarded a settlement worth more than $7 million after a judge ruled that the deal was made through unfair and deceptive practices. Despite the court victory, CCO lost many of its properties. It’s clear that the experience played a role in how organizers view outsiders coming in to make deals involving local properties.
“We lost that amount of real estate. We don’t get that land back,” said Bittle-Patton. “You can’t unring that bell. We have individuals who have been displaced as a result of that deal that should have never happened in the first place … We have generations of families that were displaced as a result of this. So this is a fight that’s ongoing, and we’re just aware of it and we want the community to be aware of it.”
Another state statute has been brought up as a positive for CCO, though they don’t quite see it that way.
The longest lease CMS can offer on one of its properties is 10 years, and that’s what’s planned for the Arts+ deal. Some have said CCO should take those 10 years to run a capital campaign and put together a plan to purchase Morgan School outright.
At the April 6 BOCC meeting, at-large representative Pat Cotham stood strongest against the CCO’s claims that they had been left out of the discussion, claiming that they were simply opposing the Arts+ plan without presenting one of their own.
Cotham suggested they come back after 10 years with a better plan.
“[They’re saying] ‘We wanted this for 30 years, we wanted this in so many years, and even in January,’ yet there’s no proposal, there’s no plan.” Cotham said. “They have 10 years to make a proposal, to have a capital campaign. They haven’t had leadership. If someone would step up and be a leader … they could be in a totally different place.”
Cotham’s fellow representatives Elaine Powell and Vilma Leake immediately contradicted Cotham’s claims, confirming that they had been hearing from Cherry community leaders for years about efforts to take ownership of the school. Leake said she had photos from years past at meetings in Cherry with the same leadership who spoke at the public forum on April 6, then implied that Cotham had probably never been to the neighborhood.
Unsurprisingly, Cotham’s claims were felt the hardest among CCO leadership. For Bittle-Patton, however, it’s one more reason to continue fighting the folks who doubt CCO’s drive.
“If anybody feels like we’re just kind of sitting back on our hands, that’s just not the Cherry way,” she said. “That’s not the Grier Heights way, that wasn’t the Brooklyn way. You just don’t sit back and allow these things to happen.”
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