The three men gaze out over the vehicles speeding past on South Brevard Street. Their dark suits and stiff white collars mark them as belonging to another time, to the era of the Grace AME Zion Church that stands in front of them and the elegant, three-story Mecklenburg Investment Company office building rising behind.
From the 1880s into the 1940s, Thaddeus Lincoln Tate, J.T. Williams and William C. Smith played key roles in building up Black Charlotte, most notably the center-city neighborhood called Brooklyn, where the mural described above sits today. Tate established the city’s most celebrated barbershop, Williams became one of North Carolina’s first Black doctors, and Smith edited and published Charlotte’s first Black newspaper, the Charlotte Messenger.
Below the men, artist Abel Jackson has painted three boys from a more recent era, their backs to the street, looking up. The juxtaposition links past, present and future. But it holds more than that.
The photograph on which Jackson modeled the seated boys tells a far different story. In that image, taken in the early 1970s, the trio is watching the demolition of Second Ward High School, one of the last buildings to fall victim to the bulldozers that erased the Brooklyn neighborhood in the name of “urban renewal.”
By transporting the boys away from the scene of Brooklyn’s demise and placing them at the feet of the neighborhood’s creators, Jackson sought to refocus viewers’ perspectives on Black history, a shift that he had made himself.
“Before you know the fullness of our history, there’s a concentration on destruction,” he explained. “What men like these were doing and the profoundness of what they were doing – I missed out on it because I was just focused on the destruction.”
As with much of Black history, though, creation and destruction tightly intertwine. The ghosts of urban renewal haunt South Brevard as well, surfacing in the mind of anyone who has seen the Second Ward photograph, and in the contrast between the pair of small-scale brick buildings and the towers that now surround them.
Grace AME Zion and the Mecklenburg Investment Company are two of only four Brooklyn buildings that escaped the bulldozers (the other two are the original McCrorey YMCA on Caldwell St., which currently sits empty, and the Second Ward High gymnasium on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., recently reopened as a Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation facility).
Those ghosts speak to a fundamental fact of Black life and Black history — displacement.
Bricks from the wreckage of Second Ward High were scattered, carried off by generations of devoted graduates. “I can remember when they started tearing the building down,” Rufus Spears explained two decades after the building came down. “There were a lot of students, former students who came back just to get one brick to save as a memento.”
Similarly, Brooklyn residents who lost their homes were dispersed throughout the city and beyond, each bearing their own memories and possessions.
Pulling the story together
Like artists, historians seek to pull parts of these experiences back together, searching out artifacts of memory and record and piecing them together in ways that illuminate both past and present.
This is what I’ve tried to do with Legacy. I’ve drawn on sources that include census records, newspapers, family documents, photographs and oral history interviews to offer an overview of the lives, challenges and accomplishments of the many generations of African Americans who have lived in the Charlotte area.
Thanks to decades of work by historians and history-minded residents, this endeavor is far more feasible today than it was when I came to Charlotte three decades ago.
Researching African American history can be challenging. Standard sources – government records, mainstream publications, documents preserved in archives – generally provide scant, deeply biased information on Black lives. In addition, the multiple upheavals Black communities have endured have made it hard for communities to effectively preserve their own records.
Before urban renewal came disfranchisement. Thad Tate, J.C. Williams and W.C. Smith started their Charlotte careers in the hopeful years of the 1880s and 1890s. All around them, newly emancipated Black men and women were building homes and businesses, participating in politics and — they thought — moving towards full equality in American life.
“Thus far the Negro has done well, he has answered all questions,” the Charlotte-based Star of Zion newspaper proudly proclaimed in April of 1897. “His destiny is to make his race the equal of the best race in history and to be distinct only as to color.”
But in 1898, a violent white supremacy campaign thrust African Americans out of political life and set in motion the separate-and-unequal segregation known as Jim Crow. Many Black Charlotteans left the state. Those who remained turned inward, using the resources they could muster to painstakingly build up communities such as Brooklyn. Until the bulldozers arrived.
These multiple disruptions mean that much of Black community history has been preserved in private homes rather than institutions. It has taken patient, collaborative effort to bring documents, artifacts and memories back into public view.
Historian Janette Greenwood learned about these community resources back in 1983, when she set out to document Black Charlotte history for Charlotte’s Historic Landmarks Commission. Standard sources had little to offer. When, for example, Greenwood contacted the North Carolina State Archives about newspaper records, archivists told her that while a Black newspaper had been published in Charlotte in the 1880s, only a single issue had survived.
Then, however, community historian and longtime JCSU professor Rev. DeGrandval Burke caught wind of the project. He phoned the commission and recommended that Greenwood visit a woman who lived on Beatties Ford Road.
Greenwood arranged a meeting and appeared at the appointed time. After asking a few questions, Rosa Smith, the daughter of William C. Smith, “started bringing down these massive leatherbound volumes.” Smith had 150 issues of her father’s newspaper, published between 1882 and 1889.
Greenwood began to make regular visits to Smith’s home, where she would spend a few hours at a time paging through the century-old volumes, “leather flaking on my fingertips,” and learning about a remarkably rich, largely forgotten world. “She was just so generous,” Greenwood recalled. The Messenger became the central source for Greenwood’s Bittersweet Legacy, about the hopeful post-Emancipation era.
Soon afterward, Rosa Smith donated the newspapers to Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center), founded by UNC Charlotte professors Bertha Maxwell-Roddey and Mary Harper in 1974. The papers were microfilmed, then digitized, and are now available on DigitalNC for anyone to read.
Other efforts were underway as well. Vermelle Diamond Ely spearheaded the formation of the Second Ward High School National Alumni Association, filled her basement and the Second Ward Alumni House with artifacts, and with her fellow graduates told the school’s story over and over. Historian Tom Hanchett, who had worked with Greenwood at the Historic Landmarks Commission, published Sorting out the New South City, which included detailed accounts of Black neighborhood development.
In February of 1991 the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library launched a photography collection effort spearheaded by Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room director Pat Ryckman and revered community leader Elizabeth Randolph. Funded through a benefit performance by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the project involved several day-long photography sessions that captured high-quality copies of more than 1,500 Black family photographs.
These have become an invaluable resource for researchers and communities – many of the images in Legacy came from the library’s collections. In 2004, when a tragic fire took the life of longtime community photographer James Peeler and damaged his backyard studio, staff at the Levine Museum of the New South and the Johnson C. Smith archives worked with the Peeler family to rescue, restore and preserve more than 200,000 negatives.
Oral history projects, whose participants have generously shared their thoughts and recollections, have helped expand the record, documenting the experiences of people such as Barbara Davis and Leroy “Pop” Miller, leading figures at West Charlotte High School; Charles Jones, B.B. DeLaine and Edyth Strickland DeLaine, who helped organize the Charlotte sit-ins; Wilhelmenia Adams, the Cherry activist whose work through the organization Domestics United helped raise wages for domestic workers in the 1960s; and many of the residents displaced from Brooklyn.
As this accounting of online resources makes clear, technological advance has greatly aided historians’ endeavors, especially in areas such as Black history. The advent of digital searching makes it far easier to trace the clues to Black life scattered throughout mainstream sources.
It also made it possible to scan the 2,300 Works Progress Administration interviews done with formerly enslaved individuals across the country and locate the single narrative – collected in Arkansas – that held stories about Mecklenburg County.
Access to these sources, along with a renewed interest in Black history among young people, is sparking dynamic discussions and creations across our city. Legacy is our addition to this mix, and we are proud to have Abel Jackson’s mural on the cover.
We at Queen City Nerve hope these accounts of courage and commitment will assist and inspire our fellow Charlotteans as they pursue further research and share additional stories, helping to assemble a more complete story of our city’s past. There is so much to tell.
Starting February 25, paperback copies of Legacy will be available at most local bookstores, from Queen City Nerve, and through Amazon, which will also have a Kindle version. The full work can be read online for free at Issuu.com. Organizations interested in providing copies to their employees, or to schools, should contact Queen City Nerve for discounted bulk pricing.
This has not been designed as a for-profit project. Pamela Grundy will receive no royalties, and money taken in by Queen City Nerve will go toward recovering publication expenses and funding future journalism projects on Black culture in Charlotte.