The following is the first in a five-part history of Black culture in Charlotte. Stay tuned for the parts in upcoming issues.
On October 4, 1891, Rev. Dr. Daniel Jackson Sanders ascended the pulpit at the Biddle University chapel to deliver his first sermon as Biddle’s president. He chose his text from Hebrews: “Seeing we . . . are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”
It was an auspicious occasion. Founded just after the Civil War to educate African Americans, Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) had become one of Charlotte’s most substantial institutions, the embodiment of Black ambition. The red-brick tower of Biddle Hall, where Sanders delivered that first address, soared grandly above the city’s western skyline, as it still does today.
In 1867, when Biddle first opened its doors, all the school’s teachers had been white. But times had changed. Sanders, who had been born in slavery, was Biddle’s first Black president. All but one of the professors in his audience were African American as well.
The change had sparked controversy. While many white Charlotteans supported the idea of a school for African Americans, they were far less enthusiastic about a school run by African Americans. “It is not probable that the negroes can successfully manage such an institution of learning,” the Charlotte Observer groused after Sanders’ appointment. All four of Biddle’s white Southern trustees resigned over the matter.
Sanders had no trouble proving his critics wrong. When he was born, in 1847, laws forbade enslaved people to learn to read and write. He learned shoemaking at age 9, and earned money for the man who claimed to “own” him until freedom came and he could strike out on his own.
A brilliant man with a commanding personality, Sanders became a widely admired minister and educator, as well as publisher of the influential African-American Presbyterian newspaper. At Biddle, he worked tirelessly to raise funds, expand course offerings and modernize the curriculum. Faculty likened him to Moses. Students dubbed him “Zeus.”
Across Charlotte, African Americans displayed similar ability and resolve. Amid the wreckage of Civil War defeat, North Carolinians had vowed to shape a “New South” based on commerce and industry.
Residents of Charlotte were especially keen on the promise of the New South. They built rail lines, farm supply stores, banks and a growing number of cotton mills, all of which promoted commerce and swelled the city’s population.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Charlotte had 2,265 residents. By 1900, it held 18,091, second only to the port city of Wilmington. As in slavery, this new economy depended on African-American labor. Black Charlotteans did hard, dirty and essential tasks that included washing clothes, scrubbing floors, digging ditches, making bricks, and loading and unloading 500-pound bales of cotton.
Many were brutally exploited. But in the more fluid racial order of the post-Civil War era, some found opportunity.
By the 1890s, Charlotte’s growing Black middle class practiced law and medicine, sold real estate, and operated businesses that included drugstores, restaurants, barber shops, saloons, newspapers, a brick factory, and the national publishing house of the AME Zion Church.
Successful African Americans invested in fine homes and substantial churches, often on the same streets as white homes and institutions. Thaddeus Tate built an Italianate brick mansion on East 7th Street, close to his upscale barber shop.
AME Zion Bishop George Wylie Clinton, publisher of the Star of Zion newspaper, lived on Myers Street in a Colonial Revival home surrounded by an enormous porch.
Female leaders such as school teacher Mary Lynch worked together with white women to promote community welfare and raise charitable funds, most notably for Good Samaritan Hospital, which opened in Third Ward in 1891.
Thanks in part to the political astuteness of saloonkeeper John Schenck, Black candidates regularly won election to Charlotte’s Board of Aldermen, and at one point held as many as three of the 12 seats.
Such achievement built confidence and optimism. ”Thus far the Negro has done well, he has answered all questions,” the Star of Zion proclaimed in 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 these gains were far from secure. Statewide, competing social and economic visions were fueling bitter political battles that would remake the racial order yet again.
From 1877 into the 1890s, North Carolina was run by the Democratic Party, the party which had plunged the South into the Civil War. Democratic legislators, most of which were well-off whites, used their power to favor commerce and industry and to restrict political participation to a wealthy few.
Most African Americans, who in 1890 made up 35% of North Carolina’s population, belonged to the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln. Both Black and white Republicans championed measures that would shake up the state’s social and economic hierarchy, in part by expanding voting rights.
At the start of the 1890s, a nationwide depression opened a window of opportunity. The economic downturn was particularly hard on the state’s small-scale white farmers. They began to look for alternatives to Democratic rule.
In 1894, these farmers joined with Republicans in a political alliance they called Fusion. Fusionists won control of the state legislature in 1894 and elected Republican Daniel Russell governor in 1896.
Once in power, they passed laws that helped ordinary people — they capped interest rates, made it easier to vote, and increased funding for public schools.
Elite whites reacted with self-righteous outrage. Fusionists, lamented Charlotte mayor J.H. Weddington, sought “to take the government out of the hands of the men who own the property and put it in the hands of those who are ignorant and own no property.”
The Return of White Supremacy
Democrats across the state began to search for an issue that would fuel their comeback. They settled on white supremacy.
White supremacy had a long history in North Carolina. When Europeans first settled the area, they had used the concept to justify taking land from Native Americans. They then made it the foundation of two centuries of race-based slavery.
In 1898, elite whites turned white supremacy to a new use – splitting the Fusion coalition. They devised a carefully coordinated statewide campaign that revived and intensified old racial stereotypes. Articles, speeches and ghoulish political cartoons portrayed the state’s African Americans as foolish, dishonest and dangerous.
Most dramatically, Democrats claimed that African-American men had been emboldened by political power, and thus posed a threat to white women. The year leading up to the election saw sensationalized coverage of a handful of alleged black-on-white rape cases — accusations that resulted in three lynchings and several public hangings.
Campaigners urged rural whites to leave the Fusion alliance and unite with Democrats to protect their wives and daughters.
“Proud Caucasians,” one campaign song ran, must defend their women’s “spotless virtue” with “strong and manly arms.” Additional rhetoric denounced “Negro Rule” and warned of “black domination.” Many of the state’s rising young political stars played key roles in the White Supremacy Campaign — which is what its leaders proudly called it.
Josephus Daniels, future U.S. Secretary of the Navy, turned the Raleigh News and Observer into an effective propaganda machine. Up-and-coming Charlotte participants included future state Supreme Court justice Heriot Clarkson and future governor Cameron Morrison.
In Charlotte, the campaign culminated with a massive parade and rally just before Election Day. “Tryon Street was full of horsemen from one end to the other,” the Observer reported. Participants held banners that proclaimed “White Supremacy” and “White Government.” Nearly 1,500 schoolchildren cheered as the marchers passed the white graded school.
On Election Day, the prospect of violence kept African Americans and their remaining white allies from going to the polls. Democrats won handily across the state.
“Once more the white man’s party will take possession of that which is its right by every law of birth, intelligence and principle,” the Observer reported.
Three days later, on November 11, 1898, African Americans in Charlotte awoke to even more devastating news from Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city. “Eleven Negroes Dead,” the Observer proclaimed. “Whites in Control.”
Wilmington was a Republican stronghold, with a Republican mayor, a number of Black public officials and a large Black voting population.
Emboldened by the Democrats’ sweeping statewide victory, Wilmington’s old-line white elite staged an armed revolt. They rampaged through the city, seeking out and murdering Black leaders. Hundreds of African Americans fled into the swamps around the city.
The insurgents then marched on City Hall, where their leader, Alfred Moore Waddell, declared himself the new mayor. It was the first and only coup d’état in American history.
Disfranchisement, Jim Crow and the Lost Cause
Elite whites wasted no time consolidating their power. In 1900 they persuaded voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution that allowed the use of poll taxes and literacy tests to limit who could vote. While the amendment did not mention race, it was targeted at African Americans.
Local voter registrars were given the power of creating the literacy tests and determining who had passed. They gave easy tests to whites and near-impossible ones to Blacks. These restrictions, combined with the ongoing threat of violence, proved devastatingly effective. By 1903, African Americans made up 39% of Charlotte’s population, but only 2% of registered voters.
To consolidate their hold over the state, white leaders wove white supremacy into every aspect of daily life, building a system that became known as Jim Crow. New laws and regulations forced African Americans to drink from separate drinking fountains, live in separate neighborhoods, ride at the back of streetcars, and even use separate Bibles in courtrooms.
In every case, facilities for African Americans were made deliberately and obviously inferior to those for whites.
The rise of white supremacy also fueled the “Lost Cause” movement, which romanticized slavery and the Confederacy, and wiped African-American resistance out of public view. Confederate memorials began to multiply, often fueled by the efforts of elite white women.
Charlotte’s first monument, a soldier’s memorial sponsored “by the women of Charlotte,” went up in Elmwood Cemetery in 1887 and remains there today. Three new monuments were added in the 1910s, including a “common soldier” statue at Mt. Zion Church in Cornelius. An imposing granite marker was placed on Kings Drive in 1929, lauding Confederate veterans for the way that they “preserved the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South and became master builders in a re-united country.”
To Leave or Stay
As the twentieth century dawned, North Carolina’s African Americans faced hard choices. Many decided to abandon the South, joining the Northern exodus that would become known as the Great Migration. U.S. Congressman George White bluntly stated his reason for departing: “I can no longer live in North Carolina and be a man.”
Those who chose to stay turned inward, focused on self-improvement and self-reliance. African Americans “must exercise much prudence, great patience, unceasing perseverance and a firm faith in God,” AME Zion Bishop Clinton wrote in 1903. “If these things be done and he continues to educate his children, acquire homes and land, improve his morals . . . his course will be ever onward and upward.”
Black businesses began to cluster in the Second Ward neighborhood, joining Black institutions such as the Myers Street School and the Brevard Street Library. Smaller enclaves consolidated in First Ward, Third Ward, Biddleville, Griertown, Cherry and Greenville.
In Second Ward, entrepreneurs hired Black builder and designer W.W. Smith to construct handsome office and retail buildings, including the still-standing Mecklenburg Investment Company Building on Brevard Street. Proud of their accomplishments, Second Ward’s residents began to call their neighborhood Brooklyn, after New York City’s fashionable new borough.
There, in the spaces they had created for themselves, they worked and watched for opportunity.
Look for Part 2: Community advancement and civil rights, in the our next paper.
You can learn more about North Carolina’s African Americans in the late nineteenth century, the Wilmington Massacre and the white supremacy campaigns in these books.
Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (University of Florida Press 2003, new edition 2019)
Janette Thomas Greenwood, Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White “Better Classes” in Charlotte, 1850-1910 (University of North Carolina Press, 1994)
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996, new edition 2019)
Thomas Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998, new edition 2020)
Jill Snider, Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur (University of North Carolina Press, 2020)
David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020)
You can also check out some of Queen City Nerve’s past stories on Black history in Charlotte, including a series on segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and a story on the Civil Rights bombings of 1965.