Survey of African American Buildings and Sites in
The African American Presence in the
Mecklenburg County Built Environment, 1850-1950
history of Mecklenburg County spans over two hundred years, from its
eighteenth century origins as a backwoods trading crossroads and courthouse
town to its current modern identity as a regionally recognized marketing,
commercial, and transportation center. African Americans have been an
integral part of the county’s population since its establishment in the
1740s, as many citizens owned slaves and several planters operated sizeable
plantations. Although dwarfed by the more successful and wealthy
“aristocratic” economies in South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina and
Mecklenburg County were fully entrenched in the cotton economy of the
nineteenth century. Until the early nineteenth century, the area was
stymied by a poor infrastructure and inadequate water transport. Although a
strong producer of cotton and other crops, Mecklenburg County initially
suffered from its distance to regional markets and ports.
in the late 1840s when prominent citizens of the county had the foresight to
promote investment in a railroad. The first rail line was completed in 1852,
and on the eve of the Civil War, four railroads served Mecklenburg County.
The significance of the advent of the railroad cannot be overstated; rail
links provided the only cost-effective connections to outside markets for
the county’s farmers, merchants, manufacturers and consumers.
As the railroads made the economy more robust, the county’s white and
African, and African American population increased. By 1860 slaves accounted
for 40% of the county population, but physical relics of this substantial
demographic component are now almost totally non-existent. Written
references to slaves in the records of local slave owning families are also
rare. Auctions were advertised in the newspapers, as were notices of
runaways and town ordinances that applied only to slaves. Beyond this, most
residents did not register tremendous interest or concern in slaves unless
While generally disruptive and costly in human and monetary resources, the
Civil War did not directly adversely affect Mecklenburg. Sheltered in the
piedmont hinterland, Mecklenburg was never invaded or occupied. Local
merchants took advantage of opportunities to capitalize on war contracts and
as a consequence, by the end of the war, the county stood in good shape to
resume its commercial and agricultural activities. The post-bellum world was
fraught with unpleasant social and economic changes for nearly all levels of
society. Whites seem more disposed to react adversely to blacks during
Reconstruction and in the years after. Planters had to learn to make do
without slaves, whites had to adjust to blacks as free people, and
ultimately as citizens, and blacks had to learn to navigate the uncertain
waters of their new status. The extant built resources relevant to
Mecklenburg’s African American population date from the late nineteenth
century and after.
In addition to planters’ concerns about securing sufficient labor, the
former ruling elite was preoccupied with the restoration of their political
and economic ascendancy and with the reversal of any democratic gains made
during reconstruction. The general social and economic unease prevalent
after the Civil War was ultimately articulated in the disfranchisement and
Jim Crow laws of late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As racial
divisions formalized by the turn of the century, blacks found themselves
sequestered from the social mainstream in every conceivable aspect. In the
rural world, they were mostly confined to sharecropping, although there are
notable instances documented in this survey of landed African American
farmers who managed large farms that were competitive with neighboring white
In Charlotte, blacks were segregated into residential sections and had a
separate commercial district centered on Brevard Street, adjacent to the
locus of the white commercial hub on the principal commercial arteries of
Trade and Tryon Streets. Blacks were also segregated in terms of occupations
and where they could work. The black middle class was small in the early
twentieth century; most African Americans worked in blue-collar skilled and
semi-skilled jobs. Blacks rarely worked in textile mills, and when they did,
they were never alongside whites. In an unusual bid for labor, the Hoskins
Mill built six mill houses for African American workers, and located these
houses on the opposite side of the mill from the significantly larger white
mill village. The workers who lived in these houses worked in the boiler
room, or as janitors or on the loading docks, and did not typically share
their work environment with white mill operatives.
In spite of the existence of discrete black and white business sections,
urban residential patterns in Charlotte were not rigidly defined. Blacks and
whites lived in ”salt and pepper” configurations in the various wards and
neighborhoods. This pattern continued until after the Second World War.
Increased suburbanization and demand for housing caused a white flight from
the city center. Post war urban development and suburban growth spelled
disaster for Charlotte’s historic urban black neighborhoods, which either
deteriorated over time as the residents aged out, or were demolished to make
room for expansion in the center city. There are few vestiges of these
neighborhoods left in Charlotte and even fewer examples of such
neighborhoods extant in the incorporated townships of the county. The best
nearly intact example is found in Davidson. Fragments of such neighborhoods
remain in Huntersville, Cornelius, and Matthews. If any African American
neighborhoods existed in southeast Mecklenburg, they have long since
vanished in the wake of massive suburban development. The same is true for
unincorporated places annexed by Charlotte.
By the 1950s, segregated residential patterns were firmly established. Some
African American housing developments were built in North Mecklenburg to
accommodate the displaced middle and professional classes who previously
lived in town. The black urban population increased since the 1950s as the
post -war boom created more jobs, and sharecropping and tenant farming were
abandoned in the interest of better jobs in town.
Mecklenburg County History and the African American
Early Development to 1865
The earliest inhabitants of Mecklenburg County were Native American tribes
who hunted and traded throughout the Carolinas. Their first encounters with
white men were with the traders and trappers who roamed the area in the
seventeenth century. Permanent white settlers did not arrive until the
mid-eighteenth century. The Native American dominance of the region
collapsed within ten yeas of the coming of white settlers, who had different
ideas about land use and land ownership than the native people, and who also
possessed the force of will and gun power to secure what was once commonly
shared land for their private use.
The Piedmont region was not initially attractive or practically accessible
to the earliest white settlers of North Carolina. Those colonists, who
settled in the eastern part of the colony, came from established British
colonies such as Virginia, Barbados, and South Carolina. Others migrated
from England, Germany and Switzerland in hopes of creating a profitable
plantation economy in the newly organized Carolina Proprietary Colony.
Unfortunately, the North Carolina’s dangerous coastline, shallow harbors,
and unnavigable rivers in the Piedmont region assured the colony’s status as
a poor relation to the more prosperous and aristocratic plantation economies
to the north and south. Eastern North Carolina, however, was initially
founded on commercial agriculture based on slave labor.
Mecklenburg was not settled by migrants from the east, but by Scots-Irish
Presbyterians and German Lutherans who arrived in the 1740s by way of the
Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, which stretched from Pennsylvania into South
Carolina. These pioneers came with the intention of carving out their future
on small farms as independent farmers. By the 1760s, the Catawba Indians
were marginalized by warfare and diseases indigenous to the Europeans. The
new settlers carved out small farmsteads and established several rural
communities centered on country churches. The early core of Presbyterian
churches: Hopewell, Providence, Sugaw Creek, Steele Creek, Rocky River,
Centre, and Poplar Tent, were all organized by the late 1760s, and became
the locus of social and cultural life in the newly settled region.
In spite of its position on the Great Wagon Road, Mecklenburg initially
developed in relative isolation. As late as 1837, a discriminating visitor
from Charleston remarked that Mecklenburg was “ a place not offering
anything worthy of note or interest,” and that even the better-bred locals
[perhaps inclusive of her hosts] were “almost primitive.”
Compared to the eastern counties, colonial Mecklenburg was not prosperous.
Farmers and planters did not have adequate water transport to facilitate
commercial growth, and goods had to be hauled over land to Charleston, which
was the nearest port.
This horrendously expensive mode of transportation made large-scale
agriculture out of the question for all but the wealthiest of farmers. The
lack of a reasonable infrastructure contributed to a sagging economy and
hampered diversification. The inability to build wealth on brisk commercial
relations with other commercial centers also depressed population growth.
Most of the county’s residents were subsistence farmers who lived in rough
log cabins. They were reputed to be coarse, rude, and illiterate folk, given
to brawls, drinking and debauchery. When Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs visited
Mecklenburg County in 1755, he took particular note of the impoverished
state of most of the citizens. The primary civilizing influence in this
wilderness was the church, which according to contemporary accounts had its
work cut out for it. Town life was scarcely superior to rural life. By 1780,
Charlotte, the county seat, was comprised of a courthouse at the
intersection of two streets, on which sat about twenty houses.
Mecklenburg achieved some small measure of fame in the years prior to the
American Revolution. Several civic leaders allegedly wrote and endorsed the
Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the actual existence of which has
never been documented, and the Mecklenburg Resolves [May 31,1775], which
have. In the late 1770s, the county’s sentiments were mostly with the
Patriots, and antiquarian historical accounts of the period relate the
exploits of the Mecklenburg patriots with great pride. The Mecklenburg
Resolves, issued by the Mecklenburg Committee of Safety placed the county in
sympathy with the recently chastised Massachusetts colony and declared all
laws issued by the crown to be invalid, and that these laws would
furthermore be superseded by local law until further notice from the
British and loyalist troops entered Charlotte in 1780 and remained through
October. This brief and highly disruptive episode was the worst that the
county endured during the War, and when this incident was over, citizens
returned to the necessary business of tending their farms and replenishing
stocks confiscated by marauding British and Patriot troops in fall of that
The political and economic elite of the county acquired large tracts on
which they hoped to make their fortunes as cotton planters. Slavery was
introduced into the county through this layer of the economy, and according
to record was in the area as early as the 1760s.
Significant economic growth in Mecklenburg did not occur until after the
Revolutionary War, and by the War’s end, some well-to-do citizens had built
substantial rock houses, such as the Hezekiah Alexander House and the
Robinson Rock House. The prosperity of some planters was evident in the more
sophisticated and grand homes built in the late 1780s and the early
nineteenth century. Rural Hill , White Oak , Oaklawn ,
Beaver Dam , Cedar Grove [c. 1833], Edgewood , and the W.T.
Alexander House [c. 1840] still stand as testimonials of the affluence
attained by the planters who built them. Their wealth, based on land and
slaves, secured their positions as the powerful ruling minority of the
From 1800 to c. 1830, the county’s economy was based on agriculture and gold
mining. Foreign and native-born American miners swarmed to the area once the
news of the discovery of gold became widely known. Nine gold mines were
chartered by 1834, and in the heyday of mining operations, mining companies
often rented slaves when they needed additional labor.
The small gold mining boom was a short-lived economic boost, but the
county’s foundation rested on agriculture, the potential of which was
limited by the lack of a satisfactory transportation infrastructure. The
county’s population increased from 1800-1830, but after the gold boom, many
people migrated to other more promising areas. The population declined 30%
from 1830-1850. Facing dire times, city leaders launched what was
ultimately a highly successful campaign to build a railroad. Fundraising
began in 1846, and 1847, farmers, planters, and other investors raised
$300,000.00 for the construction of the Charlotte and South Carolina
Railroad, which connected Charlotte to Columbia and Charleston. The line was
completed in 1852. In 1856, the state-owned North Carolina Railroad
completed track from Goldsboro to Charlotte, connecting the area to Raleigh,
Richmond, and northern markets.
In his travels through the state in 1856, Frederick Law Olmsted noted the
construction of a railroad from Charlotte to Raleigh would increase
production by lowering the cost of transporting produce from the central
part of the state.
By 1861, a third line, the Wilmington, Charlotte, Rutherfordton Railroad
Company built a passenger station on North Tryon Street in Charlotte, the
eastern terminus of its Charlotte to Lincolnton leg, and a fourth line
completed its route from Charlotte to Statesville in 1863.
Compared to planter societies in Virginia, and the South Carolina Low
Country, plantations in Mecklenburg were smaller both in number and in size.
However, Mecklenburg County was clearly an integral part of the Southern
cotton culture. Slaves accounted for 40% of the county population in 1860.
The majority of slave owners enumerated in the 1860 Census Slave Schedule
for Mecklenburg County owned over ten slaves, and many had well over twenty.
A cursory examination of the 1860 slave census suggests that planters did
not attempt to own a disproportionate number of males over female, that
according to the ages of slaves in most plantation groups, they were
probably in families, and slave cabins accommodated three to five people.
Twenty-five per cent of the county’s white population owned slaves, but only
1% were classified as planters. Thirty-five per cent of the population did
not own slaves, and slaves comprised the remaining 40%.
The majority of slaves worked as field hands or domestics, and in some
instances, slaves worked in the area gold mines.
As the slave population represented nearly half of the total county
population, local government passed a separate set of rules governing their
behavior and movements. The Charlotte Town Ordinances published in The
Western Democrat in 1864 regulated interaction between free blacks and
slaves, prohibiting slaves from frequenting “dram or grog shops” without
written permission, from smoking in public, carrying weapons, or from
straying from home after 9:30 in the evening.
A slave’s life was highly regimented whether they lived in town or on a
plantation. Margaret Torrance, mistress of Cedar Grove, instructed her
overseer James Brown in his responsibility to monitor the slaves' work and
protect the Torrance's property. Slaves were to begin their day early enough
to feed the stock and prepare their own breakfast. Brown was to follow the
slaves to their work to make sure that they stayed on the job. Slaves
usually worked until sundown. In the summer, field hands received a two-hour
break at midday, and one hour in the fall and spring. The slave cabins were
inspected at least once a week at night "to keep the negroes from running
about", and no one was allowed out of their cabin without permission. On
Saturday evenings, women were allowed to spend two hours to wash their
laundry and all hands were expected to appear on Monday mornings with "comb
head and clean clothes unless prevented by circumstances." Brown was also
responsible for the maintenance and health of livestock. He supervised
gearing horses and had to account for the condition of gear, wagons and
Even though 6800 slaves lived in Mecklenburg County in 1860, it is difficult
to find any evidence of their existence. Grand planter homes built by slaves
still stand, and land cleared by slave labor is in some instances still in
use, but there are few other physical reminders in Mecklenburg County of the
“peculiar institution.” The lone surviving slave cabin inventoried by this
survey is the Stafford Plantation Log Dwelling in eastern Mecklenburg
County. The Roseland Cemetery and the Tunis Hood Slave
Cemetery, both also situated in the eastern section of the county, near
Matthews and Mint Hill, respectively, allegedly contain the remains of
slaves and freed blacks. The Historic Landmarks Commission has also
documented two slave cemeteries, the Neely Slave Cemetery and the W.T.
Alexander Slave Cemetery.
After the Civil War, clusters of slave cabins near the big house were
dismantled and gave way to sharecropper or tenant houses scattered on the
property. Three tenant houses once occupied by African American tenant
farmers were inventoried in this survey, but only one of them stands in fair
condition, the remainder are in deteriorated condition. Tenant houses, for
both black and white landless farmers, were once a familiar aspect of
Mecklenburg’s rural landscape, but these structures have not survived the
current demands for land use. In addition to the lack of physical reminders
of the sizeable slave population that once labored in Mecklenburg County,
there is a dearth of local family papers in which their slaves are
discussed. Older histories of the county dwell on the civic and military
accomplishments of the aristocratic families, and only mention the local
black population in passing, as caricatures. As 40% of the population, free
and enslaved blacks represented a significant segment of the ante-bellum
population, and although they were present in every aspect of life, physical
structures related to slavery disappeared with the dismantling of the
institution. Except for slave auction advertisements, the publication of
new slave laws, and notices of runaway slaves, slave related documents are
scarce. From the perspective of public and private record, slaves were all
but invisible in the ante-bellum period by virtue of their subordinate
position and because they were well controlled. This changed in the
post-bellum era, as whites became obsessed with the behaviors of freedmen.
The Civil War devastated the region as a whole, and Mecklenburg County also
suffered significant losses in manpower and economic stability. The war did
not come directly to Charlotte, so the city escaped the massive destruction
faced by other southern towns and the county’s farms and infrastructure
remained mostly intact. Parts of the Charlotte to Statesville railroad was
torn up and re-laid in areas where it would better serve the Confederate War
effort, and much of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad was destroyed.
The Confederate Navy Yard was moved from Norfolk to its sheltered location
in Charlotte in 1862, and several local businesses, notably the Mecklenburg
Iron Works prospered as suppliers of war materiel.
Reconstruction to 1900: Social Changes and Political
Rural and Agricultural Life
The social and economic chaos endemic in the post war years aggravated
extant rifts between the races and between socio-economic classes. White
southerners were overwhelmed with the prospects of a ruined economy and
society. Faced with tremendous capital losses in slaves and other property,
many planters were confronted with the uncertain prospect of pursuing an
economy based on agriculture without slave labor. The common lament of
planters during this period revolved around the regional labor shortage. The
manpower existed in similar numbers as before, but freedmen refused to work
in any conditions vaguely resembling slavery. Freedmen seized the
opportunity to shape their own futures. Ex-slave owners were shocked,
appalled and hurt that their former slaves, some of them their most faithful
and obedient, defiantly left to live as free people.
Many freed slaves left their masters in search of lost family or of other
employment. During the first years after their liberation, freed blacks
continued to work as field labor, but they demanded cash wages.
Landowners desperate for laborers and freedmen desperate for work created a
short-lived system of contractual agreements in which black field hands
earned cash wages in exchange for a year of work. At first many observers
had high hopes for this plan because by freely entering into a contractual
arrangement, planters and laborers embraced the practices of a free labor
economy. However, many serious problems bedeviled this system. Farmers
remained cash poor for many years after the war and fluctuating market
prices often made contracts difficult to honor. Many contracts were thinly
disguised post war versions of slavery: wages were ridiculously low or were
not part of the agreement, and the employer was free to control his
employees’ personal lives. Illiterate freedmen often entered into contracts
they could not understand or read, and had no recourse when an employer
failed to pay them. The concept of a yearlong contract was ludicrous to
critics who asserted that other free laborers were not bound by such
restrictions, and could leave their employers when it suited them.
Planters and landowners who were accustomed to slave labor were aghast that
they would now have to pay their former slaves to perform the same tasks
which they once did under coercion and for food and board. A movement to
recruit foreign labor started in several southern states. North Carolina
created the North Carolina Land Company in 1869 to market the state abroad
and to enlist immigrant farm labor.
After several unsuccessful attempts to convince Northern Europeans that
North Carolina was a safe and profitable place to work, the North Carolina
Land Company was dissolved in 1876, and in 1887 the state completely
abandoned any further immigrant labor schemes on the basis that North
Carolinians were opposed to “foreign and promiscuous immigration” and the
state would not sponsor it.
Although North Carolina’s feeble attempts to recruit foreign labor came to
naught, the ill-fated appropriation of such labor is a significant
indication of the change of mood towards blacks. Foreign labor recruitment
was intended to paper over a serious labor question and to place a buffer
between blacks and native whites. Had it succeeded, it would have
marginalized African Americans even more severely than the insidious systems
of tenancy and Jim Crow laws. Whites felt frustrated and vulnerable because
a way of life was dismantled without their consent and they exacted their
anger and fear on the freed black population. The way most whites referred
to their former slaves also changed in the post war period. Before the war,
most slave owners preferred euphemisms such as servants, darkeys, or “my
people” to the word slave. In correspondence between members of the Torrance
Family of Cedar Grove we see the terms “Negroes,” and “the black people”
when they discussed their slaves.
By the end of the war, this picturesque language gave way to harsher terms
such as slaves or niggers.
Moreover, the white elite was more than willing to let the traditional labor
force wither away if it could be replaced. The new perception was that freed
blacks were indolent and insolent, and that they deserved to be
marginalized. This venom is evident in a letter to an editor: “…poor cuffy,
in the plenitude of his freedom, will find himself without food, without
employment, without a home, and without a friend, a citizen of the world
with perfect liberty to starve.”
It ultimately suited both employers and employees to discard the contract
arrangement, and adopt the tenant and sharecropping system. These systems
developed more rapidly on small piedmont farms than on the huge plantations
of the black belt, where planters tenaciously clung to gang labor practices.
In the years immediately after the Civil War, African Americans expected to
somehow acquire their own land. This was not to be for a variety of reasons.
Freedmen had no money, which made it difficult to navigate the complexities
of purchasing land through provisions within the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Available land was not easy to come by. Planters were not interested in
democratizing the agricultural economy by selling parcels of their lands to
former slaves. Since most African Americans could not afford to buy land,
their next preference was to rent land, and failing that to work for shares.
Sharecropping and tenant farming became the dominant system of agricultural
production in the South, if only because it met the needs of both landlord
and laborer. Neither party appears to have been satisfied with the system,
which critics charged depressed the region’s agrarian economy by its sheer
inefficiency, depleting the soil, producing a reduced yield per acre, and
confining farmers to a one or two crop system. However, planters needed
laborers, so they consented to rent or provide land to persons who would
farm it in return for the cash they earned on their crop, or for shares of
the crop. Landless laborers preferred this to the contract system, which
promised cash wages but rarely delivered them. Sharecropping and tenant
farming also afforded more freedom to the tenant, a new facet of life, which
was preferable for the black laborer since it was a relief from the constant
supervision of the slave system. Planters were accustomed to exercising
greater control over their workers and disliked the lack of supervision
inherent in these systems, but they went along with it in the absence of
other alternatives. In reality, it was nearly impossible to extricate
oneself from these methods once committed to sharecropping or tenant
The Tib Morehead Tenant House, The J. Wilson Alexander Farm Tenant House
and the Washam Farm Tenant House are among the last standing
tenant houses in Mecklenburg County.
In spite of the growth of Charlotte in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, Mecklenburg retained a largely rural character until
after the Second World War. By the close of the nineteenth century,
Mecklenburg County led the state in cotton production. Although other states
produced more cotton than North Carolina, the state clearly maintained its
pre-war position as a leading cotton producer and participant in the cotton
industry. Over one-half of the cotton produced in North Carolina by 1896 was
grown in 28 counties; most of it was grown in Mecklenburg County.
A published report by the state’s Board of Agriculture, which put the best
spin possible on the status and potential for agricultural development and
opportunity for future investors, extolled the piedmont plateau’s prospects:
“The hand of improvement is more visible in this than any other section.
Almost the entire region is dotted over with thriving villages and towns.”
The improvement was, in part, a result of waterpower and road building;
Mecklenburg had 40 miles of graded, drained or macadamized roads by 1896.
Although Mecklenburg County produced a significant amount of cotton, its
dependency on the crop doomed the local agricultural economy to stagnation
and deterioration. By 1920, American agriculture began a steady decline that
was exacerbated by the depression of the 1930s. Southern farmers who were
dedicated to cotton production and mid-western farmers who were dedicated to
wheat production had no recourse when the international market prices of
these commodities plummeted in the 1920s and 1930s. The overarching response
to the crisis was overproduction, which worsened the situation, leading to
increased foreclosures and an increase in tenancy. Like many of their
southern counterparts, Mecklenburg farmers were hampered by inefficient
methods, such as one or two crop agriculture, and by crop liens. The
consequences of this system were that the number of land owners, both white
and African American, decreased over time, and that tenancy increased,
swelling the ranks of poor rural whites and blacks. Rural African Americans
already tended to be poorer than the majority of rural whites and more
likely to be landless and bound to some form of tenancy. The disparity
between the incidence of tenancy between blacks and white in Mecklenburg
County is illustrated in the table below.
Percentage of Farm Operatives Classified as
Tenants, by Race, Mecklenburg County, 1925-1940.
Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture.
Colored includes Negroes, Chinese,
Japanese, and Indians. White includes Foreign Born and Mexicans.
4344 farmers identified in the 1920 Census of Agriculture for Mecklenburg
County, 1647 were African American and of these only 150 were farm owners
and 1497 were tenants, compared to the 2690 farms operated by whites, of
which 1492 were owner operated, and 1184 were operated by white tenants.
This not only illustrates the vast economic gaps between black and white
farmers in the county in the early part of the century, and it also raises
the perplexing question of why there were so few African American farmers of
any type when the rural African American population in Mecklenburg in 1920
numbered over 12,000. Somewhere scattered around the county in
unincorporated areas and in the small towns outside of Charlotte were
approximately 10,000 African Americans, and slightly over half of them were
over the age of twenty-one. They were likely employed as domestics, as
skilled and unskilled workers in the small towns, on the railroad, and in
processing jobs affiliated with agriculture such as cotton ginning.
existing agricultural depression coupled with the Great Depression took its
toll on Mecklenburg farmers, decreasing the number of farmers to 3773 by
1930. The number of African American farm owners decreased to 97, compared
with 150 of the previous decade, and the number of African American tenants
also decreased from 1497 in 1920 to 1229 in 1930. Of the 3773 farms, 794
were described as cotton farms, and of all the farms reporting, nearly
50,000 acres were devoted to cotton, producing over 24,000 bales, averaging
less than a bale an acre.
were notable exceptions to the rural poverty among African American farmers
in the early twentieth century, and the best examples of substantial African
American farms are in north Mecklenburg near Davidson, and in west
Mecklenburg in Shuffletown.
was a prosperous African American community leader and farmer in North
Mecklenburg. His impressive farmhouse stands on Huntersville-Concord Road.
Lytle purchased 35.5 acres, the first parcel of what would become a large
farm, in 1895 from neighbor Hattie Bradford. In 1906, he purchased an
additional 41.25 acres, and 26.5 more in 1910. It also seems that he
invested in a tract of land in Biddleville in 1902. There are no extant
records of Lytle’s farm production, but family members recall that he grew
cotton and corn, in accordance with the commercial agricultural practices of
the period. The farm is large enough to have warranted hired help or tenant
farmers, but there is no confirmation of this. He controlled a great deal of
land and carried tremendous influence within the black community. His wealth
allowed him to loan money and hold the debtor’s property in a lien, as he
did with William and Eliza Howard in 1919; holding 54 5/8 acres as
collateral for their debt of $3277.50, which was payable by January 1, 1924,
or they forfeit all rights of the land to him. The Lytle Grove Colored
School and Torrence-Lytle High School are named for him. [The Torrence is
Issac Torrence, a county agricultural extension agent who promoted 4-H
programs]. Frank Lytle died in 1939; his wife Elizabeth died in 1971.
The Logan Houston House
[1895-1969] was a Davidson native and a leader in the local African American
community. His grandfather and his father, Beauregard, were slaves on the
Houston Plantation in Mount Morne in Iredell County. His mother, Alice
Martha Washam Potts, was a wet nurse. Logan attended the Reed School, which
was located on NC 73 and Black Belt Road. Houston farmed for most of his
life, except for a brief hiatus when he served in the armed forces during
the First World War. He acquired the property on Catawba Avenue in 1918, and
married Alice Torrence [1896-1994] in 1922. While the house was under
construction, they lived with Alice’s aunt on Mock Circle in Davidson’s
Westside. There were other houses on this section of Catawba Avenue when the
Houston family moved there, but they were the only black family on the block
for many years. Although Houston had a five-acre working farm devoted mostly
to livestock [pigs and beef cattle], his employment was on the Griffith
farm. In the 1930s and 1940s he worked at the Griffith Dairy at 600 South
Main Street, and later with the Hoke Lumber Company. Logan and Alice Houston
had eleven children, but only nine of them survived to adulthood. Alice
supplemented the family income by taking in laundry, and by making and
selling buttermilk. Both Logan and Alice engaged in menial labor when
necessary to support their large family.
Mecklenburg School Superintendent Wilson, Logan Houston was instrumental in
the creation of the Davidson Colored School, the elementary school
for African Americans that replaced the older one-room small country
schools. To support the school, Houston organized many fundraisers selling
ice cream, made with milk from his own cows. County funding was lax for
black schools, and local parents continuously had to figure out how to
provide supplies. Logan’s daughter, Mrs. Frances Beale, recalled that
textbooks were outdated rejects from white schools. Building the school also
required ingenuity; most of the bricks used in the building were recycled
from Love Auditorium, which formerly stood on the Davidson College Campus.
was a landed African American farmer in Huntersville. Deeds show that he
purchased his first tract of land in this location in 1912.
He augmented this holding in 1920, and in 1930.
Although the deed references are vague, he certainly owned over 35 acres and
was able to pay $1000.00 for 34.4 acres in 1930. Alexander’s lands lay
around the Old School and behind St. Phillip’s Missionary Baptist Church. He
and his wife Viola lived in the house that is now 300 Dellwood Road. In
addition to farming, Alexander worked as the janitor of Torrence-Lytle
Bright Bland Log Cabin
Bland, a stone and brick mason, built this c. 1930 log cabin off of Lawing
This road had both white and black residents, most of whom were farmers. Not
only did black and white farmers live adjacent to each other, but whites and
blacks also sometimes moved in and out of the same house. For example, the
Whitesides farmhouse, located down the road from the Bland cabin, was built
by whites, but was rented by a black family c. 1910, and then subsequently
occupied by another white family. This kind of residential exchange between
the races happened occasionally and did not upset the order of the
In the 1920s, O. Bright Bland acquired nearly 60 acres in the Paw Creek
It was on this site that he built his “dream home, ” a one and a half story
log house on a rock foundation deep enough to make a full cellar. Bland, his
wife Della, and their only child, Howard lived in the cabin until the 1950s.
The site slopes to the east and a creek cuts through it on its northern
boundary. Bland built a small springhouse in the creek by laying a
semi-circular stone wall in it. Here his wife washed laundry, and then dried
it in the open yard near the creek.
Although he earned his living as a brick mason, Bland also farmed, raising
farmsteads include the Rich Hachett House and the Pink Graham
House, both near Huntersville in northern Mecklenburg, the Pressley
Farmhouse in northwest Mecklenburg and the John Murray Alexander
Farmhouse on Glory Street in what is now Charlotte near Sugar Creek
Presbyterian Church. These farms and farmhouses were smaller than the farms
listed above, and like many of the larger African American farmers, these
men also had to have second jobs in addition to farming. Rich Hachett, for
example, was a blacksmith, and John Alexander worked for an oil refinery in
Freedman’s Bureau was able to mitigate only some of the harsh realities of
freedom in a hostile society. The agency provided relief and assistance to
both blacks and poor whites that found themselves bereft of advocates in the
bleak and unsettled post-war period. In addition to economic stress,
politically and socially explosive issues such as extending citizenship to
all blacks and voting rights to black men tested the foundation of the
southern social order as well as the Bureau’s ability to maintain it. In
1865, Freedmen’s Bureau officials recorded that Mecklenburg County Courts
would not recognize changes in the status of the black population, and a
magistrate had recently beaten a black man on the street.
The bureau also provided schools for blacks, the first were established in
the state in 1867, and by 1871, the county had schools for blacks in each
township. D.A. Tompkins’ history of Mecklenburg claims that by 1874, there
were 34 black schools and 46 white schools in the county. The first graded
school for blacks in Charlotte was in an old tobacco barn in First Ward, and
was later replaced by Myers Street School.
In addition to the surviving examples of Rosenwald Schools, the Reed
School and the Bethesda School are the only surviving rural
African American school houses in the county.
African Americans faced many difficulties in the years after their
emancipation. They were ridiculed for “’aping” so-called white lifestyles.
Freedmen wanted to buy land, have women work at home and to send their
children to school instead of working in the fields. Seeking new ways to
keep blacks “in their place” angry whites hurled endless volleys of racial
epithets, intimidation and violence, and economic obstacles in the path of
African American progress. The newly established African American churches
became safe havens for a people under siege. In the ante-bellum period, if
slaves went to church, it was with their master at the master’s church.
Churches had slave galleries or balconies for this purpose, to contain the
slaves in one area where they could be locked in and monitored for their
Sunday lessons. After their emancipation, freedmen immediately separated
from white congregations and formed their own churches, another break with
the past that perplexed and irritated whites.
of these churches were African American extensions of the churches they
previously attended, and some were uniquely African American institutions.
In Charlotte, Clinton Chapel A.M.E. Zion  and First United
Presbyterian Church  were the first exclusively black churches
established after the war. Clinton Chapel was located in Third Ward and
First United Presbyterian still stands in what was formerly First Ward. The
congregation that built First United Presbyterian had previously attended
First Presbyterian Church and interior of First United Presbyterian
resembles that of First Presbyterian.
The dates of their organization suggest the urgency of the times for newly
freed African Americans. As an independent African American population
expanded in Charlotte, more churches were necessary. Little Rock A.M.E. Zion
Church [c. 1870] in Third Ward and Grace A.M.E. Zion Church  in Second
Ward added to the growing list of African American institutions in the city
and served as the anchors of the nascent black neighborhoods that developed
congregations were also formed in the rural areas that surrounded Charlotte.
Murkland Presbyterian Church  was formed by an assembly of former
slaves that broke away from Providence Presbyterian Church, which they had
attended with their masters. The determination of the freedmen to separate
from Providence Presbyterian perplexed the church session, which recorded in
1866 that many black members left without asking permission to organize into
a church "separate and distinct from ours." The majority of those who left
joined the newly organized Murkland church.
Samuel Carothers Alexander, pastor of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church
[1861-1865], was forced out of his congregation, because he preached to
slaves. After Alexander left Steele Creek, he and two other unnamed
ministers “of like idiosyncrasies” met of their own accord at Bethany Church
near Statesville and established themselves as the Catawba Presbytery. The
history of Steele Creek Presbyterian discloses that “after laboring a year
or two in this irregular and revolutionary way” Rev. Alexander moved to
Charlotte, where he started a Freedmen’s Bureau school, which would later
develop into Biddle Institute, and is now known as Johnson C. Smith
University. The congregation was at a loss to understand Rev. Alexander’s
sympathies for abolition and his work for the rights of the freedman, and
they interpreted him as a product of a northern upbringing and education.
Catawba Presbytery was originally part of the Atlantic Synod, which was
organized in 1869, but became part of the Catawba Synod at the time of its
establishment in 1887. Samuel C. Alexander is listed as one of the “founding
fathers” of the Synod, along with prominent African American church officers
such as Rev. Sidney Murkland, Rev. Amos Billingsley, and Rev. Stephen
Mattoon. The rapid growth of African American Presbyterian congregations is
apparent in the minutes of the meeting of the Catawba Synod in Charlotte on
November 1, 1887, in which fifty-four ministers, eighty-nine churches, and
5490 members were recorded on their rolls. Among the first churches founded
in the Catawba Presbytery in 1865 was McClintock Chapel.
addition to the growing number of Presbyterian churches, the African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church established itself with great popularity in
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Besides the A.M.E. Zion churches organized
in Charlotte, a number appear as country churches in all areas of the
county. The A.M.E. Zion church was more prevalent in rural areas than in the
smaller townships around Charlotte. Columbus Chapel was a center for
many African American farm families in North Mecklenburg since the late
nineteenth century, as a place of worship and as a gathering place. In
addition to the sanctuary and attached [recent] education building, the
church grounds also have a cemetery, and remnants of two picnic huts and a
baseball field. In 1926, Lytle’s Grove Colored School was adjacent to the
property and the building remained there until the early 1960s.
Churches such as Torrence Grove A.M.E. Zion Church, Mowing Glade
A.M.E. Zion, Huntersville A.M.E. Zion, Jonesville A.M.E. Zion, as
well as New Friendship Presbyterian, St. Phillip’s Baptist and Red
Branch Baptist functioned as anchors for the communities around them.
Today all of these churches operate out of sanctuaries of recent
construction that are located on or near the site of the original structure
and are adjacent to their original churchyards. African Americans in rural
Mecklenburg depended on their churches as a primary source of solace as well
as a center of entertainment and sociability. The church was the site of
worship as well as after church courting, ballgames and picnics and the news
center for farm families who did not have the opportunities for social
contact that were taken for granted by urban people. Going to church on
Sundays was the culminating event of the week. Those who lived close to
church walked to Sunday services; those who had to travel long distances
arrived in surreys, mule carts, and ox carts. It was common for families to
travel miles for Sunday services.
Political Battles and Jim Crow
institution of the church proved to be an indispensable refuge for African
Americans in the late nineteenth century. The disastrous developments of
segregation laws and disfranchisement further marginalized the African
American community and made the availability of a safe haven and meeting
place, such as the church, all the more essential. While planters bemoaned
the labor shortage, political leaders strove to maintain Democratic
ascendancy in the face of Republican and third party advances. The North
Carolina Republican Party was comprised largely of white ex-Unionists,
blacks, and Piedmont manufacturers who favored protective tariffs The
African-American electorate was at its freest to vote in the 1870s and
1880s. North Carolina had comparatively few suffrage restrictions during
this period; blacks voted in large numbers, and there was generally less
corruption at the ballot box than in other states. Because of this, North
Carolina was one of the more democratic states in the late nineteenth
century. Democrats never had more than 54% of the vote in gubernatorial
elections, and their grip on the state was further threatened in the 1881
when their party split over dry v. wet issues, and again in the 1890s when
the Republicans and Populists consolidated forces, as “Fusionists” to create
a potent threat to Democratic power.The
Populist Party was of particular concern to the Democrats, as it welcomed
blacks, poor whites, and even women to their ranks.
1892, the Populists put up their own gubernatorial candidate, and in 1894
they fused with the Republicans to form a joint legislative ticket. Their
tactics were successful; in 1894 Fusion politics controlled 62% of the seats
in the legislature, and in 1896 they controlled 78%. The appeal of the
Fusionist agenda accounted for higher voter participation rates in 1896.
Between 1894 and 1898, Republicans and Populists generally agreed to fuse
behind a particular candidate, and after the election work out the details
of creating a common agenda. This strategy not only gave them control of the
legislature in 1894, but also the governor’s office in 1896.
By 1898, the Democrats had had enough, and brazenly laid plans to eliminate
their competition. In Charlotte, Democrats organized The White Supremacy
Club, whose purpose was to “aid in maintaining White Supremacy and White
Labor in North Carolina.”
race baiting and sensationalist journalism as their principal weapons,
Democrats launched all-out war on the opposition. Their solution was to
change election laws to prevent blacks from voting and to propose an
amendment to the state constitution that would effectively disfranchise
them. According to new election laws, all voters had to re-register, and the
registrar had discretionary power to exclude any person for any reason from
the rolls. The proposed amendment had potential to exclude most blacks and
some whites, on the basis of literacy. On June 6, 1900, the Charlotte
Daily Observer noted “The struggle of the white people of North Carolina
to rid themselves of the danger of the rule of Negroes and the lower classes
of whites is being watched with interest outside the state.”
In addition to revised election laws, proponents of the amendment adopted
other methods of guaranteeing a Democratic victory by implementing
techniques used by their South Carolina counterparts, The Red Shirts, who
openly intimidated blacks and Republicans at the polls to prevent them from
voting. Democrats used the state’s major papers to carry lurid stories of
the dangers of Negro rule, which portrayed black men as homicidal and
sexually predatory. The state voted in overwhelming support of
disfranchisement on August 2, 1900. African American political empowerment
was effectively shut down by this action.
Political power in North Carolina was restored to the Democratic elite, who
had no regard for blacks, poor whites, or Republicans. The short-lived era
of democracy was suspended, and would not be restored until the last quarter
of the twentieth century. This political defeat was furthermore socially and
economically reinforced by Jim Crow laws, which effectively separated the
races within the public sphere.
African American Community Development
after reconstruction were positive ones for Charlotte. At this time,
Charlotte traded its court town identity once and for all for that of a
growing commercial and market center. The county experienced vibrant
economic and demographic growth in the final decades of the nineteenth
century and Charlotte acquired a reputation as a regionally important
commercial, marketing, and distribution center. The basis of this dynamic
growth was cotton, but cotton could not have provided the impetus for this
expansion without the backbone of railroad and an improved infrastructure.
In addition to the four railroad lines laid in the ante-bellum period, the
Carolina Railroad Company and the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line were added
Completing the economic foundation of cotton and transportation was
Charlotte’s banking network. The city became a regional financial center,
with five banks by 1867.
By the 1880s,
one sees fewer complaints of war related impoverishment and more commentary
about the hustle of burgeoning entrepreneurial activities and business
opportunities. Perhaps the most famous reference to Charlotte during this
period came from a visitor who was moved to eloquence in 1888:” Everything
about Charlotte seems to be on a big boom, and everybody seems to be in good
spirits at the prospects …Everything is going ahead and there is more
evidence of push and enterprise that I have ever seen…Businessmen are up and
Charlotte had a new breed of businessman; more often than not, the most
successful businessmen in Charlotte were newcomers. Both old residents and
new invested in the city’s future as the region’s textile processing and
Studies of New
South cities show that the towns which welcomed new men and new ideas were
the urban areas that flourished. Towns where the established ruling elite
closed ranks to outsiders were destined to continue their post-war decline
and would loose valuable opportunities. Charleston, a thriving port city in
the ante-bellum period, lost some of its hold on the region by the 1850s,
with the construction of inland railroad networks. After the war, the port
city’s deterioration continued as outsiders were denied co-operation or
co-option. Charlotte, on the other hand, blossomed as it embraced new men
with new ideas and the capital to implement them.
Two of the most influential men to settle in Charlotte at the turn of the
century were Daniel Augustus Tompkins and Edward Dilworth Latta, both men of
vision and ambition and both from South Carolina. Tompkins was instrumental
in the enlargement of Charlotte’s textile presence. Within a few years of
his arrival in Charlotte, he established his own textile machinery
manufacturing firm, owned several textile mills, and three newspapers,
including the Charlotte Observer. Tompkins brashly admitted that he
used his newspapers to “preach the doctrines of industrial development,”
among the other beliefs near to his heart.
Tompkins was also staunchly Democrat, a firm believer in racial segregation
and black disfranchisement. The Charlotte Observer was his workhorse
in the white supremacist campaign to amend the state constitution.
county’s prosperity was accompanied by an expansion of the population.
Population statistics show steady increases for whites and to a lesser
extent for African Americans. The gap between whites and blacks is apparent
as early as 1910, corresponding to the period of African American migration
out the region.
County By Race: 1890-1940
Census of the Population. Figures for whites include native and foreign
assertion as a textile manufacturing and marketing center as well as a
significant transportation crossroads in the central piedmont, created a
variety of new jobs and new reasons to move to town. The attraction for
urban living, for both races does not significantly manifest itself until
1900. A higher percentage of African
Americans lived in Mecklenburg County in the late nineteenth century than
would live there in the early twentieth; the lack of economic opportunities
and social and political impediments account for out migration.
Census of the Population. Figures for whites include native and foreign
In 1890, the Charlotte population was almost
evenly divided between African American and whites. By 1910, the effects of
disfranchisement and segregation laws are apparent; the black population
more than doubled [there are 9 blacks in 1910 for every 4 blacks in 1890],
but the white population more than tripled [there are 14 whites in 1910 for
every 4 whites in 1890]. In 1890, African Americans were 44% of the city
population, in 1910, their representation had dropped to 34% even though the
urban black population had more than doubled, the gap in the ratio of black
to white residents in Charlotte continued to widen. The black population was
never as large as the white, and by 1910, fell significantly behind the
white increase. Charlotte’s attraction for both black and white residents is
clear by 1900. In spite of the rural to urban migration within the county,
the black population of Charlotte never exceeded the city’s white
population, nor did it ever represent even as much as half. By 1930, only
30% of the city’s population was black; although the numbers for both black
and white increased, limited prospects for blacks suppressed black urban
growth. The effects of segregation laws stemmed African American urban
heart of Charlotte’s business district was along the principal downtown
corridors of Tryon and Trade streets. The trolley lines also met at The
Square, or the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets, pouring out scores
of passengers who worked and shopped in the area. Professional offices,
retail merchants, cafes and restaurants, banks and movie theaters lined
these streets; all of them owned by whites. African Americans could
patronize these businesses, but no African-American owned businesses on
these streets, at least not near the center of activity. It is worth noting
that Jewish businessmen had shops on these streets, as did the growing Greek
and Lebanese-Syrian population. White ethnic businessmen were welcome in
those venues, but blacks were not. The African American business community
was confined to South Brevard Street in Second Ward, the neighborhood with
the highest density of black residents.
culture stifled entrepreneurial growth, since most black shop keepers and
service providers could only cater to a black clientele. Segregation also
limited employment opportunities for African Americans. Although textile
mills became a familiar aspect of the city landscape, they employed very few
blacks and if they worked inside the mills, as was the case in the Hoskins
Mill, they worked in different rooms from white operatives. The Ashford
and Strong Family Houses are a surviving remnant of housing the
Hoskins Mill built for African American employees. The company only built
six houses for black workers, and these were situated across the street from
the white mill village and behind the mill. While the mill employed white
men and women and a few black men, it did not employ black women. James
Ashford had several jobs at Hoskins: as a custodian, in the boiler room, and
later on the loading dock. His wife did not work in the mill, but like other
African American women in the mill village, she did domestic work for white
mill families, working mostly as a laundress.
of African-Americans in Charlotte worked as common laborers or in the
service sector. A minority were merchants or small business owners, and an
even smaller minority was in the professional class. Clergymen dominated in
the black professional and upper class. In 1911, were two attorneys,
fourteen barbers, one dentist, five physicians, five nurses, two funeral
directors, and sixty-seven clergy men, in addition to proprietors of
billiard rooms, drug stores, eating houses, as well as several other types
of businesses were listed in the Charlotte City Directory.
By the early twentieth century, thanks to vagaries of segregation laws and
customs, the African American business community was fairly well
self-contained. Black businesses were sequestered in a separate location
from the larger white district. If African Americans wished to eat inside a
restaurant, they had to patronize a black-owned establishment, if they
required legal, financial, or medical services; they sought the services of
black professionals. There were a few businesses that were used by clients
of both races, such as barbershops and shoe repair shops, but generally, in
the urban setting, the white and black worlds drifted apart. These economic
and occupational trends continued well into the first half of the twentieth
century. By 1940, 88.8% of the non-white employed workers fourteen and older
in the city of Charlotte were concentrated in the following categories:
operative, domestic worker, service, and non-farm labor. By contrast, 77.6%
of white employed workers fourteen and older in Charlotte were concentrated
in the categories of professional, managerial, clerical sales and
African American Community Development in Mecklenburg County
post Civil War residential areas were often a mixture of black and white
residents; distinct pockets of segregated residence were not clearly visible
until the close of the nineteenth century, and even then there was no “black
side of town.”
This “salt and pepper” pattern was common in many Carolina towns.
Isaac Erwin Avery recorded one example of the maintenance of the spatial
proximity between black servants and their white employers:
When the old black mammy became too old for service, Mr. James H. Carson
built her a house in the rear of his own residence and there she spent her
last days in peace. Every Sunday afternoon each one of the Carson men
visited her. They came to her, too, at other times, and their wives and
children gave to her the affection that was so readily returned. She kept up
with what every member of the family was doing and was privileged to ask any
question she pleased.
the late nineteenth century, thanks to the new demands of segregation laws,
concentrations of African Americans occurred in particular sections of the
city. Neighborhoods at the periphery of Charlotte’s city limits also
developed around African American institutions such as Biddle Institute, or
along trolley lines. Incorporated towns such as Davidson and Matthews were
also home to discrete neighborhoods for African American citizens. Most of
the historic African American neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn in Charlotte’s
Second Ward have been razed to accommodate varying visions of urban growth
and improvement. Other black neighborhoods, such as Greenville, built in
North Charlotte in the 1880s-1920s have been completely demolished and
rebuilt in the spirit of urban renewal and exist today as historic
neighborhoods in name only.
significant issues merged at the time of the formation of new African
American neighborhoods at the turn of the century. The state had determined
new rules to govern society and culture through its advocacy of racial
segregation laws and disfranchisement practices. Mecklenburg County and
particularly Charlotte blossomed as commercial and financial center of the
region; urban development and economic growth were the buzzwords of the day.
Newcomers with capital seemed interested in investing it in developing the
city’s economic vitality and they were welcomed, with hopes that more
investors and business concerns would follow the road that led to Charlotte.
In this new age of boosterism, civic leaders pulled out all the stops to
convince outsiders that Charlotte was worthy of capital investment. Numerous
locally printed publications championed the county’s significant assets,
such as a productive agriculture, a thriving textile industry, an educated
population, and a law abiding, peaceful citizenry. By the end of the first
decade of the twentieth century, it also became essential to note the great
strides of the resident African American population, with special reference
to their temperance, industry, and adherence to Christian ideals, all of
which were the polite way of saying that the black people now knew their
place, and that racial tensions were no threat to a sound business
environment. These sentiments are easily found. In 1913, The Greater
Charlotte Club published a guide that discussed topics such as the
advantages of hydroelectric power, banking, roads, transportation,
newspapers, churches, and education. The brief section, “Charlotte’s
Negroes,” claimed, “…the negro is respected by the white population so long
as he respects himself, and the result is that the black man here is making
strides which are surprising to those who do not realize the relations
existing between the races in this city.” The essay praised African American
churches, schools and library as hallmarks of the promise of the race. It
concluded by saying that whites and blacks in Mecklenburg enjoyed friendship
and co-operation and “the Negro is welcomed in the pursuits to which he
is best adapted, [italics not original] and there is nothing of the race
prejudice felt elsewhere and he is given every opportunity to better his own
condition and that of his children.”These
sentiments were reprinted in the 1915 booklet, Colored Charlotte, the
promotional publication for Washington Heights, an African-American
The booklet is a mixture of real estate promotion, acclaim for the new black
middle class, and the white endorsement reserved for blacks that understood
the limitations inherent in their condition. The success of the Democrat and
white supremacist objectives to curtail unchecked African American political
and social influence can be gauged in a several ways: political
disadvantage, limitations in social and economic growth, limited housing,
and the change in rhetoric for “deserving” African Americans.
Center City Neighborhoods
In the city
center, African Americans were concentrated in the First, Second, and Third
Wards. By the early twentieth century, the African American population of
First Ward was concentrated in the eastern section of the neighborhood,
away from North Tryon Street, and the heart of downtown. As in Second and
Third Ward, the African American residents represented all socio-economic
levels. Prominent African American businessmen and civic leaders such as
Thad Tate, who owned a two story brick Italianate style home on Seventh
Street, lived near blue collar workers and laborers who rented shotgun
Ward had a collection of shopkeepers; barbers, grocers, cafes, and
hairdressers, but it was not as extensive as the business district found to
its south in Second Ward, nor was it a contiguous extension of that business
district. First United Presbyterian Church and Little Rock A.M.E.
Zion Church anchored the neighborhood at each end.
Of the four
original city wards, Second Ward had the highest density of
African-American residents, but by 1930, 24% of Second Ward’s population was
also white, and 1% foreign born white.The
neighborhood was a dense mix of professionals, artisans, and laborers, all
crowded together in the space of several city blocks. Some of the most
elegant homes owned by African Americans were found there, but the back
streets were narrow and unpaved.
district of Second Ward, informally known as Brooklyn by the 1920s, was the
heart if the African American business district. The boundaries of business
corridor ran along South Brevard and East Trade Streets. Within this area
was a dense concentration of a variety of businesses owned and patronized by
African Americans both of and out of the neighborhood. Barber and beauty
shops, pressing clubs, trucking companies, piano teachers, shoe repair
shops, groceries, restaurants, confectioners, tailors and other shopkeepers
thrived in the quarter. Pack peddlers, usually Lebanese immigrants, roamed
Second Ward and other neighborhoods with large low-income populations who
could not afford to shop in neighborhood stores.
In addition to retail and commerce, South Brevard Street was home to the
African American professional elite. Charlotte’s black community had the
services of dentists Dwight and Frank Martin, Thomas Watkins and Albert
Williams on the 400 block. Physicians Thomas Craig, Sterling Hogan, James
Pethel and French Tyson had offices on the 200 block; Napoleon Houser,
instrumental in the organization of the Old North State Medical Society
rented an office two blocks away on the 400 block. The Afro-American
Insurance Company and the Mecklenburg Investment Company served as the
financial cornerstones of the black community.
The Mecklenburg Investment Company and Grace A.M.E. Zion Church are the sole
remaining vestiges of what was once a vibrant and successful neighborhood.
Many of Charlotte’s African American leaders lived in Second Ward. Dr. J.T.
Williams the first black physician in Mecklenburg County, and United States
Consul to Sierra Leone, Dr. E. French Tyson, graduate of Howard University
and Harvard, and the Rev. George W. Clinton, Senior Bishop of the A.M.E.
Zion Church, all resided in Second Ward.
Prior to 1900,
Third Ward was the center of black Charlotte. Third Ward was home to
several African-American churches, schools, and the Good Samaritan Hospital
but had no black business district, and less than half of its residents were
New Suburban Neighborhoods: Biddleville,
Washington Heights, Cherry, Greenville, Grier Heights
began in 1871 as a residential enclave for professors who taught at
Biddle Institute, and the school remains at the heart of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood grew considerably after the Charlotte Consolidated
Construction Company extended a trolley line there in 1903, conveniently
opening a new suburban area to Charlotte blacks. The early residents appear
to have fully appreciated the significance of the trolley and their suburb
by nicknaming it ”New Dilworth.”
Although Biddleville was built around Biddle Institute, the neighborhood was
a mix of black and white residents.
Heights, named for Booker T. Washington, was the first Charlotte
streetcar suburb developed exclusively for blacks. White developer W.S.
Alexander hired C.H. Watson, a black real estate agent, to promote the
community to Charlotte’s African-American middle class. In a promotional
booklet, Colored Charlotte, Washington Heights was endorsed as the up
and coming African American neighborhood showcasing the best aspects of the
African-American experience in Charlotte. The booklet included a section
from a white civic organization that implied respectable black people could
easily advance in Charlotte; the advertising in the booklet suggested that
the upwardly mobile, and therefore respectable black potential home owner
should live in Washington Heights, a mere two miles from town with housing
at reasonable prices.
Washington Heights did not have any of the elegant homes found in the inner
city wards or in Biddleville. Modest bungalows were the prevailing style,
and although many residents of Washington Heights were renters, there were
no shotgun houses built in the neighborhood. The African-American
neighborhood on the east side of Beatties Ford Road from Washington Heights,
was originally named Douglasville, and later renamed McCrory Heights after
Biddle Institute president H.L. McCrory. The trolley line that extended up
Beatties Ford Road to Booker Avenue served both neighborhoods, and a cluster
of shops was located at the trolley’s end.
There was no business district in Washington Heights; the small complex of
shops supplied most of the daily needs of the residents. If they required
more sophisticated or professional services, they could take the streetcar
to downtown and Second Ward. The types of businesses in the neighborhood
were small dressmaking, laundering and pressing enterprises on Booker Avenue
and Tate Street.
neighborhood was platted in 1891 from a cotton plantation belonging to John
and Mary Myers. Homebuilding in Cherry increased after a trolley line was
extended up nearby Elizabeth Avenue to the new and fashionable white
streetcar suburb of Elizabeth. According to contemporary records, Myers took
personal interest in planning and administering Cherry. His purpose was to
create “model Negro housing” and to offer new opportunities for
homeownership to African Americans. Implicit in his good intentions were to
settle blacks into a new suburb with neighborhood amenities similar to those
found in white streetcar neighborhoods, such as new homes, a school,
churches, and a park, and by so doing placate African Americans, who had to
be content with separate rules and separate spaces, with living space
similar in trend and desirability that white citizens enjoyed.
residents were blue-collar workers, and approximately three quarters of them
were renters. Lots were less expensive in Cherry than they were in
Washington Heights, priced from $40.00 to $100.00 between 1900-1909, but
even at those prices were still out of reach for the average common laborer.
The rental situation was probably more comfortable in Cherry than it would
have been in the city wards. Cherry was less crowded and designed with a
suburban feel with tree-lined streets, and there were no shotgun houses. The
neighborhood experienced a small building surge after the First World War,
the period in which the neighborhood’s bungalows were put up. The
neighborhood had a few small shops such as cafes, and a billiard parlor, and
as late as 1938, still had a resident blacksmith.
Greenville’s history dates to the late nineteenth century; it was a
community of bungalows, a neighborhood school, Fairview Elementary,
churches, small retail shops, restaurants and barbers. Similar to other
African American neighborhoods, Greenville was mixture of renters and
homeowners. Many of the children were sent to Miss Jesse Bangum Robinson’s
home for etiquette lessons. A resident of the Greenville neighborhood
recalled that the houses were “small, but nice. They were not the straight
through places. We had a backyard. And always during the summer months, we
planted a vegetable garden there.” Many of the residents were employed at
the Buckeye Cotton Mill and also at a nearly cottonseed oil plant and flour
had a number of neighborhood businesses, mostly confectioners, grocers,
barbers, and blacksmiths.
were relegated to certain areas in town, the city’s African-American upper
classes often lived in close proximity to the black middle and lower
classes. Jim Crow laws and restrictive covenants effectively separated the
races by the 1920s. Socio-economic class defined the new white
neighborhoods, but this stratification would not occur to the same degree
for African American residential areas until after the Second World War.
Some homes in the African-American neighborhoods were elegant and large, but
most were modest, simple, and small. Many residents of these neighborhoods
have happy memories of times past, and recall with great fondness the
benefits of these tightly knit communities. African-American residential
communities were also the scenes of more formal socializing. Many of the
city’s elite blacks formed a number of social clubs, such as The Montauk
Society League of Charlotte, the Queen City Medical and Pharmaceutical
Society, the Friday Afternoon Club, and the Pierian Literary Circle
The Excelsior Club, founded in 1944 by James Robert “Jimmie” McKee still
stands between Biddleville and Washington Heights, and since its
establishment has served as the region’s premier social club for African
American professionals and politicians.
Parts of these
neighborhoods became the sites of some of the worst urban poverty and living
conditions in the city. Conditions were so bad in some areas that in 1937,
The Charlotte News, the city’s evening paper, condemned the poor
quality of housing and the general poor living conditions in the
neighborhoods that white Charlotte did not wish to notice.
Some of Charlotte’s older African-American neighborhoods were torn down in
the 1960s for urban renewal. Greenville, established in the 1880s, was
slated for a massive urban renewal program and was flattened in the 1960s.
Rebuilding took nearly thirty years because the Nixon administration cut the
federal rent and home building subsidy. Greenville, unlike Second Ward,
still exists, but not in its original form. Although dislocated residents
intended to move back into new housing, the interruption of funding
destabilized the community, making it impossible for the neighborhood to
Grier Heights was not planned as a suburban
neighborhood, but developed in the late nineteenth century approximately two
miles from Charlotte. According to neighborhood tradition, former slaves
organized the community. Sam Billings was the first recorded black
landowner; he purchased fifty acres for $913.50 in1892, and another
substantial parcel in1893 for $1057. Grier Heights was originally described
as a community of one square mile with 50 families, many of them craftsmen.
As the community grew, it became commonly known as Griertown, after one of
the large landowners, Samuel Grier who started buying
land in the area in 1900. Grier built an
impressive home in 1922 on the northwestern edge of the neighborhood and had
a store on the lot adjacent to his residence. Samuel Grier formed Grier
Heights Development Company in1949, and built approximately 30 houses on
Fannie Circle, Montrose Drive and Gene Avenue.
Many of the people who bought homes in Grier Heights in this period were
veterans who used G.I. Bill financing.
streets in Grier Heights are Skyland Avenue [formerly known as Davidson
Street] and Orange Street. Most of the homes on these streets are bungalows,
many of them in the pyramidal cottage style. The occupations of the
residents of these streets ranged from skilled to unskilled jobs. Janitors,
domestics, laundresses, and laborers lived among bricklayers, plasterers,
Grier Heights had two churches, and a school; Billingsville Elementary
School built in 1927, on land donated by Sam Billings.
Significant African American properties are still found in what was formerly
rural Mecklenburg and in the incorporated small towns that ring Charlotte.
African American neighborhoods in Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, and
Crestdale (Matthews) remain intact to some degree and still reflect the
history of the original communities.
best-preserved example of the early twentieth century African American
neighborhood is the Westside area of Davidson. Davidson grew around
the college established there in mid-nineteenth century. Cotton fields and
farms surrounded the town well into the twentieth century. In addition to
the college, an asbestos plant and cotton mills were the principal employers
in the town, and several of the African American residents found work at the
asbestos plant or at the college. Some of the African American employees
that worked in the asbestos plant lived on Eden Street in simple gabled
houses. Housing for white employees was located on the opposite, or north
side of the mill. Some of the older residents remember asbestos lint from
the plant frequently matted their window and door screens. The original
boundaries of Davidson’s African American neighborhood extended from the
Alley, which ran parallel to the railroad tracks on the block west of Main
Street. The houses in this area were removed for town expansion and parking.
Approximately three blocks to the west of the 1920s boundary of the
neighborhood are homes built in the late 1960s to accommodate residents who
were displaced by construction and renovation that occurred along the Alley
. This neighborhood was home to factory workers and domestics as well as to
community leaders, such as Ralph Johnson, a minister and the owner of
several rental properties in the neighborhood, and Ada Jenkins, a principal
of the Davidson Colored School, which is situated on the southwestern
edge of the neighborhood. By the early 1950s, Davidson United
Presbyterian Church was built on the northeast margin of the community.
Smithville is the location of the African American neighborhood in
Cornelius, which was formerly a mill town to the south of Davidson. The only
remaining vestiges of the 1920s character of the community are found on
South Ferry Street, near the Union Bethel A.M.E. Zion Church [organized in
1917]. Some small gabled houses and hipped roof bungalows still survive
among what is now mostly new construction. Union Bethel A.M.E. stands at the
neighborhood’s northern boundary on Catawba Avenue, and a Rosenwald School
was located several blocks to the south.
The site of
the earliest African American neighborhood in Huntersville is to the
southeast of the town center and until recently would have been distinctly
separate from the rest of the town. Situated for the most part behind the
railroad tracks that run parallel to N.C. 115, this community began as a
sparsely settled area of small farms and worker’s dwellings. Three churches
mark the boundaries of the community: Huntersville A.M.E. Zion, St.
Phillip’s Missionary Baptist, and a United House of Prayer For All
People. In addition to these churches, some African Americans in
Huntersville also worshipped at New Friendship Presbyterian, located
on the northern end of town on N.C. 115. A Rosenwald School, now used as a
community center is located near St. Phillips’s Missionary Baptist and the
Espy Alexander House. One of the principal landowners in this area was Otha
Potts, who was a brick mason, landowner, farmer and a well-known figure in
the Huntersville community. Potts owned a substantial amount of land in the
vicinity around and behind Church Street (which runs on the other side of
the railroad tracks from N.C. 115), so much so the area was once known as
Pottstown. Pottstown was initially farmland, but in time, Potts sold parcels
to the people who built the houses around him, and also sold land to the
House Of Prayer, located to the rear of the house. In addition to farming,
Potts worked for Myers-Chapman Construction Company in Charlotte. He used
scrap materials from commercial construction sites to build his house, the
Otha Potts House, which is allegedly framed in 4x4 lumber, and is
widely acknowledged by his older neighbors as an extremely well built house.
The Torrence-Lytle High School, built in the 1930s, and which served
as the only African American High School in north Mecklenburg, is also
located in this neighborhood.
African American neighborhood in the Matthews vicinity, in southeast
Mecklenburg is known as Crestdale. Located adjacent to the
railroad tracks, the community was once known as Tank Town, because it was
the site of the water tank used to supply steam engine trains. The tank is
long since gone, and the neighborhood changed its name from Tank Town to
Crestdale in 1963. The southeastern leg of Charles Street is still called
Tank Town Road, and is one of the few remaining relics of Tank Town’s
history. The community is only a few miles from the Matthews town center,
but it was regarded as a separate entity until 1988, when the town annexed
community dates from the 1860s, and was originally settled by freemen and
freed slaves. Crestdale’s early history is obscure; no one seems to know
anything about the original inhabitants or how they came to settle there.
Most Tank Town residents were sharecroppers or day laborers in Matthews. A
few worked for the railroad and these jobs were the best option available to
blacks in Tank Town. The railroad provided steady employment, cash wages,
housing, and later, insurance benefits.
Most of the
residents of the community, however, were farmers, and few of them could
afford to own land. A fifteen-acre tract in the community, now under
development, once belonged to Abelola Weddington, the mulatto daughter of a
prominent white farmer in the area. Abelola and her husband Green Lee
Stewart farmed the land until they lost it in a crop lien. Abelola and Green
Stewart were probably the only independent farmers in Tank Town.
In the late
nineteenth century, the children of Tank Town went to Hood’s Crossroads
Colored School, which was several miles from their neighborhood. After 1900,
a shotgun house that stood at the intersection of what is now Crestdale and
Matthews School Roads, and which is the present site of the new Matthews
House of Prayer, was converted into a more conveniently located community
school. This school had grades one through seven, and was only open for
three months a year. By 1918, the residents of Tank Town were able to build
a new school. The Rosenwald Foundation financed 50% of the cost of the new
school, and the community raised the remaining funds by having fish fries,
and by assessing the parents $25.00. Since this sum was prohibitive for most
residents, parents who could not afford the tuition contributed by helping
with construction. The Tank Town School changed its name to Crestdale School
in 1963, and was closed in 1966, when the Crestdale students were integrated
into the Matthews School.
American population of the community could conveniently attend one of four
churches: Roseville AME Zion, Mount Moriah Baptist, a Presbyterian Church,
or the United House of Prayer for All People. Roseville AME Zion was located
on Ames Street, which was not in Tank Town, but in Matthews, three blocks to
the west of the town center, and a significant distance from Tank Town. This
church was organized in the late nineteenth century, and had an active
congregation until 1928. The House of Prayer was established in Tank Town in
that year and most of the members of Roseville switched to the United House
of Prayer. The abandoned Roseville Church eventually collapsed. The
Roseville congregation maintained a cemetery several miles away. The
Roseland [Roseville] Cemetery is located in between a housing
development and an apartment complex near the intersection of Monroe Road
and Sardis Road. This cemetery served as the primary burial ground available
to African Americans living near Matthews and who were not affiliated with
other churches that had their own churchyards.
House of Prayer acquired land in Tank Town in 1938.
The original sanctuary was a frame structure with a sawdust floor, and was
located near the present site of the Clyburn House. In the 1950s, the
original House of Prayer was replaced by a brick building that included a
sanctuary and a small café attached to the east elevation that served Sunday
lunch to congregants.Both
the Clyburn House and the House of Prayer are on Crestdale Road. The
Matthews House of Prayer is the oldest standing structure owned by the House
of Prayer in Charlotte. Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace founded the
United House of Prayer For All People in 1919, in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The church was open to all who wanted to join, and based its message on
spiritual perfection, as well as on social improvement and respectability.
Grace attracted members from other sects, and his services became known for
their lively and celebratory character marked by enthusiastic and vocal
worshippers and brass bands.
established Mount Moriah Baptist Church in 1879. The church and cemetery are
located on Crestdale Road; the current brick building replaced the original
sanctuary in the 1950s.
A small cemetery is adjacent to the church. A Presbyterian Church stood at
the end of Matthews Chapel Road, near the Garris House. The original
frame building was removed in the 1960s, and the newer building is now used
as a community center. Remnants of the brick pier foundations from the old
church still stand in the overgrowth at the perimeter of the site.
of Tank Town’s original buildings still stand. The Clyburn, Thompson, Garris,
and Rowland houses are the only remnants of the community’s early twentieth
century architecture. Other older structures have been torn down or have
been rehabilitated by Habitat for Humanity.
Clyburn was the town barber. His barbershop formerly stood on Crestdale Road
and he ran a small store where he sold candy, cakes and cold drinks on
Charles Street. He also worked for the city of Charlotte. He acquired
several parcels in Tank Town and built rental houses on them, but none of
the approximately ten rental houses he built survive.
Thompson House sits on .5 acre. The earliest deed reference for this parcel
is January 25, 1904, in which R.B and Sallie Kirkpatrick, parents of Joseph
Kirkpatrick, who owned a large farm on McKee Road in the 1930s, sold the
property to Peter and Alice Howey. This is the oldest house in Crestdale.
Built on land
owned by John Garris in the 1920s, this is the second house to occupy this
site. It is adjacent to the former Presbyterian Church, which now serves as
the community center. Garris also accumulated several parcels in Tank Town,
which he sold in 1922, after he moved to Philadelphia.
Rowland acquired this land in 1929. Rowland worked for the railroad and was
able to afford to have this brick craftsman style bungalow built for his
family. This is the only house in Tank Town to show elements of a popular
style from the period.
Shuffletown community is located in Paw Creek Township in northwest
Mecklenburg County, along Rozzelle’s Ferry Road. The settlement dates to the
early nineteenth century and was originally known as Spurrier, named for the
local store owned by Ed Spurrier. Its not clear when the community name
changed to Shuffletown, and no one is quite sure why, although a number of
anecdotal explanations abound. One account is that a Spurrier relative, Sam
Oglesby, sold dippers of liquor for five cents, and after indulging in a few
dippers, the residents of Spurrier shuffled home.
plantations formerly stood as the economic foundation of the area, and
descendants of many of the former planter families still live on family
lands. The Rozzelle Ferry, which began operations c. 1816, transported
people and goods across the Catawba River between Mecklenburg and Gaston
County. A bridge replaced the ferry in the 1870s, but the flood of 1916
washed it out and ferry service, provided by the Rozzelle family resumed
until a new bridge was built in the 1940s.
In the 1930s, Shuffletown was on a route used by bootleggers running
moonshine into Charlotte.
white neighbors, the small African American population of the area was also
tied to the land. Most were small farmers or tenant farmers, although some,
like Robert Caldwell, O. Bright Bland, and Elijah Reid, owned sizeable
farms. These men were able to purchase large tracts because they were
skilled workers, and earned the cash to make landownership possible. The
Caldwell family were brick masons, as was Bright Bland. Elijah Reid was a
preacher and a blacksmith. These craftsmen were able to build their own
homes, and helped each other in the construction of their houses. The
generation of African-American men that came of age after the Second World
War credited these men for influencing them to learn to lay brick, which was
a well-paying craft and the way out of tenancy and dependency.
institutional life of Shuffletown’s African American community was centered
on Lawing School Road, the site of a Rosenwald School, and the only African
American church in the area [now demolished]. The two-room schoolhouse had
seven grades. In the 1930s, Mrs. McAuley taught grades 1-3, and Mrs.
Stephenson taught grades 4-7. In the winter, the first children to arrive
were responsible for building a fire in the old coal stove. The school
served the black Shuffletown families, as well as children from the Todd’s
Park area in the Hoskins community, approximately five miles away.
Caldwell purchased 120 acres for $3900.00 in 1911; part of a tract owned by
the Dunn Gold Mine.
In addition to his work as a brick mason, he farmed with the help of his
wife Molly and their twelve children. The Robert Caldwell House,
built c. 1915, is a one-and-one-half story side gabled bungalow built in a
rural setting. Like other Piedmont farmers, Caldwell planted cotton and
corn, and vegetables. His children took the vegetables to Charlotte in an
A-Model Ford, and sold them door-to-door in the Dilworth neighborhood.
Caldwell also pumped sand from Long Creek, which cut through his property,
to make plaster for houses.
The Post –Second World War Period
Second World War urban development in Charlotte was increasingly
characterized by expansion and renewal. The city’s economic growth increased
the size of the downtown business district, and by the 1950s, it was no
longer fashionable for whites to live in the city center, which they
abandoned for newer homes in the latest suburban development. The prosperity
of the post-war period resulted in increased suburban development for both
blacks and whites
Typical examples of African American residential development in suburban
Mecklenburg County in the early 1950s are Misenheimer Street in the
J.H. Gunn community in east Mecklenburg, which developed around J.H. Gunn
High School (formerly known as Clear Creek High School) and the Sterling
neighborhood, which developed around Sterling Elementary School in
south Mecklenburg. More recent construction is built around the small
1950s core of these neighborhoods. The majority of the homes are modest,
gabled frame or concrete block dwellings. Older A.M.E. Zion churches are
within a third of a mile of the original homes of each neighborhood. Most of
the residents of these communities drove to jobs in town. Other contemporary
African American neighborhoods, such as Double Oaks, University Park,
Brookhill, and Newland Road, constructed in the late 1950s, represented new
options for Mecklenburg’s African Americans in the waning years of
Between white migration to suburbs and the need for commercial and
infrastructure expansion, and within the general trend toward urban renewal,
older, urban African-American neighborhoods were suddenly “in the way”.
Neighborhoods in First, Second, and Third Wards were cleared to make room
for subsidized housing, an inner city belt road, a football stadium, and the
extension of the city’s government district. African-American churches,
schools, residences, and businesses disappeared from the older sections of
the city by the 1970s. Similar patterns of removal have occurred as a result
of suburban development in the county. Farms and tenant houses have
disappeared in the wake of the increased need for housing. In the
post-segregation world, most African Americans live in the neighborhoods of
their choosing, and because of stronger patterns of residential integration,
dedicated African American neighborhoods are again disappearing.
Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in
the Seaboard Slave States With Remarks on Their Economy, [London:
Sampson Low, Son , and Co., 1856], p. 363. North Carolina Collection,
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Documenting the American
South Database: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/topics.html
“The Other Side of the Tracks: The
Middle Class Neighborhoods That Jim Crow Built in
Early-Twentieth-Century North Carolina”
Rose Leary Love, Plum Thickets and
Field Daisies, [Charlotte: Public Library of Charlotte and
Mecklenburg County, 1996], pp. 3-5
Plum Thickets and Field Daisies, pp. 3-5
Robert C Kenzer, Enterprising
Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915.
[Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997], pp. 113-114.