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AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY

The African-American district at Chadwick-Hoskins Mill No. 5 was unique in the small towns. The black who toiled in the mill yards in Huntersville or Cornelius never inhabited the mill villages there. Instead, most African Americans in Huntersville and Cornelius, as well as Matthews, were concentrated in distinct enclaves at the outskirts. These were racially segregated places, born of obdurate racial prejudice and proscribed by social customs that townsfolk rarely questioned.61 Living conditions in black districts, which were often poorly drained low lying areas, could be undeniably harsh. For example, in 1909 the county's health director ordered the Town of Huntersville to destroy five "colored" dwellings because tuberculosis was "raging" there.62 Nonetheless, over time blacks established solid communities, erecting houses, churches, and schools along the red clay roads that dipped and turned through the landscape.

Black districts grew in tandem with the towns. Across North Carolina and the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African Americans quit sharecropping for a better chance in towns and cities.63 In Mecklenburg County, by the 1910s substantial black settlements, had developed at the outskirts of the three towns. At the south end of Huntersville, blacks inhabited Pottstown, an area named for its leading resident, brick mason Otho Potts. Smithville, Cornelius' principal African-American settlement, grew up at the west end of town on land belonging to white farmer George Smith. Smith sold lots to blacks, who paid cash for parcels and secured loans at the Cornelius Savings and Loan to build their houses. At the eastern border of Matthews, spanning both sides of the railroad, Tanktown was that town's black community. "Tanktown" (today known as Crestdale) referred to the railroad water tank that originally stood at heart of the district, near the tracks. The men who operated the tank and lived nearby made up the settlement's earliest residents.64

Black men were engaged in an assortment of jobs both within and outside their community. Many performed odd jobs in the towns, or worked as field hands at neighboring farms. Others held steadier employment as laborers in the local mills or railroad yards, skilled artisans, Main Street barbers, ministers, or maintenance men for uptown institutions and business establishments. Tanktown's Robert Kirkpatrick, for example, was the janitor at the Matthews School. Harvey Boyd founded Tanktown's Mount Moriah Baptist Church and was its first minister. His son Calvin worked in a brick yard near Matthews, and grandson Sam Boyd was a maintenance man and later a switchman for the Seaboard Railroad. I. A. Withers in Smithville was a house carpenter, while neighbor James Derr worked at both of Cornelius' textile mills. A number of men in Pottstown were employed as janitors, yard men, and kitchen help at the Mecklenburg Sanitarium, which opened directly across the railroad tracks from the community in 1926.65

Many of the women of Pottstown also worked at the sanitarium, while females in each of the all-black districts made the daily trip uptown to jobs as domestics for white households. In Tanktown, for instance, Jesse Johnson Bell, a sharecropper's daughter and-wife to Sanders Bell, who had also farmed on shares, worked as the cook for the Dr. Thomas Neely Reid family of Matthews.66 Although the Bell House is a new replacement of the original on the site, its setting reflects the pride of place and self-reliance that historically characterized African-American communities. Cedar and chinaberry trees shade the unpaved lane that winds to the residence, which has ornamental shrubs and flowers near the foundation, and farther away, a vegetable garden and sizable chicken pen.

Early dwellings in Tanktown, Smithville, and Pottstown usually represented familiar vernacular forms. Typical is the gable-roofed house with two all-purpose front rooms and a rear kitchen and bedroom ell that stands among similar houses in Smithville. Tenuous economic circumstances rarely allowed residents the luxury of building dwellings that reflected the latest architectural trends, or that even rose above a single story. But an exception is the I. A. Withers House. About 1910, Withers displayed his carpentry skills and social status in Smithville by erecting this two-story, frame residence on the most prominent site, at the main entrance into the district. Though it may not be as grand as the Colonial Revival residences which appeared uptown in this period, during its years as the Withers homeplace--when the wraparound porch featured handsome classical columns--this house was Smithville's finest example of domestic architecture.

Churches and schools were other principal elements of the historic black landscape. The churches, in particular, were the focal points of each community. They served as favorite gathering places, provided rare opportunities for blacks to exercise leadership skills, and offered social welfare for families in need. Baptist churches arrived in Pottstown and Tanktown almost immediately after the first families. St. Phillip Baptist Church was established in Pottstown in 1876, and in 1879 Mount Moriah Baptist Church held its first services in Tanktown. The Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, founded in 1917, is considered to be Smithville's first religious institution. In the ensuing decades a variety of other churches--Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, and United House of Prayer--were also formed. None of the early church buildings, which long-time residents remember as simple wooden structures, remains. For as these churches have continued to play active roles in the black districts, their congregations have periodically erected new buildings, usually with brick or concrete veneers.67

Schoolhouses arose more slowly in these communities, where public money for black school facilities was sorely limited.68 Before the 1920s, the public education of Mecklenburg's rural black children was mostly a sporadic affair, conducted in substandard structures often located beyond a reasonable walking distance for most children. Sam Boyd of Tanktown recalls that the nearest school for blacks was a converted shotgun house situated miles away, at Hood's Crossroads. "We didn't go to school but about three months out of the year. We children had to help our parents on the land. We were another pair of hands to plant, hoe, weed, and harvest." 69 The decade of the twenties, however, saw a dramatic increase in the number and quality of black rural schools in Mecklenburg County and throughout the South. The driving force behind the improvement of black schooling in these years was the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Rosenwald, who was president of Sears, Roebuck and Company and one of America's leading philanthropists, established the Fund to provide matching grants to Southern, rural black communities for school construction. The Rosenwald school-building program was a cooperative effort, combining Rosenwald money and building designs with the financial and administrative support of black communities and local school boards. During the 1920s, when the Rosenwald Fund was most active, seven hundred and sixty-seven Rosenwald schools were completed in North Carolina, twenty-six of them Mecklenburg County.70

Smithville, Pottstown, and Tanktown each received a Rosenwald school. In 1922-23 a three-teacher facility was built upon a high point of land near the center of Smithville. The following year Tanktown received a four-teacher school; and in 1925-26 a Rosenwald school designed for four teachers was erected in Pottstown.71

With the cost of a four-teacher schoolhouse averaging four thousand dollars--equal to a middle-class suburban house--a well-organized local fund raising campaign was essential. In Tanktown, for example, the parents of school children were assessed twenty-five dollars, or pledged to help erect the new "Matthews Colored School." Additional money was raised through community fish fries and a donation from the mission society of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.72

Rosenwald designs produced the most up-to-date rural black schools of their time. Each plan incorporated banks of tall sash windows and included siting specifications to maximize natural lighting. Layouts were planned to be "simple and efficient, n with classrooms and "industrial room" arranged around a central corridor and cloak room. All buildings were one-story high, and most were sheathed in white weatherboarding.73

Despite the physical improvements, educational facilities in the African-American communities remained below the standards set by white schools in the adjacent towns. "There was a thousand miles of difference in the colored schools and the white schools then, recalls Elnora Stitt, who attended the Matthews Colored School. "Our school never had an indoor bathroom. It never had a cafeteria, even when it closed in 1966, and all the black children were sent to Matthews School."74. Moreover, the new Rosenwald schools provided, at best, only eighth-grade courses, rather than the high school education offered to white students.

Today Rosenwald school buildings survive in both Pottstown and Smithville, where they have been modified over the years and converted to community centers. They represent the most influential early steps taken to elevate the quality of black education in the county, decades before federal intervention and the beginnings of school integration. The Rosenwald buildings also contribute to the historic patterns of land use and significant examples of early architecture that characterize the small-town black districts, even as these communities receive long-overdue physical improvements.75


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