black Neighborhoods in charlotte
During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Charlotte did not have any dedicated black neighborhoods. As historian Tom Hanchett has shown in his seminal book Sorting Out the New South City, African Americans settled all over the city in and around its four wards, usually side by side with white residents. Biddleville in the West End was one of these many integrated ring villages, which began to rapidly disappear after segregation began to sweep across the South in the 1890’s. By the 1910’s concentrated and segregated black neighborhoods had developed, most notably the Brooklyn community that filled much of the Second Ward area downtown. There was also the Greenville community in the Fourth Ward, and Biddleville had grown along the new streetcar line that ran down Beatties Ford Road. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of Charlotte’s non-white residents soared 50.5%, from 37,511 to 56,471.
Over the years this separation continued to define Charlotte, as the city divided into areas characterized by race and income. Wealthy white families settled in the southeast part of the city, and low- and moderate-income whites resided to the northeast and southwest. African Americans continued to concentrate in the northwest, which only increased when government-sponsored urban renewal policies eradicated the vibrant Brooklyn community. Like segregated facilities and destructive highway construction, “urban renewal” or “slum clearance” as it was often referred to, was a fracturing force of displacement and cultural eradication for African Americans. The federal policy was in effect all across the country from the 1950’s until the 1970’s, and on its surface appeared to be benevolent. Policymakers claimed to remove and replace “blighted” housing, and cities pledged to buy tenements and shacks along dirt roads and sell at reduced prices to private developers, who would replace them with better affordable homes. In practice these policies aimed to socially sanitize neighborhoods inhabited by racial minorities that inhabited desirable land in cities; over three decades urban renewal programs consistently destroyed more affordable housing than they created, and displaced thousands of minority families across the country.
There were slums and poor families in Brooklyn, but there were also fine homes inhabited by middle class black families as well as scores of black churches, black-owned businesses, restaurants, movie theaters and nightclubs, and the first free black library in the South. Over 11 years, Charlotte tore down 1,480 structures and displaced over 1,000 families in Brooklyn, which is now home to the sprawling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, Marshall Park, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. A large portion of the black areas of the First Ward and Greenville were also razed; Greenville managed to be largely rebuilt as a black community in the 1980’s. Many families, as well as many of the now homeless church congregations, relocated to the Historic West End. Most of the current communities in the Northwest Corridor/West End were established as black neighborhoods between the 1930’s and 1970’s, except for the formerly white area of Wesley Heights. These neighborhoods firmly became the center of black life in Charlotte and largely still are, despite rapidly changing demographics as the city explodes with growth.
Another black neighborhood that managed to survive urban renewal was the Cherry community, developed in 1891 to promote homeownership for working-class African-Americans. Black home ownership in Cherry increased from twenty-six percent in 1905 to as many as sixty-five percent by 1925, and the population was concentrated with skilled and unskilled laborers, working in cotton mills, for railway lines or as delivery men. With the expansion of Charlotte and Cherry’s location just a mile southeast of uptown, by the 1970’s it had become a central neighborhood, “too well located for its ‘highest and best use’ to continue to be low-income housing.” The Cherry Community Development Association was organized in the 1960’s and succeeded in getting some federal funds for community improvements to keep black residents in their homes, but the specter of gentrification eventually won out. Cherry’s black population has diminished from sixty-six percent in 1990, to fifty-five percent in 2000, to only thirty-seven percent by 2015, and most of its original homes and landmarks are gone.
The West End stands today as Charlotte’s only surviving intact concentration of black communities, and it is filled with a rich history as the heir to other neighborhoods destroyed over the years as well as its own. There is still time to preserve these invaluable segments of our cultural history, although the pressures of population growth, the development of public transit lines, and the economic pressures of the Charlotte’s drive to become a global city work steadily against the preservation of a historic African American core community and identity.