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February 3, 2022

Then and Now: A View of Historic Black Neighborhoods

By Peter Brown

To commemorate Black History Month, Habitat Charlotte Region looks at four historic Black Charlotte area neighborhoods, delving into how each of these communities started, and how they fare today. Three of the four where formed by Black founders or benefactors who sought to support the development of Black neighborhoods in Charlotte. As you’ll read, each has experienced significant challenges.

Today, these neighborhoods grapple with gentrification, which threatens displacement of families of color who grew up in and raised families here. This blog is meant to serve as a cautionary narrative that illuminates how racist policies and untethered market forces will continue to marginalize those with less. It is not without irony that these areas, once fled from or ignored, have now become highly desirable among a more affluent class.

Optimist Park

The Optimist Park neighborhood emerged during the turn of the twentieth century, housing workers from three area cotton mills as well as people employed in building trades. The mill village and neighboring subdivisions built during the Jim Crow era initially housed white people. During the 1950s and early 1960s, driven by destruction of the primarily Black Brooklyn and Greenville neighborhoods, and coupled by a trend that saw white families move out from Charlotte’s Center City, Optimist Park’s racial makeup evolved. By 1985 the neighborhood was almost completely Black.

Habitat Charlotte was formed in 1983 with a goal to house Charlotte’s poor. In 1987, Habitat Charlotte hosted the fourth site for Jimmy Carter’s week-long Habitat build project, in which 350 volunteers turned out to build 14 homes in Optimist Park. This was seen as an attempt to bolster the neighborhood, and to help combat the fact that by the 1980s, ninety seven percent of Optimist Park homes were considered deteriorated or dilapidated.

Habitat Charlotte Region continued to build in Optimist Park throughout the ensuing decades, and to-date has constructed sixty new homes and have repaired many existing homes in the neighborhood. Like many neighborhoods where Habitat builds throughout the City of Charlotte, pressures from gentrification are highly visible and evident. Rapid growth in luxury real estate and other new development flanks the homes of low-income residents, driving up property values as well as corresponding property taxes, threatening displacement.

Julia Maulden Place

In 1986 the City of Charlotte named a street in the Optimist Park community in honor of Julia Maulden, who was influential in the founding work of Habitat Charlotte Region.

Optimist Park Historic Church

Newer apartments can be seen just a block behind one of Optimist Park's oldest churches, Chapel of Christ the King, which was also the first office location of Habitat Charlotte Region.

Biddleville

Often referred to as Charlotte’s oldest Black neighborhood, Biddleville was formed around the Biddle Institute. Erected in 1867, the institution sought to “train leaders for the newly freed Black population”. Stephen Mattoon, the institute’s first president, a white American Presbyterian missionary and clergyman, planted seeds for the neighborhood, selling tracts of land adjacent to the school to Black families who wanted to live near the college. In 1876 the institution was renamed Biddle University, and in 1891 hired its first Black president, Reverend Daniel J. Sanders. In 1923, the school was renamed Johnson C. Smith University after Smith’s widow endowed the university with eight new buildings.

As a community, Biddleville drew Black families who felt a cultural connection to the University. This included not only University students and faculty, but also educators and administrators from nearby public schools. Urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, and the ensuing “white flight”, transformed Biddleville’s surrounding white neighborhoods into African American communities. Throughout Biddleville remained a Black neighborhood, becoming the epicenter of Charlotte’s Civil Rights battle, as it was home to leading movement figures Charles Jones and Dorothy Counts-Scoggins.

As a JCSU student, Jones led four NC A&T students in a peaceful protest that ended segregated lunch counters in city restaurants. As a civil rights activist, Jones also spent time in jail with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Counts-Scoggins was one of four Black students integrated into Harding High School in the late 1950s; images of Dorothy being verbally assaulted by white students were seen around the world.

Similar to other West Charlotte neighborhoods in the 1970s, a loss of jobs in Biddleville accompanied an increase in crime rates. This worsened in the 1980s and ‘90s as the influx of street drugs ravaged the area. From the 2000s on, Biddleville rebounded with a dramatic increase in development that saw the demolition of scores of older homes that had fallen into disrepair, along with an influx of white families into the area. Habitat has built nine affordable homes in the neighborhood, and repaired many others.

Today, the neighborhood now represents a balancing act that strives to maintain its historic roots and protect its older Black families, while the community itself grows exponentially.

Biddleville street view

Signs of gentrification: luxury housing under construction on the perimeter of the Biddleville neighborhood.

Johnson C. Smith University

Formerly the Biddle Institute, Johnson C. Smith University was and still is, an integral part of the Biddleville neighborhood.

Smithville

Located in the center of Cornelius, the community of Smithville is a historic Black neighborhood that dates back to 1869. Known as Limley until 1910, Smithville gained its name from Jacob L. Smith, a cotton plantation owner who married into the Potts Plantation, one of several local cotton plantations where Smithville’s Black residents were enslaved or worked as sharecroppers after the war.

In 1908, Smith began to parcel out land to these Black families, in hopes that families would not be forced to separate. For those who could afford it, land parcels were paid for in cash; for those who couldn’t afford it, Smith gave the land for free.

Smithville flourished as a Black community, with many older residents recalling fond childhoods from the 1950s. Nannie Potts moved to Smithville after marrying her husband Gerald “Mickey” Potts in 1959; she would later become Cornelius’ first female and Black mayor.

In the 1960s, Smithville gained notoriety after a Charlotte news article proclaimed it as “Germtown, USA” from raw sewage problems due to lack of access to town sewer systems. To remedy the problem, community members sought annexation by the Town of Cornelius, but were denied due to a perceived lack of tax base. Eventually, Mecklenburg County installed the sewer lines, and Smithville was finally annexed into Cornelius in 1980.

In 2018, Smithville again made headlines due to a proposed NC DOT project that would build a connector road through the community to ease traffic on the nearby I-77 exit. The proposal was met with stiff opposition by residents, who ultimately threatened a law suit which resulted in a new plan.

A neighborhood group – the Smithville Community Coalition – has been working on a revitalization plan to balance growth and gentrification, while assisting long term residents’ ability to maintain residence in the community. With many homes in need of repair, Habitat has recently met with community members to develop ways that the Critical Home Repair program can play a role in helping Smithville residents continue to live in homes they love.

Smithville home

What is thought to be Smithville's oldest home. Many of the residents here are aging and fear they may be displaced in their later years.

Community Center in the Smithville neighborhood

The Smithville Rosenwald school was built in the 1920's for black students and eventually became a community center for the Smithville neighborhood and surrounding area. The building is now privately owned, mostly unused and in need of repair.

Grier Heights

Grier Heights history as a Black community, dates back to 1890 when former slave Sam Billings purchased 100 acres of land in the area. Prior to that, as early as 1868, there were four homes and three churches that occupied the land. These homes were built on what is now Skyland Ave, and housed five families, including members of the Kirkpatrick, Price and Wallace clans.

In 1907, Billings, funeral home director Arthur Samuel Grier, for whom the area was named, and several others purchased additional land, which further expanded the community. Known as Grier Town, the suburb was home to lower and middle-income Black families. The neighborhood grew slowly until the 1940s, when Grier built 100 homes used to serve Black servicemen returning from World War II.

In 1927, Grier Heights landowners petitioned for a community school. Although the school board only provided a framed structure, neighbors raised money and also received financial support from the Rosenwald fund. Sam Billings sold two acres of land, and provided one acre for the school’s site. Named Billingsville School, it offered education for grades 1 through 9, and educated area children until Randolph Junior High School was built in the 1960s. Currently, Billingsville School has been renovated into the Grier Heights Community Center, which now offers neighbors low-cost medical services, HSE/GED classes and financial literary programs.

Grier Heights, like many other Black communities in Charlotte, faces gentrification, including an increase in the conversion of single-family homes into rental units. However, residents have been resilient working with local non-profits and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department. This includes Habitat Charlotte Region – Habitat has built twenty-seven homes and repaired a number of homes in the community over the past several decades, and is actively building and fixing more in the neighborhood.

Update 2/23/22: Today Charlotte-based housing non-profits DreamKey Development Corporation and Crosswinds Community Development Corporation announced plans for a 288-unit affordable housing development in Grier Heights: 155 rental units; 80 units reserved for seniors; and 53 for-sale units.

The community will feature a mix of apartments, townhomes and standalone houses. Rental units will be reserved for people with 80% or less area median income (AMI), for-sale units will target people who make between 50% and 80% AMI.

Learn more at https://www.dreamkeypartners.org/

Billingsville School

The former Billingsville School that is now the Grier Heights Community Center.

Grier Heights Street view

A street view of well-maintained homes in the Grier Heights neighborhood.

continued conversation

Please join us for Habitat Charlotte Region’s annual Building Futures Affordable Housing Symposium on Tuesday, March 8, where author and scholar Andre M. Perry will focus on the rampant devaluing of assets in Black-majority communities – which includes both personal and business properties – and how overcoming racist policies would enable massive financial and social gains for families and businesses in these areas, as well as our entire country.

Learn more and register

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