African-American culture in Charlotte has a long and storied past. Slaves were introduced in Mecklenburg in 1764 and comprised 40 percent of the local population by 1860. During this time, Mecklenburg was also home to 293 free blacks who worked as laborers, barbers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. During the Civil War, Mecklenburg slaves were donated to the Confederate cause on several occasions to help construct forts, erect blockades on the roads, and repair railroads.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, slavery wasn’t abolished in North Carolina until December of 1865. At that time, the freed people left plantations and began building their lives, often moving to northern cities where there were more opportunities.
The African Americans who remained in Charlotte began to create their own communities. Neighborhoods like First Ward, Fourth Ward, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn became known as “second cities” because the number of homes, churches, health-care facilities, schools, and businesses in close proximity gave residents no reason to venture outside of the neighborhood boundaries.
During this time, African Americans also started two churches: First United Presbyterian opened in 1866 and First Baptist West held its first services in 1867. In Charlotte, and elsewhere in the United States, African Americans began starting benevolent societies, fraternal orders, and auxiliaries dedicated to helping each other.
Funds from these organizations helped to support Good Samaritan Hospital, one of few health-care facilities in the region that served African-American patients. The hospital was located in the Third Ward neighborhood and staffed by black doctors and nurses.
Neighborhood schools were also opened to cater to black students. In 1886, Myers Street Elementary School became the first grade school for black students in Charlotte. The city also had two high schools for black students: Second Ward High, which was open from 1923 to 1969, and West Charlotte, which opened in 1938.
In 1922, African-American business leaders began construction of the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building, the first building to accommodate African American–owned businesses, professional offices, and civil and fraternal organizations.
Urban renewal programs began threatening local black communities in the 1960s. The Brooklyn neighborhood and others like it were razed to make way for new developments. Even now, several of the historically black neighborhoods in Charlotte are struggling with issues of gentrification.
There is a strong commitment to honoring and promoting African-American culture in Charlotte. One of the best places to learn about Charlotte’s black heritage is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture.
© Jodi Helmer from Moon Charlotte, 1st Edition