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Old Anger and a Lost Neighborhood In Charlotte

The demise of Brooklyn—one of the nation’s oldest black neighborhoods before urban renewal—sheds light on the forces that have led to today’s city-wide anger.

Then-Mayor Pat McCrory smiles as he talks about an artist's rendition of the city's NASCAR's Hall of Fame (located in the former Brooklyn neighborhood), during a public unveiling in 2005. (Chuck Burton/AP)

CHARLOTTE– The Second Ward High School Alumni House and Museum is a modest institution, a little brick house along Beatties Ford Road, the main artery in what’s historically the black part of town. For decades, the house has been a repository for photos, yearbooks, bricks—the beloved remains of Second Ward High, Charlotte’s first black high school. In the 1960s, the city demolished the school and its entire neighborhood, known as Brooklyn, in the name of urban renewal.

Last month, a Charlotte police officer shot and killed a black man, Keith Lamont Scott. Within hours, protests turned ugly—rock throwing and looting, riot police and tear gas. For Charlotte, this violence was unprecedented. At a press conference, Mayor Jennifer Roberts looked tense and weary. “We have a long tradition of working together to solve our problems,” she told reporters. “The events that we saw last night are not the Charlotte that I know and love.”

Charlotte, once a cotton mill town, now a major financial hub, has always been adept at reinvention. It’s been equally adept at burying its past. Uptown skyscrapers, luxury apartments and construction cranes testify to prosperity. You’d never know that this town was once part of the Confederacy, that slaves made up 40 percent of the population at the start of the Civil War. And unless you happen upon a historic marker, you’d be unaware that Brooklyn was once the heart of black Charlotte, a city within a city, like its New York namesake.

The past has a way of sneaking up on you, whether you know history or not. William Faulkner said it best: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Lots of people, not just the mayor, were stunned by Charlotte’s recent violence. The more I learn about urban renewal, the more I’m surprised this city didn’t erupt years ago.

Second Ward museum tours are by appointment. Vermelle Ely is waiting for me just inside the front door. She is a retired teacher and Second Ward Alumni Foundation stalwart. She grew up in Brooklyn and co-wrote a history. At age 83, she’s uninterested in casting blame. Her goal is to keep the story of her school and her neighborhood alive.

Brooklyn, aside from its segregation, was the sort of mixed-use community that today’s urban planners applaud. It had a dozen churches, two theaters, restaurants, doctors, barbershops, a library. It had poor residents who lived in dilapidated shotgun shack rentals. It also had middle-class people, like Ely’s parents, who owned a two-story house with a fig tree in the yard. “Everyone was a big happy family,” she tells me. “There was a closeness everyone had.”

What doomed the area was its location—the desirable southern end of downtown, an area that now includes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and NASCAR Hall of Fame. To justify Brooklyn’s destruction, a 1958 Charlotte Observer editorial described the area as blighted and violent, a place of “narrow streets and darkened alleyways, open ditches and polluted streams.” It was a civic eyesore, the editorial argued, “that could be transformed into valuable, tax-productive property, part of which could be used to satisfy the governmental need for additional space.” The editorial said nothing about the several thousand citizens who called Brooklyn home.

I’d been working on a story about Brooklyn, and, by chance, visited the alumni house the day before Keith Scott was killed. Its displays are an interesting miscellany. There are everyday objects that Second Ward High students once used—hair straighteners, irons, typewriters. There’s an advertisement from a Brooklyn funeral home—“Coffins. Caskets. Burial Robes.” A stuffed-animal tiger, the school mascot, lounges on a table. Historic photos include an image of a lovely young woman, arms overflowing with bouquets. That’s Vermelle Ely, 1948 queen of the Queen City Classic, the annual football game featuring rivals Second Ward and West Charlotte High.

A photo you won’t find here: The white mayor taking a sledgehammer to a front porch railing as he kicks off demolition in what was billed as a “Brooklyn destruction party.”  Over a decade, starting in 1961, almost everything was destroyed, including many perfectly sound properties. Charlotte tore down 1,480 structures and displaced more than 1,000 families.

The city’s pitch about urban renewal had focused on housing. “Our purpose is to improve the housing of the people of Brooklyn,” the redevelopment director promised residents in 1960. “If this wasn’t the purpose of urban renewal, we wouldn’t have reason for existence.”

And yet Charlotte didn’t build a single apartment to replace Brooklyn’s rundown but affordable shotgun rentals. The resulting housing shortage forced displaced renters into public housing or apartments they couldn’t afford. Some people who owned homes and businesses still contend they weren’t adequately compensated for their property. Many businesses never reopened.

When the city tore down Second Ward High in 1969, just as the school system was desegregating, there were promises to replace it. That never happened, though Second Ward alumni are still hoping.

“It was a great setback for the whole community,” Ely says. “They just took away everything.”

And one particularly stark betrayal: The city bulldozed a dozen churches and scattered their congregations. Then it sold a prime piece of Brooklyn to Charlotte’s First Baptist, a white church that wanted to expand. That story angers me every time I hear it.

“If it makes you mad,” Ely says, “imagine how we feel.”

Dr. Mindy Fullilove, author of “Root Shock,” estimates that urban renewal – once derisively called Negro removal – demolished 1,600 black neighborhoods, destroying community and social connections. Today, Brooklyn’s land is some of the most valuable property in town. What if the city had demolished only the truly blighted properties? What if some black business and home owners had been permitted to stay?

For years, when Charlotte’s leaders told stories about race relations, they seldom mentioned urban renewal. They instead favored memories that polished the city’s image—how it integrated restaurants and motels sooner than much of the South. How, following court-ordered busing, Charlotte’s school system became a national symbol of integration. How, in 1983, this white-majority city elected a black mayor.

But in the last few years, a less flattering legacy caught up with this city. Dozens of schools re-segregated following a judge’s 1999 decision to end the busing that integrated schools. This was a predictable outcome, given that segregated housing patterns hadn’t much changed. African Americans here are roughly three times as likely as whites to live in poverty, a rate that has nearly doubled since 2000. Most remarkable: A major social mobility study has ranked this growing, prosperous city 50th out of the nation’s 50 largest cities. If you’re born poor, chances are that you’ll stay poor.

Keith Lamont Scott, 43, was a married father of seven waiting for a child to get off the school bus, according to his family. A motorcycle accident had left him with a traumatic brain injury. He had parked his SUV next to an unmarked police car in the townhome complex where he lived, in Charlotte’s University City area, nine miles northeast of Brooklyn. His neighborhood is located in a high-poverty census tract, an area where at least 20 percent of residents are poor. In 2014, these high-poverty areas accounted for 34 percent of the county’s census tracts, up from 19 percent in 2000.

Police were looking for another man, not Scott. But they say they approached after noticing Scott had a gun and a marijuana cigarette. When he exited his car, they say he was holding the gun and ignored commands to drop it. In a police video, you can hear an officer shouting: “Drop the gun!” In Scott’s wife’s video, you can hear her shouting to police: “Don’t shoot him!” There are photos of the gun that police say they recovered. So far, no video or photo shows Scott holding it. Distrust abounds. Many remain outraged.

How long had that anger been simmering? Since Charlotte police killed an unarmed black man named Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. Since the city wiped out Brooklyn in the 1960s. Since Jim Crow laws were enacted. Since slavery. “Four hundred years of racial inequality is part of why we find ourselves here today,” Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown told The Charlotte Observer. Garmon-Brown is co-chairing a high-powered committee trying to address the city’s lagging social mobility. “If we are not focusing on institutional racism and the inequality,” she said, “things will only get worse.”

But some here doubt whether Charlotte is committed to real change—to spending millions, for instance, to address a shortage of 34,000 affordable housing units. “We talk and talk and talk, and there’s no one taking action,” a panelist declared at a recent community race dialogue.

The old Brooklyn area now includes government and office buildings, a sterile urban park and a large historically white Baptist church. Soon, it will be redeveloped again. Plans call for a $683 million mixed-use project, “Brooklyn Village.” The county has directed developers to “infuse remembrances and flavor of the past Brooklyn neighborhood into the project.”

With apartments, retail and restaurants, the new development will carry some of the markers of old Brooklyn. But this time, poor people won’t be able to afford to live there. And this time, nobody’s making the church move.

About the Author

  • Pam Kelley is a journalist who spent more than thirty years reporting for The Charlotte Observer. She’s writing a book about deferred dreams of post-Civil Rights generations in the New South.