Dec 8, 2019 - News

‘I’m back’: Four years after his sister’s murder in a Charleston church, Malcolm Graham returns to public office with big dreams for Beatties Ford Road

Malcolm Graham

Malcolm Graham stands at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street in West Charlotte in November 2019.

Tonorrow Wells pulled his hoodie back and looked up from behind the counter to greet the new potential customer, a 50-something man in a college letterman’s jacket. It was a chilly November afternoon along Beatties Ford Road, and newly elected city councilman Malcolm Graham was here to make promises.

“I’m going to be more visible,” he was telling everyone.

It’s been 15 years since Graham served on council, and in that time he became forever tied to one of darkest moments in American history: His sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of nine people killed by a white supremacist at a historically black Charleston church in 2015. Now Malcolm is recommitted to local public service. In some ways, he’s still following her lead; she was a beloved librarian who shaped countless kids’ lives in Charleston.

“We’re gonna make this happen,” Graham was here to tell Wells. “I’m going to bring the businesses together.”

Wells, 35, grew up on the Corridor, as people call the stretch of Beatties Ford from JCSU to just beyond Interstate 85. He’s heard lots of promises over the years, but still the same rhythms and sounds persist. Poverty’s ailments stroll past the store’s front windows every day: drugs and homelessness and violent crime.

Inside, the store is modern and bright, with racks of men’s sport coats and dress shirts neatly arranged. Tonorrow’s brother, personal stylist Keaton Wells, opened this location of his boutique Keaton’s Cupboard in February. It’s exactly the type of small business Graham hopes to see here, in that it feels like a shop you might find in any affluent part of town.

“Where image is everything,” Keaton’s slogan reads.

Outside the store, the area around the Beatties Ford and LaSalle Street intersection is one of Charlotte’s most visible markers for whatever the opposite of progress is. But Wells and his neighbors know the stories that often go untold: In the humble brick homes and shops in University Park and Lincoln Heights are proud longtime residents and business owners who fight to make things better.

They didn’t invite trouble to their side of town, they say. Instead it’s been intentionally positioned here through decades of decisions made by city leaders. Prosperity doesn’t elude this corner of Charlotte by accident, they say. This goes back to the 1950s and ’60s, when government-run urban renewal razed the historically black Brooklyn neighborhood in Uptown and displaced thousands. Many of those families moved to the Corridor believing city leaders’ promise to help them return Uptown one day. That was 50 years ago, and still they’re here.

So when a politician like Graham, who was officially sworn in last Monday night, comes through, the people who live here are understandably skeptical. Just a few weeks ago, a person was shot in the parking lot outside Keaton’s Cupboard’s front window.

“I ain’t gonna say I’m numb to it,” Wells told Graham. “It’s just that I expect it.”

Graham, though, knows more about that sort of numbness than most of his colleagues. He remembers calling Cynthia’s number repeatedly on the night of June 17, 2015, when he saw news reports that a visitor to her Bible study class started shooting. He knows what it’s like to have all those calls go to eternal voicemail.

The Mother Emanuel shooting was a formative moment for the U.S., a night when we all saw the horrific potential of the modern white supremacist movements, where hate is fueled mostly online but carried out anywhere, even sanctuaries.

Malcolm spent the next few years speaking out against gun violence and helping form a foundation in his sister’s honor. The Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation promotes literacy and civic engagement by helping get books in the hands of more people.

Earlier this year council member Justin Harlow, who’d built a strong list of supporters in the neighborhoods in a short time, announced that he wouldn’t run again for his District 2 seat again. Graham jumped into the race in June, just a few days before the shooting’s fourth anniversary.

He emerged from a crowded primary with 61 percent of the vote in September, finishing first in every precinct. He then cruised in the general.

Now that he’s in office again, the former congressional candidate wants to spend much of his time focusing on this one corner in west Charlotte. He says he wants to see shops like Keaton’s be the standard rather than the outlier. He doesn’t want to hear what Tonorrow says he hears on a daily basis.

“Everybody who comes in here says, ‘When I step in I feel like I’m in SouthPark,’” Tonorrow says. “‘But when I step out I know I’m on Beatties Ford.’”

Malcolm Graham and Tomorrow Wells
Tonorrow Wells (left) works in the clothing store his brother owns along Beatties Ford Road. Malcolm Graham says part of his goal as city councilman is to promote local shops like this.

The first time Graham was a city councilor was in the early 2000s, during another expansion period. One of the biggest disputes was whether to build a new Uptown basketball arena.

Today he hops into a council that’s trying to figure out how tied it wants to be to new Panthers owner David Tepper, and how much public money should go toward a new or renovated football stadium and an MLS team. But the difference between Graham the 30-something councilman and Graham the 50-something councilman, he says, is perspective.

“When I was there before, we were concentrated on building a ‘world-class city,’” he says. “We needed NFL, the NBA, we needed the arena uptown — but we forgot about the people who actually lived in Charlotte. I’m here now to help those individuals who’ve been forgotten.”

This was Cynthia’s mission. They grew up in Charleston, the six Graham kids, and they spent each Sunday at Mother Emanuel. Malcolm was the youngest and Cynthia was the oldest girl, five years in front of him. She became a parent figure to him after their father died when Malcolm was 19, then their mother when he was 21.

Cynthia pushed him to go to college at Johnson C. Smith, where he played tennis. She told him to pledge a fraternity. And later, when he wanted the blessing of his family before proposing to his wife, Kim, Malcolm went to Cynthia and she gave her OK.

Cynthia became the chairperson of the Charleston Housing Authority, and she saw how that city’s rapid growth left people displaced from the downtown peninsula. It always bothered her, Malcolm says now as a representative of a district where some neighborhoods’ home values have tripled in the last decade.

Cynthia Graham Hurd
“I wouldn’t have been in Charlotte but for her. She was a big influence on everything I did,” Malcolm Graham says of his sister Cynthia Graham Hurd. (Photo from the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation)

Cynthia helped launch his political career. He joined Charlotte’s city council in 1999 as a mid-30s man with big ambitions. He moved up to state senator in 2005. His signature accomplishment in the legislature was helping to pass comprehensive gang legislation.

He came under scrutiny, though, after news reports revealed he had one of the lowest attendance records in Raleigh. In 2012 a WSOC investigation found that he’d been absent for 240 votes as a legislator. That story still follows him around today in campaigns; it came up several times in my conversations with people along Beatties Ford over the past few weeks.

In 2014, he ran for Congress but finished second in the primary behind Alma Adams.

After that, he returned to his job as assistant to the president at Johnson C. Smith, while contemplating his next political move.

Eight months later, the shooting.

Three days after that, family members of the other victims looked into a camera at a court hearing and told the shooter they forgave him. Their mercy made headlines around the country.

But Graham didn’t feel that way. He’s repeatedly said that he can’t forgive the shooter, or the racist values that brought him there.

Instead he channeled his emotions toward advocating against weapons and white supremacy. After nearly every mass shooting since 2015, he’s gone to social media to say some version of, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Which brings us to Charlotte in 2019. Charlotte has more than 100 homicides this year, the most since 1993. Several occurred in the streets around LaSalle and Beatties Ford; three have taken place on Catherine Simmons Avenue, one block down from LaSalle.

The first thing Graham did last Monday morning, his first day back in office, was meet with district attorney Spencer Merriweather to talk about how the city could work with the county to combat the violence. He’d like to see it labeled a public health issue.

“Everybody wants the same thing,” he says. “We want it to stop.”

City Council District 2 map
City Council District 2 map

Some days, Carolyn Fuller drives around the University Park neighborhood picking up signs on the corners.

“All the ‘We Buy Houses,’ or ‘We Spring Bails,’” she says. “All this junk.”

Few people love this neighborhood more than Fuller. She grew up here in the 1960s, graduated from West Charlotte High and UNC Charlotte. She moved to New York for 25 years before returning to care for her aging parents in the 1990s. She hasn’t left since.

“I didn’t plan on it being this way, but when duty calls you try to answer to duty,” she says. “There are times we get out of the car at the shopping center and smell urine. We get out and we have to step over the boxes of food. Should we settle to live like that?”

Fuller is the president of the University Park Neighborhood Association, and her messages for Graham, or anybody who comes to this neighborhood to try to “fix” it, are fairly clear: Don’t use the area for career gain. Don’t underestimate how much work the people who live here are already doing. And do, to the greatest of your abilities, listen more than talk.

The people on the Corridor have received more decisions over the years than participated in them. For instance, when transportation leaders decided to build a highway from Uptown to west Mecklenburg County in the late 1960s, they ran Brookshire Freeway through McCrorey Heights, the middle- to upper-class black neighborhood where many civil rights leaders lived.

“We really feel dumped on,” Fuller says. “I know that’s a flat, negative term. But they run around doing all this planning and all this economic development, but what about planning for the impact of it with all these displaced people?”

There’s plenty to work with along Beatties Ford. The Northwest School of the Arts is a gem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s School system. The Excelsior Club, if it gets rehabilitated, could be a centerpiece of the area’s cultural history. Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and James Brown performed at the club for black audiences during segregation.

In his term as the district’s city councilman, dentist Justin Harlow created the aging-in-place program, in which the city will give financial assistance to seniors who can’t afford the massive property-tax increases in gentrifying neighborhoods.

And last year, the city entered a partnership with the national UrbanMain initiative to come up with a vision for LaSalle and Beatties Ford. UrbanMain has helped in neighborhoods in Washington D.C. and other cities, and a handful of Charlotte’s leaders traveled there to see how it was done. In October, the Knight Foundation announced a $14,865 grant to support an economic development study for the Beatties Ford/LaSalle project.

“The goal is to enable residents to take action,” Charlotte Knight Foundation Director Charles Thomas told me recently.

For Graham, the Beatties Ford Road corridor is just one small part of a big district.

District 2 contains all of Charlotte’s complexities and issues. On the east side, it starts in West End and runs out Trade Street to Biddleville and Smallwood, two historically black neighborhoods where small bungalows are being replaced by two-story homes with garages bigger than the houses that originally stood there.

From there District 2 fans west, over Interstate 85 to Coulwood and other solidly middle-class neighborhoods with brick ranches one after the other. Along the way it is industrial, a strip where workers in hardhats stop to eat at a greasy spoon called the Circle G before sunrise on their way to job sites each morning. It stretches way out to the Mountain Island Lake community to the west, and to the north, it encompasses neighborhoods around University City.

That’s where Graham lives, in University City. His youngest daughter was a star basketball player at Mallard Creek High School.

But on Sunday mornings, he goes where a significant portion of Charlotte’s black community goes — to worship on Beatties Ford Road. Graham attends Friendship Missionary Baptist, one of the city’s most influential congregations. Also on the corridor are United House of Prayer for All People and Park Church, each about a century old.

Each week, Graham says he watches traffic flow to and from the churches.

“Every Sunday morning from 8 to 2, the economic wealth of the black community in Charlotte is all here,” he says. “And then, once church is over at 2 o’clock on Sunday, it disperses.”

Graham used that line repeatedly as he walked the neighborhood that chilly November day, and it drew nods each time.

Mohammad Amryin was washing the windows of his check-cashing business when Graham walked up. Amryin pointed across the street to a shopping center where dealers hang out, then pointed down the road to another shopping center that he says needs to be renovated.

“If everybody started doing something good the whole entire community will just start doing good,” Amryin told Graham. “You have to get people who not just want to sell wine and beer to make them more drunk. You need to have people who want to bring services.”

“We’re going to do things differently,” Graham responded to Amryin, to everyone. “I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep.”

Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street
Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street

As Graham reviewed his speech before Monday night’s swearing in, he thought about Cynthia.

She was his proofreader and editor, back to his high school and college days when he was an unsure young man coping with the loss of both of his parents.

Grief or not, she wouldn’t dare let him slip on grammar. Over the next few decades, whenever Malcolm had a big speech, he read it to her over the phone, and she’d tell him where he was too long, where he needed to change his tone and cadence.

Her most consistent piece of advice was this: “You don’t need fancy words to get across what you’re trying to say.”

That can apply in many ways for a public official elected to serve District 2. The issues facing the neighborhood are too complex for one council member, and for the people who live there, those issues are too personal for sweeping promises.

A few times during his walk around the neighborhood three weeks after the election, people thought he was campaigning.

“I hope you win!” a server at Tropical Goodies Caribbean and Soul Food said.

“I’ve already won!” Graham said.

“Oh, oops,” she said. “Well do a good job!”

Undoubtedly the biggest question that hovers over any elected official these days is: Can I trust you? And few communities have more entrenched reasons to distrust Charlotte’s government than those on Beatties Ford Road.

Fuller, the University Park president, says Graham has called her to set up a meeting. And if our hour-long conversation is any indication, she won’t hold back.

“We don’t want the politicians to come over here playing games with us,” Fuller said. “It’s like, been there, done that, and we’re sick and tired of that. Are we going to be just another steppingstone for him?”

In his speech at the swearing-in, his first address as an elected official without Cynthia’s editing, Graham opened by following her advice to keep it simple.

“I’m back,” he said to start, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Then he tried to address the concerns of the people along the Corridor, using repetition.

“I hear you,” he said over and over.

I hear that some black business owners still believe they’re getting short-changed. I hear that a lot of people believe that our district is still being left behind while other parts of the city are growing.

I hear you.

Some believe that the Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street corridor has looked the same for the last 40 years.

I hear you.

Some believe that we’ve been so focused on shiny, brand-new things that we forgot about the people that live in Charlotte.

I hear you.

He paused for a beat before each “I hear you,” to amplify the message for those in the room and those who couldn’t be there.

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