Jul 9, 2022 - News

How McCrorey Heights seeks to preserve the homes of civil rights trailblazers

Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

Residents of a historically Black neighborhood in west Charlotte are seeking help from the city to preserve its character.

One of those residents is Marilyn Twitty Brown, who is part of the effort to protect McCrorey Heights. When she was a young girl living in the 1953 home her parents built, the neighborhood was filled with dirt roads and few other residences.

Ranch-style, brick houses popped up around her family soon after the Twittys moved in. Leaders who laid the groundwork for the local civil rights movement filled the homes, among them:

  • Reginald Hawkins, a dentist, advocate for desegregation and the first Black candidate for North Carolina governor.
  • Thomas Wyche, an attorney who played a major role in integrating Revolution Park and the airport. He also had a hand in the Freedom Rides and sit-in movement.
  • Charles V. Bell, another lawyer, who, before Rosa Parks, was arrested for sitting in a “white” seat on a Gastonia bus and worked on school desegregation cases before Brown v. Board of Education.
  • Other teachers, school administrators, activists and religious leaders who shaped Charlotte.

What’s happening: Today, neighbors in McCrorey Heights are asking the city for a historic designation to honor these figures and preserve their homes. This comes at a time when real estate demand and new construction threaten the character of the neighborhood.

Why it matters: Charlotte’s rapid growth often means that longtime residents get priced or pushed out of their homes. The city also has a reputation for bulldozing its history. McCrorey Heights, so far, has held steady — but a historic overlay district would put protections in place.

  • “A lot of people are trying to constantly move in here and buy our homes,” Brown says. “It’s happening all the time. Everyone I talk to in the neighborhood has said the same thing: They keep getting phone calls. They keep getting postcards.”

The historic designation would affect about 160 dwellings and just over 70 acres bordered by Andrill Terrace to the west, Brookshire Freeway to the north and Beatties Ford Road to the east.

  • Per the city’s standards, if the designation is issued, Charlotte’s Historic District Commission would review future proposed changes to buildings and structures to determine their “appropriateness.”
  • Whether a property owner is demolishing buildings or breaking new ground, plowing trees or painting bricks, they would need to obtain a certificate before starting any work.
  • If a project gets underway without the commission’s go-ahead, the city could issue a fine.

Context: If approved, McCrorey Heights would join seven neighborhoods in Charlotte deemed historic: Fourth Ward, Dilworth, Hermitage Court, Wesley Heights, Wilmore, Plaza Midwood and most recently, Oaklawn Park.

  • The process takes more than a year: Residents formed an exploratory committee, launched the process of seeking historic status in June 2021 and got signatures from over half the property owners, the required minimum.

Between the lines: Oaklawn Park, located just north of McCrorey Heights, was another Charlotte suburb that boomed post-World War II. It earned its historic designation in 2020, but it wasn’t without debate.

  • Residents feared such a historic distinction would spark the opposite of the intention and attract developers, QCityMetro reported at the time.
  • Historian Tom Hatchett says it’s hard to pinpoint whether a historic designation is always good, but it’s proven a stabilizing influence on communities, such as Plaza Midwood.

Flashback: McCrorey Heights is a “neighborhood of firsts.”

  • The former president of the nearby Johnson C. Smith University, H.L. McCrorey, founded McCrorey Heights for Black Charlotteans at a time when even wealthy residents were shut out of white neighborhoods.
  • It was also a haven for former Brooklyn residents after their community was lost to “urban renewal.”
  • In the late 1960s, despite neighborhood opposition, construction began on the Brookshire Freeway, which required the removal of entire sections of homes. The freeway would ultimately slice through the neighborhood.

What they’re saying: “[F]or every single white school, workplace or other institution there still had to be a ‘first Black’ person to walk through the door, take the heat, endure disapproval,” Hatchett wrote earlier this year. “Nearly every house in McCrorey Heights held someone who walked that walk.”

  • “The neighborhood was a wonderful place to grow up and we all knew each other,” Brown says. “And what is starting to happen all over the city, we do not want to happen here.”

McCrorey Heights was once a gem hidden by the Vest Water Treatment Plant — a property the city took from H.L. McCrorey through eminent domain. In recent years, the neighborhood has attracted plenty of other prospective homebuyers eyeing properties along its tree-lined streets. Already, several contemporary-style homes are under construction.

  • Some landowners are relatives of former neighbors and hail from out of state, therefore they don’t grasp the history, Brown says.

What’s next: City leaders meet July 18 for a hearing, during which neighbors will speak for, and possibly against, the proposed designation.

  • Council is slated to make a final decision August 15.
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