Most of Charlotte’s Green Book sites were destroyed
Black travelers could stop at The Original Chicken ‘n Ribs on Beatties Ford Road and feast on a “fat boy” burger without fear of harassment in the segregation-era South.
Today, Jermaine Blackmon serves up the same chicken and ribs as his grandfather did during the 1950s, with some new menu items, like steak and cheese. But west Charlotte continues to change all around the restaurant.
State of play: It’s listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide listing businesses like restaurants, hotels and gas stations that did not discriminate against Black travelers.
- Chicken ‘n Ribs is the only one still operating in Mecklenburg County.
- Others have been replaced by stadiums and arenas, freeways and even a police station.
Why it matters: Black neighborhoods in Charlotte are constantly rebuilding. Urban renewal, highway construction and gentrification have displaced Black communities and many landmarks have been lost as a result.
- There’s been an effort in recent years to save what does remain, like the Excelsior Club.
The big picture: Green Book locations were “oasis spaces,” says Angela Thorpe, director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which put together a statewide Green Book exhibit.
- “They served as places for refuge and safety for Black people who were traveling about North Carolina and Black people who were traveling through North Carolina,” Thorpe tells Axios.
- They were also economic drivers at a time when Black people had few opportunities to build wealth, she says. Charlotte had the most Green Book sites out of any city in North Carolina, at 55.
Between the lines: Green Books are time capsules, taking us back to a complex era before mega-chains popped up on every corner.
- “It is this wonderful window on an era when Black mom-and-pop entrepreneurs were present in every American city, and particularly in the South,” historian Tom Hanchett tells Axios.
- Restaurants like Chicken ‘n Ribs were mostly takeout, but drive-thru chains wiped out most of the local spots, Hanchett adds.
- “Just very few of them [are] left,” he says. “And it’s pretty miraculous that the Chicken ‘n and Ribs is one of them.”
Yes, but: Black businesses also grew out of necessity to have a safe space to dine, sleep, get a haircut or get gas. But they did so in the face of the challenges presented by segregation.
Zoom out: Thorpe’s team documented more than 300 Green Book sites in North Carolina, but as of 2020, only around 60 were still standing. And just six or seven are still operating in their original function, including Chicken ‘n Ribs.
- “Black spaces have not really been preservation priorities historically,” Thorpe says. “I am grateful that there are institutions that are working to shift that.”
Here are some of the places listed in the Green Book:
Of note: This is not a comprehensive list of all 55 Charlotte sites. You can view the various editions of the Green Book on the New York Public Library’s website, and North Carolina’s Green Book Project here.
The Excelsior Club, dating to 1944, was the only social club for Black professionals in the city. It was also a gathering spot for political and community events, like fish fries.
- Famous faces from Bill Clinton to Nat King Cole to Louis Armstrong visited the Excelsior.
Context: The building is still standing, but it is in disrepair. The club closed in 2016, and was at risk of demolition. In 2019 it was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 most endangered historic places list.
Driving the news: After reading an article Danielle wrote in the Observer about the Excelsior being added to that list, Darius Anderson, CEO of California development firm Kenwood Investments, drove to the site, researched the history and decided to purchase the property.
- He received loans and grants from the city, county, Knight Foundation and Foundation for the Carolinas to revitalize the site and turn it into a restaurant, hotel and entertainment venue.
- The city’s contract requires him to finish the work by 2024.
Yes, but: In late 2021, Axios reported that there isn’t enough parking on the site to accommodate those uses, jeopardizing those plans.
Of note: Anderson didn’t respond to emails from Axios asking for updates.
Flashback: Otis Blackmon, Jermaine’s grandfather, moved to Charlotte from Lancaster, South Carolina, seeking opportunities. He didn’t have a culinary background, but he loved to cook chicken, ribs, fixin’ sandwiches and burgers.
Jermaine Blackmon started washing dishes at the restaurant when he was young. He remembers his grandfather as stern, but fair, and hard-working.
- “We didn’t have a lot of places to go as African Americans,” he says. “And Beatties Ford Road has always been the heart of the African American community.”
It wasn’t until later in life that Blackmon started thinking about inheriting the business, which he did about a decade ago.
In that time, Beatties Ford Road has seen an influx of investment from programs like the city’s corridors of opportunity.
- The restaurant has always been an affordable food option for the community, but some of those customers have had to leave the area because of the rising cost of housing.
Still, he says he’s adapted, remodeling the restaurant, and believes the changes are for the most part for the better. For now, Chicken ‘n Ribs isn’t going anywhere.
The hotel was a haven for Black travelers, including Louis Armstrong and Langston Hughes, when they stopped in Charlotte.
- “Negro Poet is heard at Livingston College” the Charlotte Observer headline read on Nov. 16, 1950. Hughes addressed students at the HBCU in Salisbury and visited relatives in Charlotte, reading his poems at what the Observer called a “private entertainment at the Hotel Alexander.”
Brooklyn, once the city’s largest Black neighborhood, was razed in the name of urban renewal, including around 216 businesses. One of the many impacted streets was South McDowell Street, along with at least six businesses on that street listed in the Green Book and many more that weren’t.
- All six were listed in the Green Book until 1967, shortly before the street was bulldozed.
- These businesses were: Ebony Cleaners, Ingram’s Restaurant, J.C. Hart’s Shoe Shop, J.C. Sandwich Shop, McDowell’s Barbershop and The Musical Grille.
Romeo Alexander was a longtime business owner and advocate in the Greenville neighborhood, near present-day Camp North End.
- Alexander opened a snack shop in the late 1940s when he returned from the Army with $3,000 in savings, according to The Charlotte Post. He turned the snack shop into a restaurant: Oaklawn Tavern at 1133 Oaklawn Ave. Travelers could find it in the Green Book.
Yes, but: As noted, not every business was in the Green Book.
- Alexander also opened another restaurant in the 1950s: Razades at 1616 Statesville Ave. (it was not listed in the Green Book).
- It was popular with West Charlotte High School and Second Ward High School students for prom dinner. Civil Rights activists were also frequent visitors, and they always dined without charge. Razades was destroyed during urban renewal.
- Of note: Alexander would become a developer, and his daughter-in-law became Charlotte’s first Black female mayor: Vi Alexander Lyles.
What’s next: You can also learn more about the Green Book in the two exhibits traveling the state that Thorpe’s team put together, titled “Navigating Jim Crow.”
The agency is also trying to make preservation of Black spaces more accessible to community groups by putting together a toolkit. They’re also looking into innovative ways to mark the sites that remain, as well as creating a driving tour of the locations.
Here are some more photos of historic Green Book sites from the NC Green Book Project.
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