Axios Charlotte

Picture of the Charlotte skyline with CLT written across it.
June 27, 2022

Hello, Monday. It's Danielle.

🌦 Today's weather: High of 87 with likely storms.

🥳 Happy birthday to Axios Charlotte members Zoe Almquist, Sydney Ilano, Francine Kenney, Satie Munn and Kevan Woodson.

Our newsletter is a little different this morning. For months, I’ve been examining historic records to evaluate how Black families were impacted by what the city claimed was urban renewal. Below is what I found.

Today's Smart Brevity™ count is 961 words — a 3.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Black landowners lose millions

Photo illustration collage of historical images from Charlotte.
Photo illustration: Maura Losch. Photos courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Anna Jean Mayhew

Where a street now named for Martin Luther King Jr. meets Brevard, Charlotte razed the center of its Black main street.

  • It was part of Brooklyn, once Charlotte's largest Black neighborhood before it was destroyed in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s and '70s.

Why it matters: It is impossible to quantify the harm caused by bulldozing a neighborhood and disrupting social connections, but an Axios review of some deed records reveals that homeowners, churches and other institutions were forced to sell property for a fraction of what some of Charlotte’s most prime real estate is worth now.

The big picture: That loss of wealth set some Black families back for generations.

  • Intentional policies like urban renewal helped ingrain the challenges Charlotte faces today with economic mobility.

By the numbers: One of Charlotte’s most successful Black families at that time, the Alexanders, were paid just $13,000 for property along the former Stonewall Street (now Brooklyn Village Avenue), near the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

  • That’s according to historian Michael Moore, who, although the deed lists $100 for the sale price (a standard practice on post-war era deeds), calculated the true price using the revenue stamps in an analysis for Axios.

Using an inflation calculator, we determined that the four Alexander brothers and their wives received the equivalent of $125,823 in today’s dollars from the sale, total.

  • The property that includes the NASCAR Hall of Fame is now worth $197 million, per county property records, $29.5 million of which comes from the land alone.

Full story: How bulldozing Brooklyn cost Black Charlotteans millions in generational wealth

2. Flashback: Thriving Black culture

Photo illustration collage of historical and modern images from Charlotte.
The plaza in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame now sits on the site of the Brevard Street Library, the first library serving the Black community in the state. Photo illustration: Maura Losch. Photos courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Brooklyn was a Black cultural hub, with everything from doo-wop groups to gambling houses to community fish fries.

Context: Originally known as Logtown, after the cabins built there, Brooklyn sprung up during the Jim Crow era.

  • The establishment of the first graded school for Black students in Mecklenburg County drove Black families to Brooklyn to educate their children, according to the Levine Museum of the New South.
  • Brooklyn was also a place where laborers could live close to factories nearby, says Willie Griffin, assistant professor of public history at UNC Charlotte.

Yes, but: After World War II, industries moved to the outskirts of the city, and leaders turned their eye to the value sitting underneath Brooklyn.

Cool jobs around town

🔥 Fresh openings from our Job Board.

  1. Swim lessons instructor at Charlotte Country Day School.
  2. Marketing coordinator at Bojangles.
  3. Inside sales representative at Rent Ready.
  4. Part-time teacher at Carmel Presbyterian Weekday School.
  5. Gallery associate at Shain Gallery.
  6. Home stager at Bella Staging & Design.

Want more opportunities? Check out our Job Board.

Hiring? Post a job

3. Dismantling a neighborhood

A black-and-white photo of a two-story house in Brooklyn
The home of John Taylor (J.T.) Williams, one of the first three Black doctors licensed in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

The federal government provided billions to cities for urban renewal, purportedly to clean up "blight." In reality, it moved Black people off of valuable real estate.

  • The program, which lasted until 1974, funded proposals to rebuild 363,637 acres, equivalent to half of Rhode Island.

How it happened: Charlotte had to prove that Brooklyn was legally a slum in order to get federal funding. Local media painted that image.

What they said: Newspaper articles and government documents from the era often quote a statistic claiming Brooklyn was more than 77% blighted.

Reality check: Historians say it was actually a mixed-income community, where low-income families and the city’s most successful Black leaders lived side-by-side.

  • At least half of Brooklyn residents owned their homes, Griffin says, and those who did maintained them.
  • To get to the 77% figure, he says leaders persuaded homeowners to move to new west side neighborhoods like University Park and Oaklawn Park.
  • Where there was blight, it was often because absentee landlords let the homes they rented out fall into disrepair.

4. Social capital, scattered for generations

Three boys look on at a building being destroyed
A famous photo of three boys looking on as Second Ward High School is destroyed. Image courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

The Brooklyn community was split after the neighborhood was leveled: the middle- and upper-class went to areas like University Park, and many poor residents relocated to low-income housing.

  • “When this community was intact, if you are a poor African American growing up … you had examples of what it meant to be a successful African American right at your fingertips,” Griffin says.
  • “It’s hard to see yourself in a different light if you are trapped in poverty and all you see is poverty.”

State of play: If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still talking about these issues today: how to create mixed-income neighborhoods that help people escape from the cycle of poverty. But when we had an example of that kind of community, Charlotte destroyed it.

  • In all, the city tore down nearly 1,500 homes in Brooklyn, and displaced more than 7,000 people. It never built new housing for them.

UNC Charlotte got a $2.5M gift 📷

The campus of UNC Charlotte
Photo: UNC Charlotte

Bank of America recently announced a $2.5 million investment in UNC Charlotte.

The impact: The funds will expand access for underrepresented students and support community-centric research. 

Why now: The gift aligns with the University’s 10-year strategic plan to “shape what’s next” in Charlotte

5. Businesses displaced

Photo illustration collage of historical and modern images from Charlotte.
Photo illustration: Maura Losch. Photos courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Danielle Chemtob/Axios

There were approximately 216 businesses in Brooklyn, including drug stores, restaurants and beauty parlors.

Alexander Funeral Home is one of the few still in operation.

The move from its Brooklyn location demanded a large amount of cash upfront, says state Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., Zechariah's grandson.

  • The family had to identify a piece of property, refurbish it, and eventually, because the building was smaller than the Brooklyn funeral home, expand it.

One of Alexander's first jobs there was to sort case files in the basement. That's where he found thousands in unpaid bills.

  • "Everybody in Brooklyn to some degree was being affected by that same lack of resources: a strain that was put on an entire community to maintain its fabric," he says.

6. Calls for justice

A woman points at a map of the old Brooklyn
Jacqueline Stowe points to where her home used to be on an old map of Brooklyn. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

In recent years advocates, including some former residents, have pushed the city to compensate for its actions.

  • Jacqueline Stowe, who grew up in Brooklyn, questions why the city isn't setting aside some of a $250 million racial equity fund for those who were kicked out of the neighborhood.

The bottom line: Earlier this month, Stowe and I stood at the fence in front of Interstate 277, overlooking what's left of the old Brooklyn location of her church, Bethel AME (now Greater Bethel).

  • The apartment towers in South End rise in the distance. But there was a cost to that progress.
  • "Here I am, a native Charlottean, and I have no roots," she said.

This project is dedicated to those former Brooklyn residents who are no longer with us, including Margaret Alexander, who, with her husband Kelly Alexander Sr., was a lifelong civil rights activist. She died in June.

  • If you want to support more work like this, become an Axios Charlotte member.

📅 Mark your calendars: Axios' Symphony Webber still has your guide of things to do this week in Charlotte.