Current News

Videos

News Archives

Family & Friends

Links

Home Page

Chapter  Twelve

The Emergence Of Diversity:  African Americans  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

E-mail comments to N4JFJ@aol.com

An African American stands in front of the monument commemorating the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.  Jim Crow and the declaration's promise were irreconcilable.

        The significance of the creation of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte , the concurrent rise of female influence on local elected governmental bodies, and the enactment of district representation notwithstanding, it was the persistent struggle of African Americans to gain the full rights of citizenship that occupied center stage in Charlotte-Mecklenburg during the years of social transformation that followed World War Two.  The black veterans who returned to Charlotte in 1945 found the rules of racial segregation demeaning and repugnant.  "It was very upsetting to realize you  have given precious time of your life for supposed freedom in a country that was still segregated," said Charlottean Gerson Stroud .  Raymond Rorie , a school principal, agreed. "This was one of the problems we black soldiers faced," he declared.  "We were protecting our country when we didn't have freedom ourselves."   Jim Crow  was about to enter its last days in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. There were three main players in this compelling drama -- two blacks and one white.  They were Fred D. Alexander , Julius Chambers , and Mayor Stan Brookshire .

Photo of Alexander

Fred Alexander Being Sworn In As Member Of The Charlotte City Council.  Milton Short is in the middle.

      In 1965, Fred D. Alexander became the first African American elected to the Charlotte City Council and the first black to hold elected public office in Mecklenburg County since the 1890s.  He served for nine years. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had put the full weight of the Federal government on the side of equal access for all citizens to public accommodations and the voting booth.      “Alexander personified a new age in which blacks took advantage of the opportunities"  offered by  Federal Civil Rights legislation, writes historian Randy Penninger in his M. A. Thesis on Alexander’s political career.

       Frederick Douglas Alexander  was named for Frederick Douglass, the Great Emancipator of the nineteenth century.  Born in Charlotte in 1910, Alexander had a soft-spoken, diplomatic demeanor, which assisted him in winning white support for the improvement of the African American community.  “Fred was just simply a person who handled every kind of situation well,” commented furniture retailer and fellow City Councilman Milton Short .   Alexander's father was Zachariah Alexander , who, after graduating from Biddle Memorial Institute , established Alexander Funeral Home in the Second Ward or Brooklyn neighborhood.  It was there that Fred and his brother, Kelly Alexander , who would eventually become State president of the NAACP, learned the social skills and sensitivities to other people’s feelings that would serve the two Alexander brothers well in their respective public careers.

Fred Alexander

     Even before Fred Alexander  graduated from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1931, he had decided that access to the ballot box was the only way that black Charlotteans could improve their lot.  He was asked by a classmate to go with him to Africa to work for the liberation of its native people.  “My God,” Alexander remembered saying many years later, “I Came from Africa, and If I can go there to help free HIS  people,  I can go back home and help free my OWN  Africa.”  Alexander carried through with his promise.  “Fred came back to Charlotte with one thing in mind  -- political action,” said noted local author and newspaperman Harry Golden .

 

Harry Golden, publisher of the Carolina Israelite, was a prominent Civil Rights advocate in the 1950s and 1960s.

     Beginning in the 1930s, Fred Alexander  devoted great amounts of time to registering African Americans to vote.  New Deal programs assisted him in this endeavor.   “Constantly working for increased political awareness of blacks, Alexander lobbied for the appointment of black police officers and mail carriers, for business courses in the black high schools, and for improved health care,” writes historian Randy Penninger.  Alexander  was a founding member and executive secretary of the Citizens’ Committee for Political Action , an organization established in 1932 to increase political participation by African Americans.    In 1949, the group sponsored two candidates for public office.  Bishop Dale , a lanky Texan who operated an insurance and real estate business in Second Ward, ran unsuccessfully for City Council; and James Wertz , pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church  on East Second Street, failed in his bid for a seat on the Charlotte City School Board.    Their defeats were virtually guaranteed, because an at-large voting and representation system for municipal offices had been instituted after Dale had almost won a seat on City Council in 1934.

     Happily for Fred Alexander  and other aspiring African Americans, the political culture of Charlotte began to change after 1950, largely because of voluntary integration of public facilities and businesses in Charlotte in 1963, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and, most importantly, the successful integration, albeit limited, of the local public schools in 1957. It was during the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes called America's "Second Civil War," that the White Supremacy  initiatives of the 1890s began to give way to new arrangements, both politically and socially.  These years, writes Jack Claiborne  in his history of the Charlotte Observer , were a "time of upheaval." 

     Fred Alexander  carefully built the political base from which he would launch his campaign for City Council.  "There has been no Negro in public office in my lifetime," he proclaimed.  "If there had been, we would have seen a different type of community human relations." Knowing that he would have to win  a city-wide race, Alexander sought appointments to high profile institutions so he could become better known in the white community.  He became the first African American member of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce  in 1962 and of the Mecklenburg County Board of Public Welfare in 1963.  He was picked to serve on the Mayor's Community Relations Committee and became a member of the Executive Committee of the Mecklenburg County Democrat Party in 1964.  

     Fred Douglas Alexander announced his candidacy for the Charlotte City Council on February 4, 1965. "Alexander stresses his desire not to be considered ‘the Negro candidate,’ but rather as a man who will work for the good of the entire community,” proclaimed the Charlotte Observer  on April 24, 1965.  He told reporters that it was "necessary for somebody to interpret the needs of a third of our population."  Although regarded by some blacks as overly cautious, especially by outspoken Civil Rights advocate Dr. Reginald Hawkins , Alexander received an outpouring of support from the African American precincts and was able to garner just enough white support to win the last contested seat.    On  May 11, 1965, Fred Alexander  took the oath of office as the first black City Councilman in twentieth century Charlotte.

      Alexander sought  from the outset of his tenure on the Charlotte City Council to increase the voice of the black community in public affairs by having African Americans appointed to governmental boards and commissions, including the Welfare Board, the Civil Service Board, and the Urban Redevelopment Commission.  “Alexander believed black representation on boards and commissions was necessary,” writes Randy Penninger.  As the lone African American member, Alexander met with little success.   He did take a leadership role in bringing urban renewal to the Greenville neighborhood and in advocating programs to provide low income housing throughout the city.  “I feel the strain upon the housing needs of the City of Charlotte, especially as the condition exists among our Negro citizens,” Alexander declared on September 18, 1967.

Photo of Fred Alexander

Fred Alexander Watches Fence Separating Elmwood And Pinewood Cemeteries Being Removed On January 7, 1969.

    Alexander's  most significant  victory  during his years of service on the Charlotte City Council was the removal of a fence that separated Elmwood Cemetery  and Pinewood Cemetery , the former for whites and the latter for blacks.  “It’s cheaper to take it down than to maintain it.  Plus the insult that comes with it,” said Alexander on April 30, 1968.  There was opposition in the white community.  “To me it seems the colored people are acting just like some children—wanting everything they can get,” said one woman.  The fence did finally come down.  City Council voted on January 6, 1969, to remove this galling vestige of Charlotte’s  Jim Crow  past.

      The greatest challenge to the continuation of the status quo in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in the years following World War Two arose in the area of public education.  On September 4, 1957, the local public schools became racially integrated for the first time in their history.  With the backing of School Superintendent Elmer Garinger , Dorothy Counts  enrolled that day at Harding High School ; Gus Roberts  entered Central High School ; his sister, Girvaud Roberts , became a seventh grader at Piedmont Junior High School; and Delores Maxine Huntley  matriculated at Alexander Graham Junior High School

        In this writer's opinion, the gradual abandonment of rigid racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County occurred essentially for the same reason that it had been put into place in the 1890s. Jim Crow  had now become bad for business. Men like D. A. Tompkins , Hamilton C. Jones , and Cameron Morrison , had looked upon Populism and black Republicanism as threats to unremitting economic development and growth at the turn of the last century.  By the 1950s, however, the racial arrangements of the South were becoming increasingly anachronistic, even embarrassing, and were isolating the region from the rest of the county and the world.

     Such realizations among Charlotte's business elite allowed Dr. Elmer Garinger , the unassuming and fatherly Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools since 1949, to summon key members of his staff to his office in July 1957 and announce that a small number of African Americans would be assigned to white schools that fall.  "It was the right thing to do, and despite any confusion or discomfort it might soon cause, Charlotte, North Carolina, was going ahead with it," states Frye Gaillard in his book, The Dream Long Deferred. 

      Tensions were running high between the races in September 1957.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were scheduled to open on September 4th with four African American students attending previously all-white classrooms for the first time.  In May 1954, the United States Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka  that "separate but equal" schools were inherently unequal, thereby setting aside the legal precedents established in 1896 in  Plessy v. Ferguson .  The Court “handed the South the greatest problem of readjustment the region has had to face since the Civil War," declared the editors of  Charlotte Observer .   On December 1, 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  and other black activists launched the now famous boycott of the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  On September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubas  surrounded Central High School  in Little Rock with National Guardsmen and declared the campus off limits to white and to black students. Faubas stated in a televised speech that night that  if  African American students attempted to enter Central High, "blood would run in the streets."

Photo of Sheriff talking to Klan member

Klansmen picket the Visulite Theater on Elizabeth Avenue.

     It was within this emotionally-charged atmosphere that Charlotte-Mecklenburg prepared to integrate its schools on September 4, 1957.  Robed and hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan picketed the Visulite Theater on Elizabeth Avenue on September 1st.  They were protesting the showing of the movie, "Island in the Sun," directed by Robert Rossen and starring such notable performers as James Mason, Joan Collins, Dorothy Dandridge, and Harry Belafonte.   The film depicted interracial romances.  The Klansmen dispersed without incident when they were ordered to do so by Police Chief Frank Littlejohn .  "A few obvious sympathizers of the Klan parked near the theater jeered photographers who arrived to make pictures of the pickets," reported the Charlotte Observer .

      Even more provocative and outlandish were comments made by a racist rabble-rouser named John Kasper  He delivered an inflammatory speech to about 300 white people who had gathered on the steps of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.  He called upon the white citizens of Charlotte to rise up against the school board.  "We want a heart attack, we want nervous breakdowns, we want suicides, we want flight from persecution," Kasper declared.  Aware that native-born evangelist Billy Graham  was scheduled to arrive from New York City the next day, Kasper said:  "Billy Graham  left here a white man but he's coming back a  n….. lover."   Billy Graham , a man of impeccable character and highest standing in Charlotte and the nation as a whole,  declined to respond to such ridiculous dribble when he stepped off the train at the Southern Railroad Station  on September 2nd. 

     The culmination of the crisis occurred shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday September 4th at Harding High School.  15-year old Dorothy Counts left her parents' home on Beatties Ford Road just across from Johnson C. Smith University , where her father taught religion and philosophy.  She was driven to Harding that late summer morning by   Dr. Edwin Tompkins, also a member of the Johnson C. Smith faculty and a friend of the family.  Not since D. H. Hill and his colleagues had charged the dormitories at Davidson College  in 1854 had there been such explosive passion on the campus of a local school.

In her book Southern Sampler.  Women of Courage, Peggy Barrow Culbertson quotes from a conversation she had with Counts several years later.

"Anyway, one day several of the leaders of the black community determined that it was time to test the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, outlawing segregation.  They same and spoke to my parents, as well as to several other families.  After much discussion it was decided that because of my outgoing personality and early maturity, I was the best candidate the waters.

Dorothy Counts Walks To Harding High School.

          A crowd of upperclassmen who had registered earlier that morning congregated in front of the school to listen to John Z. Warlick  and his wife, leaders of the White Citizens Council .   "It's up to you to keep her out," shouted Mrs. Warlick.  Attired in a simple print dress with a broad bow and ribbon dangling from her collar, Dorothy Counts  walked up the sidewalk that led to the front door.  Hoots and catcalls filled the air.  Dorothy Counts  remained stoical throughout this electrifying encounter.  She said nothing, even though some young whites threw trash and rocks toward her, most landing at her feet.  "I do remember something hitting me in the back," she told a newspaper reporter, "but I don't think they were throwing at me, just in front and at my feet."  Dorothy Counts  exhibited remarkable poise that day.  When asked if any whites spat upon her, Counts answered:  "Yes.   Many.  A good many times, mostly on the back."

Mayor Brookshire was determined that pictures such as this would never appear in the press again.

     Dorothy Counts soon succumbed to the harassment and scorn she experienced, largely because she feared for the safety of her family. "The students were pushing, shoving, spitting in my food," she explained many years later.  "But the first time I was afraid was when I saw my brother in the car and students broke a window."  Counts withdrew from Harding High School after attending for only four days and transferred to a school in Pennsylvania, but the other three African Americans who had enrolled with little or no fanfare at other schools on September 4th remained for the entire year.  Gus Roberts would eventually graduate from Central High School.  Indeed, the contributions of Gus Roberts, Girvaud Roberts, and Delores Huntley to the advancement of integrated schools were more substantial, if less confrontational, than those made by Counts.  Progress, however, was slow.   "Not a lot happened in the schools for the next several years," writes Frye Gaillard.  The number of blacks attending integrated classrooms increased but only gradually.  Charlotte remained mostly a segregated city.

      The greatest legacy of the stirring events that had transpired at Harding High School  on September 4, 1957, was the determination of Charlotte's business leaders that such events would never happen again.  Photographs of Dorothy Counts  walking demurely through a throng of screaming and spitting students had appeared in newspapers across the United States, including the New York Times.  "Those pictures sickened Charlotte's corporate executives," Jack Claiborne  told this writer.  Thereafter, influential Charlotteans, most notably C. A. "Pete"  McKnight , editor of the Charlotte Observer  from 1954 until 1976, nurtured an atmosphere of racial tolerance that facilitated the rise of Fred Alexander  and other moderate African Americans to positions of community-wide influence.  "We have not defied the Court, but we have made it clear that we will make changes slowly and with due regard for the personal feelings of our people," stated the editors of the Charlotte Observer  on May 17, 1958, the fourth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka .    

sbrooksh.jpg (6666 bytes)

Mayor Brookshire

     The man who best exemplified the accommodating  attitude of Charlotte's white business elite on racial issues was Stan Brookshire , Mayor of Charlotte from 1961 until 1969.  Like Ben Douglas  a native of Iredell County, Brookshire graduated in 1927 from Trinity College, now Duke University, and in 1933 joined with his brother, Voris Brookshire , in establishing Engineering Sales Company.  In matters of economics and business Brookshire was a typical New South booster.    Expansion and growth were at the top of his agenda.  "We had a lazy city ready to burst out at all seams, and it did, and it's still doing it and will continue to do it," said City Councilman Jim Whittington  when commenting on Brookshire's impact on Charlotte.  Milton Short  told this writer that Mayor Brookshire assigned him the task of investigating where Charlotte could construct new water lines -- the umbilical cords of suburban expansion.  A natty dresser, Brookshire circulated in the same privileged venues that men like Harry Dalton  had enjoyed during World War Two.  "He loved to play golf, and he enjoyed the burnished ambience of the country club," remembered Jerry Shinn , associate editor of the Charlotte Observer .

The Savoy movie theater on McDowell Street (near the current Aquatic Center) was one of just four movie theaters that African Americans could visit in Charlotte during the 1940s and '50s before it closed down. Back then, movies didn't come to black theaters until they had run for weeks or months in the white theaters.

The Savoy Theater on Rozzelles Ferry Road was for blacks only.

     Brookshire "always considered himself the Chamber of Commerce 's choice for mayor and he ran the city from that perspective," stated City Councilman John Thrower .  Having served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, Brookshire was recruited to run for mayor by Charlotte's white business leaders who did not want the more liberal Martha Evans  to win.  On racial issues Brookshire was a moderate.  Above all else he sought to avoid a repeat of  the embarrassing events of 1957, when national newspapers had carried photographs of Dorothy Counts  being harassed as she entered Harding High School .  "Brookshire identified himself with Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr .," explains Alex Coffin.  Unlike Mayor Arthur Hanes  of Birmingham, Alabama, who championed the continuation of segregation, Brookshire, like Allen, favored peaceful reconciliation and looked upon moderates in the African American community like Fred Alexander  as his principal allies.  

Photo of JCSU students protesting

Johnson C. Smith University students stage sit-in.

      Charlotte teetered on the edge of racial conflict in the early 1960s. There were sit-in demonstrations at eight local lunch counters on February 9, 1960.   Store managers refused to serve the African Americans and closed down.  Seven did resume operations on an integrated basis the following July.  Black dentist and Presbyterian minister Reginald Hawkins , whom Brookshire despised, was the most strident voice in the local African American community.  On May 20, 1963, Hawkins led hundreds of Johnson C. Smith students on a protest march against racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, motels, or any other business establishment that served the general public.

Warner Hall, minister of Covenant Presbyterian Church and Chairman of the Committee on Community Relations, was a strong voice for peaceful accommodation and racial tolerance.

     Hawkins, a native of Beaufort, North Carolina, had a penchant for publicity.   He purposely chose the 188th anniversary of the alleged signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775  to stage his protest.  "There is no freedom as long as all of us are not free," the tempestuous dentist and preacher shouted.  The crowd greeted his remarks with  "Yeah" and "No."   "We shall not be satisfied with gradualism," Hawkins proclaimed.  "We want freedom and we want it now."  As the students began to disperse, Hawkins issued a threat to the white leadership of Charlotte.  "Any day might be D Day . . . .  They can either make this an open or democratic city or there is going to be a long siege.  They can choose which way it's going to be."

    This was not idle talk.  Mayor Brookshire knew that demonstrations were occurring in Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro, and that large numbers of protestors were being arrested.  "Pete" McKnight  of the Charlotte Observer  telephoned Brookshire and suggested that decisive action was needed to maintain the peace.  Brookshire agreed.  He asked Ed Burnside , president of the Chamber of Commerce , to call a meeting of the Chamber's executive committee.  These actions culminated in the Chamber of Commerce's approving a resolution on May 23rd calling upon businesses in the community to open their doors voluntarily to African Americans.  "May 23, 1963, could be the day leading to a major breakthrough in human relationships for the Queen City and the Carolinas," stated a Charlotte Observer editorial.  " . . . once the leadership of this community has set its course, regardless of the individual problems encountered," the newspaper continued, "it will not swerve from it until all citizens can breathe free in the public ways."  This prediction was borne out in the weeks and months that followed.  Legal racial segregation ended voluntarily in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in 1963. "I positively think that this voluntary action enabled us to avoid the violence of murder, riots, arson, and looting, which plagued many of our cities," declared Brookshire shortly before his death from lung cancer in 1990.

      The struggle for full integration of the public schools was not yet over, however.     Julius Chambers , a laconic but brilliant lawyer, often speaks in a quiet monotone that gives little indication of the passion for racial justice that burns in the core of his being.  Born in Mt. Gilead, North Carolina, Chambers arrived in Charlotte in July 1964 after receiving a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an advanced degree from Columbia University, and serving for one year as an intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  "He provided for blacks in Charlotte the legal brilliance that their movement had lacked," writes Frye Gaillard.  Reginald Hawkins  did not wait long to visit Chambers in the lawyer's rented office on East Trade Street to express frustration over the progress of integration in the public schools.

Photo of Dr. Reginald Hawkins

Julius Chambers

Dr. Reginald Hawkins

     On January 19, 1965, Julius Chambers , acting on behalf of Vera and Darius Swann , whose son had been assigned to all-black Biddleville Elementary School near Johnson C. Smith University , filed legal briefs in Federal District Court in Charlotte.  Chambers argued that the pupil assignment plan of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools violated the United States Constitution and that the School Board was obligated to take more resolute action to eliminate the vestiges of racial segregation that persisted in the public schools. 

           William E. Poe

     Many Charlotteans, including School Board Chairman William Poe , believed that this community had a sterling record with respect to race relations and that some in the African American community were pressing their demands for more comprehensive school integration too assertively. "I never knew of any occasion when he even wrote a letter," Poe stated many years later when discussing Chambers.  "He never came in and said, 'let's talk about these things.'"     Such behavior frustrated and angered Poe.

 

Photo of bombed house

Police Investigate Bombing.

      Anger of a more sinister kind erupted in Charlotte during the early morning hours of November 22, 1965. Sticks of dynamite exploded with dramatic suddenness in the yards of the homes of Fred Alexander , Kelly Alexander , Reginald Hawkins , and Julius Chambers .  It was as if a compressed coil of racial hatred suddenly sprang forward.   Luckily, nobody was hurt.  The perpetrators were never identified, but Mayor Brookshire and the Charlotte City Council left no doubt as to how they felt about this incident.  "We are ashamed and horrified by the acts of violence," read their official statement.  "They have done much damage to the four homes involved.  They have done far greater damage to our community."  According to Alex Coffin, Brookshire regarded these bombings as the "low point in his time in office." "The despicable acts of these nightriding terrorists do not represent the spirit of Charlotte," asserted the Charlotte Observer . Mayor Brookshire himself would experience the barbs of racial retaliation.  A burning cross was found in his yard on August 26, 1966.

    Charlotte experienced another round of intense racial stress in the days following the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.  Cities across the country exploded in orgies of rage, and many wondered whether the same would happen in Charlotte.  President R. P. Perry closed Johnson C. Smith early for spring holidays "to maintain calm."  Students at Davidson College donned black armbands in honor of Dr. King, and those at Second Ward High School wept openly during an emotionally wrenching memorial service.  Mayor Brookshire and County Commission Chairman Jim Martin declared a city-wide day of mourning and scheduled a memorial service for noon on April 6th at Ovens Auditorium.  Dr. Warner Hall,, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church and chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Community Relations, said that the people of Charlotte needed to come together to express a "personal sense of loss."

Police stood at the Square in April 1968 after dark to assure that nobody was on the streets.

     George Leake, the passionate and physically imposing minister of Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church, alarmed Mayor Brookshire and other civic leaders during a meeting of the Committee on Community Relations on April 6th.  Leake spoke with uncharacteristic candor to representatives of the white elite.  African Americans, he said, rejected "attempts to placate the Negro community and to soothe the conscience of whites."   Leake called upon the business community to "teach Negroes in the same way that they teach the dumb white folks."  He warned that Charlotte could experience "long hot summers" and even "chaos" unless it curbed the racist behavior of some policemen and improved recreation programs in poorer neighborhoods.  Blacks, he said, would continue to fight "with the ballot, boycott, picket and will march if that is the only way you'll answer the call."  He ended by inviting whites to come to a memorial service on April 8th where "men of color will honor one of their own."

     This writer attended the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Memorial Service held at St. Paul's Baptist Church on the evening of April 8, 1968.  It was a memorable experience.  The streets were virtually empty, because Mayor Brookshire had declared a city-wide nightly curfew earlier that day.   Black ladies in white dresses greeted the people politely and handed out programs at the door of the Gothic Revival style church, which would soon fall victim to Mayor Brookshire's "slum clearance" program for the  Brooklyn neighborhood.

     The banging radiators along the walls of the packed sanctuary seemed to underscore the significance of the moment.  The audience was about half white and half  black.  Mayor Brookshire was there.  County Commission Chairman Jim Martin  was there.   “I didn’t believe you would come,” proclaimed Rev. Leake.  “I am encouraged that at last you did come down and share with us.”  Kelly Alexander  concurred.  “I’m glad to see so many people here,” he declared.  “I’m sorry it took Martin Luther King’s death to bring us together.”

Some of the attendees at the April 8th Memorial Service

Bishop Leake

     George Leake  delivered a stirring sermon.  His sonorous tones reverberated against the walls of the old sanctuary, evoking tears and shouts of “Amen” from many in the audience.  He began in a dignified, measured manner similar to that employed by preachers in white churches.  It did not take long, however, for the more dramatic style of the African American clergy to come to the surface.  Leake suddenly thrust his arms skyward and began swaying from side to side in the pulpit.  Perspiration beaded on his forehead and trickled down the side of his shiny, black face. “The Lord has gathered him up and said, ‘Martin you have done enough.  You have walked enough miles, you have made enough speeches.'”   The service ended with black people and white people singing "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement.  This writer realized that he was witnessing a watershed moment in the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.  Dr. Raymond Wheeler of the Southern Regional Council appreciated its meaning.  "I tell all of you, black and white, racial separation is not the answer."

Local physician Raymond Wheeler was a champion of racial tolerance.

     There were still major challenges to face.   On April 23, 1969, Federal Judge James B. McMillan  ruled for the plaintiffs in the landmark Swann case.   McMillan, a native of Robeson County,  declared that the public schools of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County had "the affirmative duty to desegregate 'now' by positive measures."  The eventual outcome of his order was the establishment in 1970 of a system of cross-town busing to assure that schools would be racially integrated.  This community is still grappling with the issue of how to provide equal educational opportunities for all children when many neighborhoods continue to be racially homogenous. Yet the trend toward greater racial understanding is irreversible.  At the time of the completion of this manuscript African Americans are fully represented on the Charlotte City Council and the Board of County Commissioners.  A black man is Chairman of the Mecklenburg County School Board. Another African American is County Manager.  The City Manager is a woman. The two representatives from Mecklenburg County in the U.S. House of Representatives are a black man and a white woman.

Judge James B. McMillan.

Protestors march in front of Judge McMillan's home.

     Banks will lead Charlotte into the new century.  Financial institutions have long occupied a vital place in the history of this community. The First National Bank of Charlotte  opened in August 1865, followed by the Bank of Mecklenburg  four years later, and the Merchants and Farmers Bank  in 1871. Word H. Wood , a native of Elkin, N.C. and graduate of Eaton & Burnett Business College in Baltimore, Maryland, moved from Winston, North Carolina to Charlotte in 1901.  He and George Stephens , a boyhood friend, were instrumental in establishing the Southern Trust Company , which has evolved into today's Bank of America. On July 26, 1905, William Henry Belk  and others secured a charter for the Charlotte Trust Company , which later merged with the Charlotte National Bank  and became an initial tenant of the Realty Building or Independence Building . Certainly, the opening of the Charlotte Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond  on December 1, 1927, furthered strengthened Charlotte's role as a regional banking center.

Hugh McColl, Jr.

     The significance of financial institutions in Charlotte's economy leaped forward again in the 1980s.  Hugh McColl , a feisty ex-Marine and president from 1983 until 2001 of what is now the Bank of America, led a successful effort to expand the operations of local banks across state lines.  The bank’s first out-of-state  full service acquisition, because it already owned a trust company in Orlando, was in Florida in 1982.  The pace quickened after the Supreme Court ruled on June 10, 1985, that states could band together in regional compacts to permit reciprocal interstate banking without having to open their doors to banks from all states.  Within months McColl’s bank bought Pan American Banks Inc. of Miami, Florida, Bankers Trust of South Carolina, and Southern National Bankshares Inc. of Atlanta.   “If you don’t grow, you do the opposite.  You die,” said McColl in 1987.   Like Bonnie Cone , D A. Tompkins, and  Edward Dilworth  Latta ,  McColl is  a South Carolinian and a quintessential Charlottean, because economic development is uppermost on his agenda.  No less aggressive than McColl in expanding Charlotte’s role in interstate banking was Edward Crutchfield, Jr., president of First Union Corporation.

      If one could somehow cheat the clock and host a dinner party with such local notables as Cameron Morrison , Dr. Charles Fox, David Ovens , Hamilton C. Jones , Ben Douglas,  Hugh McColl, and Ed Crutchfield  attending, it would be a harmonious and congenial gathering, because except on the issues of race and increased rights for women, Charlotte has not had a fundamentally new guiding principle in at least 150 years.  This writer cannot help but wonder what the generations of Native Americans who sat huddled around campfires at the Big Rock  would think about the world that white people and black people have wrought.  The Big Rock now sits in the middle of a suburban housing development that has lots of cul-de-sacs.  The beat goes on.

 

 

Return To Home Page

Hit Counter