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Rapid development risks erasing Black homeownership legacy in Charlotte

Rapid development risks erasing Black homeownership legacy in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE — Lula Guinn’s mother has been buried twice. Once in 1964, and again in 2015 when the state of North Carolina exhumed her disintegrated casket to make way for a new bridge in north Charlotte.

Mary Henderson and nine others had been buried along the edge of a cemetery in front of Zion Primitive Baptist Church. They represented generations of Black Charlotteans, buried at a church founded by former slaves in a neighborhood called Howie Acres.

The graves were dug up in 2015 when the church on Sugar Creek Road agreed to sell part of the cemetery to the N.C. Department of Transportation. The state was building a vehicle bridge over nearby railroad tracks to boost infrastructure along North Carolina’s busiest rail corridor.

Soon, the Blue Line light rail extension would run underneath the bridge too, ushering in new demand for housing and other development in a fast-growing part of town. The bodies that had been laid to rest were in the way of that progress.

And now, like many other historically Black neighborhoods across Charlotte, Howie Acres is in the crosshairs of development again. Residents are fighting to preserve not only their homes but also their neighborhood’s identity.

As new, and often wealthier people flood predominantly Black communities surrounding uptown, prices have surged, displacing tenants and homeowners who no longer can afford to live there.

In Howie Acres, investors are snatching up property in anticipation of nearby NoDa’s inevitable march toward the area. A third of the properties sold along the main streets in Howie Acres since 2017 were purchased by corporations, county records show.

And following the latest countywide property value reassessment in 2019, the average home value in Howie Acres more than tripled over an eight-year period.

Longtime residents, who face higher rents and tax bills, worry they won’t have a place in the community’s future.

‘Living history’

Howie Acres began in the 1940s as a bastion of affordable, single family-homes with a history of Black ownership, although segregationist housing policies remained in place for most of the neighborhood. The small, five-street community holds decades of memories of Black homeowners volunteering to help one another.

But rapid growth is barreling through Charlotte’s Black neighborhoods without regard for their identity, residents of Howie Acres say.

Real estate marketers often describe Howie Acres property as being part of or next to NoDa, despite it being around a mile north of the heart of North Davidson Street’s commercial area. A few years ago, according to several community association members, one former resident even suggested changing the name of Howie Acres to “Lower NoDa.”

Older neighborhoods need more protection to preserve their history in the face of such development, said Roma Johnson-Durham, vice president of the Howie Acres Neighborhood Association.

That’s why community leaders are pushing the city to recognize Howie Acres as a historic district — a move they hope will prevent older buildings from being torn down — and add more control over the look of new development.

Johnson-Durham was raised in Howie Acres by two sets of godparents. Both of her godfathers worked for the city, laying asphalt and digging ditches.

Howie Acres represents one of the last pockets of affordable housing near uptown, she said. Without such neighborhoods, she fears that people like her godparents won’t have anywhere left to live in Charlotte.

“Have we become so caught up in a certain look in this city that we’re forgetting about the little people that helped build this city from the bottom up?” she asked.

A proud legacy

Before the 1960s, Bearwood Avenue was just one of two streets in Howie Acres where Black people could own homes. Many of those houses still stand.

Others are gone, including the one built around the 1950s by John and Hattie Mason. They had built the home, their son Willie said, by borrowing a neighbor’s mule and wagon to haul wood from a disassembled house on Eastway Drive.

That home was part of 10 acres developed by George Evans, Willie Mason’s great uncle and a member of Zion Primitive Baptist Church. Evans was providing opportunities for Black families to build wealth when redlining and race-based covenants kept them locked out of homeownership elsewhere.

“It makes me feel proud that I am a part of that,” Willie Mason said.

This year, the modern Howie Acres neighborhood celebrates its 75th anniversary. The church’s history stretches back even further.

Zion was the first Primitive Baptist church in Mecklenburg County. Oral tradition holds that the church was formed in 1860, and it bought land in the area that is now Howie Acres in 1887. The church’s founder, the Rev. Wallace Torrance, was likely a former slave, local historian Michael Moore said.

Farmland surrounded the property then. Later, a school for Black children stood next door from 1925 to the mid-1950s.

Most of the farms were replaced by housing developments two decades after a large swath of land was sold in 1920 to E.S. Howie, for whom the community is named. He drew the first subdivision map for Howie Acres before reselling the land to other developers.

When many of the homes were sold in the 1940s, deeds came with restrictions — legal at the time — that barred Black families from purchasing the houses. Only Redwood Avenue, and later Bearwood, were excepted and church members bought property there.

“They were laying claim to the community where they had lived for decades,” Moore wrote in a report about the area.

Eventually, as some of the racist housing policies were outlawed, Black families moved into other parts of the neighborhood. But with their arrival came real estate investors eager to make a profit at the expense of the community.

White flight

Mamie Brown spent her childhood working on white people’s land. Her father had been a sharecropper before the family moved to Charlotte from Concord when she was in eighth grade.

Brown and her husband were part of the wave of Black buyers when they bought a home in Howie Acres in 1965. They purchased it for just $9,000, no down payment needed.

Before long, though, white homeowners began a mass exodus from Howie Acres. A 1966 Charlotte Observer article described how white residents fought integration in Howie Acres by seeking to prevent it from becoming a “transitional neighborhood.”

In a phenomenon known as blockbusting, real estate speculators played on those racist fears, convincing white homeowners to sell and warning them their property values would decline otherwise. The speculators would resell or rent those homes to Black families, who were forced to pay a premium because they had few housing options.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, in the majority-Black neighborhood of Greenville, homes were being torn down to build a highway. One real estate investor illegally moved dilapidated houses from Greenville into Howie Acres, a deliberate attempt to “destabilize” the community, according to Moore.

’A sense of ownership’

Despite such efforts, Howie Acres remained a close-knit, working-class community for decades.

“Neighbors knew each other. They were there to help one another,” said Johnson-Durham, with the neighborhood association. “A lot of them didn’t have a lot. ... But they had a sense of ownership.”

Until a few years ago, houses in Howie Acres typically sold for around $100,000 or less — a price point increasingly rare in Charlotte.

Even for those uninterested in selling, like Mason, the almost-certain prospect of paying higher taxes after a property revaluation is threatening his family’s legacy. His great uncle was one of the founders of Howie Acres but Mason soon may be priced out of the city altogether.

“All of my heritage will be gone,” Mason said. “I’ll have to start all over again.”

Forces of change

The first sign the neighborhood was starting to shift, some residents said, was with an influx of out-of-town investors in the last five years or so. Others point to the nearby light rail, which runs behind Bearwood Avenue and stops at a sleek, glass station off Sugar Creek Road that opened in 2018.

Brown, a retired bus driver, has watched builders construct large homes around her.

Just up the street, a multistory blue house rises above modest ranch homes that have stood for more than half a century. It sold in 2019 for more than $610,000, nearly five times the average home value in Howie Acres, an Observer analysis of property records found.

Then came the 2019 countywide property revaluation. In eight years, the average home value in the neighborhood had jumped from just under $39,000 to more than $132,000 — an increase of 238%.

Brown’s tax bill skyrocketed from $740 to over $1,700.

While the county says her home is worth $167,900, investors tried to convince her to sell for far less — in one case for $8,000. Just about every day she’s bombarded with postcards, phone calls and even unannounced visits to her house.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Brown said. “It seems like it’s getting worse and worse for us to just have a decent life.”

But a few months ago, an unexpected moment of hope arrived.

A small victory

In September, the neighborhood association thwarted what many in the community called the start of a luxury development wave, the kind that drives residents out through higher taxes and rents.

A developer sought a zoning change that would allow three multistory homes on a half acre on Bearwood Avenue. As neighbors fought the proposal, hand-painted signs lined their lawns with urgent messages for local leaders.

“My family trees grow here. Don’t uproot my seed.”

Faced with neighborhood opposition, the developer withdrew his request. “Little people know how to fight too,” Johnson-Durham said.

But that victory could be short-lived.

Charlotte's role in growth

Residents say the city had a hand in driving the growth that may force them out of their homes.

For decades, Charlotte leaders led efforts to dismantle Black homes, businesses, churches and other institutions. The City Council used the guise of urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s to destroy Brooklyn, once Charlotte’s largest Black neighborhood. On the west side, communities like McCrorey Heights and Washington Heights were carved up to clear a path for highways.

Some Howie Acres residents see present-day gentrification as an extension of urban renewal and other government-sanctioned strategies to harm Black neighborhoods.

Council member Larken Egleston, whose district covers Howie Acres, understands residents’ fears. But he said the recent rezoning victory likely won’t stop further changes.

Egleston acknowledged the city played a role in driving up property values in the area by building the light rail. To offset that, he said the city is giving tax breaks to homeowners in certain income and age ranges, and funding affordable housing nearby.

Community members say it’s not enough.

“They don’t care about us,” said Guinn, the resident whose mother was buried at the cemetery. “They just throw little scraps like that to make you think they’re doing something to help improve the neighborhood.”

Holding up 'progress'

Back at the cemetery, overgrown grass and mud cover small black markers lying atop the relocated graves. In many instances, they don’t even include the names of the people buried there.

Some of the graves moved for the bridge held the remains of people likely buried a century ago or more. Most had no headstones and no living relative that the church could find. Each of the 10 graves had to be dug up and reinterred at the small cemetery before sundown. It took two days.

Sandra Blackmon, the church clerk, sat out in a lawn chair watching the whole time. She felt that the process was handled well, and believes in choosing your battles. She had urged state officials to relocate the graves on the church grounds rather than off-site.

When the road project called for using part of the cemetery, neither the grave sites nor the church were deemed historic by the state.

The church wants to classify its cemetery as a local landmark. That would ensure that future expansion along Sugar Creek Road does not encroach on the graveyard again, Blackmon said.

Guinn, whose mother was laid to rest there, went back and forth on whether she would watch as the remains were dug up. But then, she thought, if she didn’t go she might not know where they reburied her.

She worries that the displacement of the graves marked the start of an onslaught of development that could decimate the neighborhood.

Sooner or later, she said, the church itself could be replaced, and with it another piece of the essence and character of Howie Acres would vanish.

“At this point they just want to get us out,” she said. “Because we’re holding up their progress.”

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