The Shoulders on Which We Stand | Charlotte's got a lot | Charlotte NC Travel & Tourism
The official travel resource

The Shoulders on Which We Stand: Charlotte’s African-American Trailblazers and History Makers

 

By Dr. Brenda Tindal, Levine Museum of the New South Historian

From slavery to segregation to civil rights and beyond, African Americans are a significant part of the rich and complex history of Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont region. Throughout the 19th and 20thcenturies, Charlotte’s reputation as a progressive New South city has been inspired in part by the remarkable achievements of African Americans across the fields of business, politics, education, arts and culture—sometimes against the backdrop of great adversity. These trailblazers and history makers helped define the character of the city’s past and present and are the shoulders on which we stand in the 21st century.


Business

Thaddeus Lincoln Tate was the embodiment of the “New Negro”—a referent for a generation of black urbanites who exhibited a combination of racial pride, high achievement, a savvy and cosmopolitan worldview, and unfettered confidence in his ability to “uplift the race” at the turn of the 20th century. A prominent barber and civic leader, Tate had a significant hand in shaping the quality of life for black Charlotteans even as legalized racial segregation began to limit their collective political and economic mobility. Between the 1890s and 1940s, Tate co-founded a number of businesses and institutions, including the Brevard Street Library, Grace A.M.E. Zion Church and a YMCA branch. In 1907, Tate collaborated with other black leaders to establish the Afro-American Mutual Insurance company, which operated until 1927.

Tate’s desire to see black businesses thrive led him to build the Mecklenburg Investment Company (MIC) building, a three-story complex of black-owned and operated businesses. The building housed a pharmacy, doctor’s office, meeting hall and other office spaces. The MIC building was conveniently located in Brooklyn, a vibrant black neighborhood that emerged as the urban hub of Charlotte’s African-American business district in the early-to-mid-20th century.

Tate’s contributions to the Charlotte community at large, and the black community in particular, are undeniable. In 2015, as part of the Trail of History project—a privately funded initiative to preserve the history of key figures who have contributed to Mecklenburg County’s development—a statue of Tate was erected near Little Sugar Creek Greenway.


Civil Rights

For more than100 years, the Alexander family has been a staple within Charlotte’s funeral home business. However, brothers Fred and Kelly Alexander are best known for their civil rights activism and as pioneers within local politics. In 1940, Kelly Alexander re-established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in North Carolina and fortified the state campaign against legal segregation and discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. After 45 years of service as a regional and national leader within the NAACP, Kelly Alexander retired in 1984.

Like Kelly, Fred Alexander rose to prominence at the height of the civil rights movement, signaling the beginning of his career as a political trailblazer and leader within municipal and state government. In 1965, he took the oath of office as the first African American to serve as a member of the Charlotte City Council since the 1890s. During his tenure as a councilman (1965-1974), Fred sought to improve the social, political and economic realities of the city’s black citizenry, including the deceased. In January 1969, he successfully rallied City Council to remove the fence that separated Third Ward’s all-white Elmwood Cemetery from its all-black counterpart, Pinewood Cemetery. By dismantling the fence—a symbolic representation of the vestiges of the cradle-to-grave cycle of Jim Crow segregation—Fred used his political platform to advance his civil rights agenda. Five years later, in 1974, Fred Alexander expanded his reach when he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served for several years.  

As longtime activists and civic leaders, both Fred and Kelly Alexander sacrificed their own lives to dignify the lives of others—especially North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens. Together, the Alexander brothers paved the way for a new generation of African-American leaders who went on to transform the political landscape in the 1970s and 1980s, including Harvey Gantt.


Politics, Arts & Culture

Harvey Gantt
In Harvey Gantt’s own words, “there was no wish on my part to become a pioneer.” However, in the tradition of men like Thaddeus Tate and the Alexander brothers, Gantt’s academic achievements, political ascension and professional success rendered him a trailblazer of epic proportions throughout the Carolinas. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1943, Gantt came of age during the critical decades of the civil rights movement. As a youth, he was involved in the NAACP Youth Council and was actively involved in the student sit-in campaign in Charleston. In 1962, Gantt became the first African American admitted to Clemson University after nearly two years of petitioning and legal proceedings. He graduated from Clemson in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, and five years later, he received his master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the 1970s, Gantt’s work as professional architect and urban planner took off. He served as planner for Soul City, an experimental town northeast of Durham, North Carolina, that was envisioned by its founder, civil rights leader Floyd McKissisk, as a multiracial city organized by African Americans. In 1971, Gantt and architect Jeff Huberman founded the firm Gantt Huberman Architects in Charlotte. Over the years, the firm has been responsible for a number of area landmarks, including the UNC Charlotte Center City building, ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center and the Charlotte Transportation Center, among others. By the mid-1970s, Gantt added civil servant to his resume—first as a city councilman, where he served from 1974 to 1983, and then as the first African-American mayor of Charlotte. Gantt served two terms as the city’s mayor (1983-1987) before launching unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate seats in 1990 and 1996.

Gantt’s herculean trajectory from desegregating Clemson University to his public service as Charlotte’s first African-American mayor did not go unnoticed. In 2009, the Afro-American Culture Center and the City of Charlotte honored Gantt by erecting the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture—the city’s epicenter for the preservation and celebration of art, history and culture in the African Diaspora.


Education

In the course of her remarkable career as educator and advocate, Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey has been a trailblazer in the secondary education, academia, civic, non-profit, and business sectors in Charlotte and throughout the country. In the 1960s, Dr. Maxwell-Roddey served as a teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system as it grappled with efforts to desegregate during the post-Brown v. Board of Education and pre-Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education era. In 1968, she became the first African-American woman to serve as a CMS principal at Albemarle Road Elementary School, then a predominately white school. During this time, her visionary leadership also helped pioneer Charlotte’s first Head Start program—an early childhood education initiative developed in 1965 to serve low-income preschool-age children and their families.

Following her career as a teacher and administrator in CMS, Dr. Maxwell-Roddey joined the faculty of UNC Charlotte during the 1969-1970 academic year. Throughout her 16-year tenure as a professor at UNCC, she was instrumental in establishing the Black Studies program and served as its director for more than a decade. By the mid-1970s, Dr. Maxwell-Roddey was christened the “Mother of the Black Studies Movement” because of her efforts to formalize Black Studies as an academic field. More specifically, she galvanized African and African-American scholars from across the country to convene a meeting in Charlotte about the state of Black Studies. The historic meeting led to the formation of the National Council of Black Studies (NCBS), which continues to stand as the foremost professional organization and global network for Black Studies scholars.

Dr. Maxwell-Roddey was tireless in her pursuit to ensure African and African-American history and culture were part of Charlotte’s academic and cultural enterprises. Indeed, in 1974, she co-founded the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture (formerly known as the Afro-American Cultural Center). In addition to her work as an institution builder, she served on more than 50 boards of directors and commissions, including regional and national leadership roles within Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. In honor of Dr. Maxwell-Roddey’s service to Charlotte and indelible imprint on the field of Black Studies, the Africana Studies Department at UNCC inaugurated The Annual Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey Distinguished Lecture series in 2008.

Charlotte’s pantheon of business leaders, public servants, advocates and educators is as rich as it is diverse. As we celebrate Black History month, profiles of Thaddeus Tate, Fred and Kelly Alexander, Harvey Gantt and Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey are examples of the diligent hands and enterprising minds that helped cultivate the Queen City. Above all, their stories are enduring reminders of the sturdy shoulders on which we stand.

This article ran in the 2017 February issue of Charlotte Happenings magazine.