Places to Learn Black History in Charlotte
There is no shortage of places in the Queen City to experience Black history and culture.
by Dezanii Lewis
Whether you want to learn about Black history or simply experience it, Charlotte has plenty of options for those looking to have a unique cultural experience. Here are some of Charlotte’s historic attractions with some surprising ties to Black history.
Founded: August 2013
Romare Bearden was a Charlotte born artist who, after his service with the U.S. Army during World War II, studied the arts and used his knowledge to create images and collages with a focus on the Black community.
His namesake Romare Bearden Park, which is located not too far from where Bearden was born – at the corner of Second (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and Graham streets – is a tribute to the artist with a nod to his paintings and collages. The park also hosts a musical playground and color-changing waterfall that is often the backdrop of many Instagram-worthy photos. It’s a great place to find local music, have a picnic, catch fireworks after a Charlotte Knights game or simply take a walk through the lush gardens.
Neighborhood: West Charlotte
Johnson C. Smith University is backed by a breadth of history. Established in 186, the historical Black university was originally known as Biddle University in honor of Captain Henry Jonathan Biddle, who was a Civil War Union officer. His wife, Mary Biddle, provided the donation that allowed the school to be created. It was renamed in 1923 after Johnson C. Smith’s wife, Jane Berry Smith, made several noteworthy contributions to the university.
What started as a small school is now a thriving university. The fall features a spirited Homecoming, usually consisting of several block parties, cookouts, tailgating and other events. Year-round, the university is host to events ranging from sports to forums promoting and empowering Black voices.
Harvey B. Gantt, originally from Charleston, South Carolina, broke many barriers in his time. The first Black man to attend Clemson University in 1963, Gantt married Lucinda Brawley, the first Black woman to attend Clemson. After graduating from MIT, Gantt moved to Charlotte, where he founded an architectural firm that employed a diverse group of individuals and, among other projects, developed the Johnson C. Smith University Science Center. In 1983, Gantt was elected as Charlotte’s first Black mayor.
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, like its namesake, strives to recognize Black voices and trailblazers. Originally named the Afro-American Cultural Center, it was renamed to honor Gantt in 2009. The center hosts a litany of exhibits attendees can visit any day, with other events to keep an eye out for. The Yoga on the Rooftop series is a frequent find as are the jazz sessions, Jazz @ the Gantt, and the frequent art workshops, some of which are hosted by artists whose work is on display in the center, are an Uptown favorite. The Gantt Center is a destination that effortlessly blends history and culture with a joyful experience.
Uptown Charlotte’s Second Ward was once home to a predominantly Black neighborhood known as Brooklyn. In the late 1800s, the area was a haven for emancipated enslaved people who desired nothing more than living their lives as free men and women. Residents built schools, libraries, churches and small businesses in order to construct their new lives. Considered the Black Wall Street of Charlotte, the neighborhood and its residents experienced much success. Unfortunately, between the 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood was razed as part of a development initiative.
Weeks before the pandemic hit, Monica and Kevin Douglas opened Studio 229 in the heart of Second Ward, as a multifunctional space honoring the rich history of those who inhabited the neighborhood prior. Studio 229 serves as a video and photography studio, musical performance space and as a host to youth programs.
Neighborhood: East Charlotte
Just behind the Charlotte Museum of History sits The Hezekiah Alexander Rock House, the oldest surviving house in Mecklenburg County. The structure, built around 1774, is representative of the Revolutionary period during which it was built and was constructed by the 17 enslaved people who lived and worked on the farm with the Alexander family.
The museum is a great place to learn about not only Black history but also that of Charlotte. While exhibits at the museum have featured history about Charlotte’s Black neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn, it also educates about the region in general – visitors can also learn about the Indigenous populations of Charlotte and how all of these cultures helped build the city we know and love.
First United Presbyterian Church
The First United Presbyterian Church is one of Charlotte’s oldest Gothic Revival churches. Originally called The Colored Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, it was formed when the Seventh Street Presbyterian Church of Charlotte and the Brooklyn Presbyterian Church merged after the razing of the Brooklyn neighborhood. It was built by formerly enslaved people so that they would have a place of their own to worship and practice their religion. During the Civil Rights Movements, it also served as a resting place for protestors and activists.
The church has been deemed an historic landmark by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission for its historical and cultural significance, the architecture of the building (Gothic Revival), and its importance in the Black community and history.
The Dunhill Hotel, originally known as Mayfield Manor, is Charlotte’s only historical boutique hotel and is historical in more ways than one. The site where the Dunhill Hotel currently stands was once a jailhouse for enslaved runaways. Runaways who had been captured were held in this jail until their enslavers could retrieve them, but they never stopped trying to find freedom – one runaway escaped again after he was released from the jail.
The hotel’s facade is like that of another era, with modern amenities throughout, making it one of the most sought-after hotels in the city. For those looking for a good story or a fun post, the hotel is rumored to be haunted. The hotel is also one of 18 stops on the self-guided Charlotte’s Lost Slavery walking tour, featuring stops honoring the history of those enslaved in the Uptown Charlotte area.