Mrs. Curtina Simmons was born in 1941, and soon after her family re-located to Brooklyn. As a former Brooklyn resident, Mrs. Simmons has close ties with the community, especially due to her educational upbringing at Myers Street Elementary School and Second Ward High School. Teachers at these schools helped to inspire her, enabling her to eventually become a professor at Johnson C. Smith University. She is able to shed light on certain details of the former Brooklyn community, including its origins and its businesses. Mrs. Simmons is useful in exploring the fabric of the former Brooklyn community, and examining why it was a thriving interdependent black community.
Tape Log: Oral History Interview with Curtina Simmons
Interviewed by Solomon Franklin
April 13, 2007
|Time||Description of Interview Contents|
|1:00||Mrs. Simmons tells of her former residences in Brooklyn and explains the geographical location of Brooklyn’s parameters|
|3:00||Origins of the Brooklyn community|
|8:00||The framework or fabric of the Brooklyn community. How the community was interwoven to become interdependent|
|9:00||The House of Prayer and other prominent churches in the Brooklyn community|
|17:00||The economic expansion of the Brooklyn community|
|20:00||Service based businesses, serving as the initial entrepreneurs of the Brooklyn community|
|21:00||Origins and geographical location of the Blue Heaven section of Brooklyn|
|22:00||Retail services, food establishments, recreation, entertainment and nightlife in Brooklyn|
|28:00||Queen City Classic|
|29:00||Brevard Street Library, pool rooms|
|30:00||Violence in the Brooklyn community|
|32:00||Policing in Brooklyn|
|34:00||Good Samaritan Hospital and the extended functions of the Funeral Services.|
|37:00||The interdependency of the Brooklyn community as an enclave for black businesses|
|41:00||The discipline and trust level of the community in relation to the youth|
|43:00||Sixth and Seventh grade teacher Mrs. Julia Bolding- one of the major influences in Mrs. Simmons life|
|45:00||Eleventh and twelfth grade teacher Mrs. Mannie Hall- another one of the major influences in Mrs. Simmons life|
|49:00||Reasons for the erosion of the cohesion of the Brooklyn community|
|55:00||The significance of Arthur S. Grier to the Brooklyn community|
|57:00||Looking at the impact of economic development, due to the demise of the Brooklyn community|
|1:00:00||The importance of the extended family and other factors of survival|
|1:05:00||Student busing after integration|
|1:07:00||The relationship of students’ confidence in relation to success|
|1:10:00||Description of the homes that were said to be “blighted” in correlation to the interdependency of the community|
Interviewed at the residence of Ms. Simmons in Charlotte, North Carolina
April 13, 2007
Interviewer: Franklin, Solomon
Transcription completed: May 20, 2007
Transcriber: Jennifer Payne
Editor: Karen Flint
Title: Interview with Curtina Simmons
Keywords [subject]: Brooklyn, Second Ward High School, Myers Street Elementary School, businesses, First Street, Boundary Street, Brevard Street, Morehead Street, McDowell Street, Trade Street, Blue Heaven, Cherry, Crockett Street, Second Ward, Grace AME Zion Church, AME Zion Publishing House, Biddleville, shotgun houses, education, nightlife, churches, House of Prayer, Daddy Grace, St. Paul Baptist Church, Brooklyn Presbyterian Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, restaurants, El Chico’s, physicians, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists, Queen City Pharmacy, laundry, Butler’s seafood, Pittman’s Grocery, Bush Grocery, Lincoln Theater, Savoy Theater, Hood’s Tea Room, YWCA, YMCA, Pearl Street park, sports, Queen City Classic, Brevard Street library, Good Samaritan Hospital, Thompson Orphanage, segregation, Jim Crow, Mercy Hospital, funeral homes, Arthur Drier, Sr., Griertown, Urban League, bussing, HBCUs.
Description [abstract]: Mrs. Curtina Simmons was born in 1941, and soon after her family re-located to Brooklyn. As a former Brooklyn resident, Mrs. Simmons has close ties with the community, especially due to her educational upbringing at Myers Street Elementary School and Second Ward High School. Teachers at these schools helped to inspire her, enabling her to eventually become a professor at Johnson C. Smith University. She is able to shed light on certain details of the former Brooklyn community, including its origins and its businesses. Mrs. Simmons is useful in exploring the fabric of the former Brooklyn community, and examining why it was a thriving interdependent black community.
Contributor: Curtina Simmons
Interview Date: April 13, 2007
Format: WAV (73 minutes, 33 seconds)
Identifier: [file number]
Coverage: Charlotte, NC, 1941-1961, 1970-1974
Recorder (if different than interviewer): Solomon Franklin
Transcriber: Jennifer Payne
Education: Second Ward High School, Winston-Salem State University, King’s College (NJ), UNC-Chapel Hill
Occupation(s): Professor, assistant principal, community activist
Setting Description: residence of Curtina Simmons in Charlotte, North Carolina
SF: Solomon Franklin
CS: Curtina Simmons
SF: Good morning. This is the oral history interview with Ms. Curtina Simmons at her residence for Dr. Flint’s Brooklyn Oral History Project- New South Voices on Friday, April 13, 2007. Thank you, Ms. Simmons, for having me to do this interview.
CS: It is my pleasure, Mr. Franklin, to speak to a community that has meant a lot to me and has made me the person that I am today. I would like to, more or less, share with you that my family located to Charlotte when I was four years old, and we lived on First Street, exactly in the middle of the street where the education center sits today. We later moved to Boundary Street, which, in the Brooklyn days would have been located directly behind the Bob Walton Plaza Building. In fact, there’s a tree back there that is reminiscent of what could have existed in our front yard. Now, having said that, I’d like to share with you the exact location of the Brooklyn community, as well as to describe some of the history behind the evolution of the community. First of all, the Brooklyn community was located between Brevard Street, Morehead Street, as we presently know it, which would be East Morehead, South McDowell Street, and up to East Trade. Those were the basic perimeters. [coughs] We also, the Brooklyn community was considered to intertwine itself with those areas such as Blue Heaven, Cherry, the Crockett Street area, and the lower part of South McDowell Street that approaches Central Piedmont Community College as we see it today.
SF: Thank you. Could you tell me a little bit of information about how Brooklyn, how the origins of Brooklyn came to be?
CS: It is my understanding based on some prior research that we did that initially, during the years, approximately 1905 through 1929, the area was adjacent to the uptown area, and most of the residents in that particular community- and it was not known as the Brooklyn community then, it was known as Second Ward. You had three major wards in the inter city, as we know today, First Ward, Second Ward and Third Ward. The notion of the Brooklyn community evolved out of the migration of some of the church members from the AME Zion church that located on Brevard Street, there was a church there, it was formerly known as Grace AME Zion Church, and only recently the congregation moved and I am assuming that the church was sold to the city, probably as, in some form of historical property. Also, later on, it is my understanding that the AME Zion Publishing House was located in the Brooklyn area, but, sadly to say, I, I, I had long since moved away from the Charlotte area. The other part is that the main areas were housed, well, they housed many of our white residents. And, between the years from 1905 through 1929, they began to relocate. And, this speaks to some of the larger houses that were located in Brooklyn that were later either occupied or purchased by residents or inherited or gifted from others who were moving out, who probably, and this is an assumption on my part, participated into the development of the Dilworth community, which is on the other side of Morehead Street. Also, Charlotte was becoming, was beginning to grow as a city. Many of the blacks that came in were moving in from rural areas surrounding the Charlotte area, and, of course, I think, it is my understanding, Myers Street School, I think, was built in and around 1921, maybe just a little earlier, I’m not sure specifically of that, but the building of Second Ward, I mean, building of Myers Street school in Second Ward, blacks began to move into the neighborhood. To really understand Brooklyn, one has to take a look at the relationship within the community. The whole idea of value systems connecting, connecting with people, seeing it as a viable community ‘cause most blacks lived there. That is not to say that there were not blacks living in other areas of the city, but more to the west side. The existence of the Pineville communities, the Huntersville community, back then I think they were referring to it as Sterling, the Plato Price community out on the other side of the airport, the Biddleville community up on the other end of the Rozelle’s Ferry Road area, this is where many blacks were located. So, as a starting point, also, the First Ward community was bordered by manufacturing and mills, which are on the other side of North Davidson Street. So, in building these two basic schools, Second Ward and Myers Street Elementary School, these two schools- these are the two schools that blacks during that period attended. So, it generated the whole need for housing in that area. So, we had a mixture during that time of very large houses, shotgun houses, buildings where people were living in multi-family dwellings, which was very common during that time.
SF: Can you tell me a little bit about the fabric of the Brooklyn community and how it was interwoven?
CS: OK. The concept that over the years I’ve managed to put together, you might want to call it a framework or a matrix, the community- the core of the community was the church, the educational system, and, I would say, it’s lively nightlife. These were your major social agents. Most of the activities that were generated for youth, adults, the elderly, were provided by these three carriers.
SF: OK. Can you give me any specific examples that stand out in your mind of prominent churches?
CS: OK. I can give you a litany of churches. We can start on one end, they, and all of them were very, very, active. So I don’t want to- I, I want to name some, and I don’t want to leave- but I will say one thing. The church, in my opinion, that had the most impact on the Brooklyn community was the House of Prayer that started on Long Street in a stable, and Bishop Grace, and most of the people that lived in Brooklyn referred to him as Daddy Grace, had so much, so many people interested in them that he built a swimming pool as a form of a baptismal ritual. And of course, later on they built a very, very large church on McDowell Street. The other part of that is, the House of Prayer was surrounded by many churches. And I’ll start with St. Paul Baptist Church was located on the corner of First, well, near the corner of First and McDowell Street, Brooklyn Presbyterian Church was located across the street. Moving up South McDowell Street toward the House of Prayer, that was near the corner of McDowell and, I think it’s Alexander Street, I can’t be sure of that, then you had Ebenezer Baptist Church, initially located on Second Street, and, of course, when I was about nine or ten years old, that was the largest fire that I had ever seen. The church burned completely to the ground, and under the leadership of the Reverend James Ryan, a church was purchased on East Trade Street. On Crockett Street, you had, I think it was the Congregational Church. You, we had many Apostolic Churches. So, Brooklyn was not void of churches. And of course, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church was located at the corner of Brevard and First Street. And, there are some other churches, I just cannot recall all of them. I, in an initial article that I wrote in 1988 for the Charlotte Observer, most of the churches located in the Brooklyn community are listed there.
SF: With Daddy Grace and the House of Prayer having so much influence, can you talk about how his presence impacted the economic situation in Brooklyn?
CS: OK. What the House of Prayer did, was it assumed a maternalistic or paternalistic attitude toward the community. It embraced those that some people would consider the, the ones of lesser means, and when I say that I’m speaking in terms of economic terms, I’m not talking in lesser terms of self-worth or self-esteem. It was just that, it was a place where everybody could be a part. The House of Prayer had something for everybody. We had young people, some of my schoolmates, the House of Prayer had a band. It had ladies’ guilds, it had ushers, it had queens. It had the House of Prayer where, now, well, today they would call it security people, but we called it House of Prayer police. And, it gave, it heightened the level of self-confidence for that community, because it did not matter whether, what type of job you had, what your financial income was, what your economic status was. The masses gravitated toward the House of Prayer. And even those of us who were not House of Prayer members took pride in it because they had parades, the security people were dressed, the band had uniforms, and at that time, Second Ward was struggling to get uniforms. Also, there was an unwritten type of doctrine within that church that, that church provided for its own. House of Prayer members were not evicted from their homes. They were nurtured by that church. And given a reason to believe that they could survive any type of economic or financial challenge as well as any challenge, sickness challenge. They didn’t have to stay home and not go to the doctor because they didn’t have any money, and of course, I can speak to that aspect of Brooklyn a little later on in the interview.
SF: Being as influential as they were, did they own any businesses, or how were the business relations in regarding the House of Prayer and Daddy Grace?
CS: When the church was built on McDowell Street, they’ve always had restaurants. They also had a beauty parlor in there. They hired a lot of people who belonged to the church to assist in helping the church to survive. It is my understanding over the years that, and this is probably why the fruits of their labor stand out so graciously, is that, many of, most of the membership worked at the church, because it was a way of paying their tithes. It, the tithes were not always cast into these large boxes and bags and baskets that people have so often, more or less, alluded to, that the community was getting ripped off. That is the furthest from the truth. And, of course, I’m hoping that some day, that someone will take the time to interview one of the older elders of that church to really bring forth an understanding of the role of the House of Prayer, what it actually does, and the fact that it is inter-denominational and is no different from any other inter-denominational church. I think one of the things that has contributed to its success has been the whole notion of inclusion. That is its greatest asset.
SF: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the premier businesses that existed in Brooklyn?
CS: OK. What I, what I, what I did in preparation for this interview was to, more or less, take a look at how interdependent we were for business, for family, for survival. And what I did was break it down into different areas of economic considerations. And, I, I, I’m, I’m looking at the period of 1951 through 1960 because a lot of the expansion of Brooklyn occurred during that time period. And the most important thing that I think that is relevant to the economics is how the community patronized each other. For an example, our service areas in the Brooklyn community were shoe shops and, of course, Mr. McKissick was the shoe maker or shoe repairer. We had beauty parlors from one end of the community to the other, Ms. Neely, Ms. McKnight, oh, just, Pasadena Beauty Shop. We had shoe shine parlors. Mr. Gassaway had a shoe shine parlor, and so did Mutt Culp. Also, we had four major funeral homes. Alexander, Grier, Long, and Davidson funeral homes, and of course, a little later on, on the west side, the Harrison funeral home came into being. And we had lawyers, and those lawyers were, some of them were Harris, Bowser, Wyche, Bolding, and of course, not limited to these four. Then we had physicians feeding the community. And some of them were Wyche, and Green, and Wilkins, and Dr. Blackman. Dr. Green, everybody knew who Dr. Green was ‘cause he was everybody’s pediatrician. And, of course, the impact of dealing with all of these different services were that, was that, if you had cash money you could pay for them, but bartering took place. Especially in needing legal representation for different things. Then we had several dentists. Dr. Martin was one of them. His office was located up on Second Street. We had a laundry, and we had a dry cleaners. That was the basic service industry, and of course, we had a bookkeeper in the community that worked with everybody, and his name was John Moore. The other thing, I think, that is outstanding, the first black licensed pharmacist had a pharmacy on the corner of First and Myers Street. When I was in high school it was like a drug store, like a sundry, and he had a pharmacy area, and this is where people bought their, got their prescriptions filled and their medications. Then, of course, the domestic laundry. I do want to say one thing. Most of the people in the service areas, in fact, all of them, they were the initial entrepreneurs in these particular industries. For the exception of the domestic laundry, and I will speak to them a little later in talking to Mr. Franklin, the whole notion of Blue Heaven came up, so I’m saying the Blue Heaven piece came because the runoff water from the laundry had a bluing in it, and it ran into a creek bed that was located between the laundry, which was on a side street off an alley, and some of the housing that you’ve probably seen in some of the older pictures, the houses that looks like a sort of stilts, and they’ve got creek water, creek beds, very, very small creek, streams running. But that’s how Blue Heaven initially got its name. Now on…
SF: Can you, can you tell me specifically where the Blue Heaven section…
CS: It was just adjacent to Brooklyn, it was a part of Brooklyn. The only difference, it was on the opposite side of the street, on the other side of McDowell Street, going towards the Cherry area.
SF: OK. Can you talk a bit about the specifics, more about the specifics of the retail, entertainment, and nightlife that existed in Brooklyn?
CS: The retail area, we’re talking about products. Sadly to say, the, again, I want to reiterate that the, this drug store was probably one of the major, I would say, businesses that was owned by a black professional that was actually selling a product as such. Also, the nightlife, when we start talking about entertainment and nightlife I’ll speak to some others, but as far as your corner grocery stores, and of course, the fish market, which was Butler’s Seafood on the corner of McDowell and Morehead, was the primary supplier of fish. We had a lot of corner stores: Bush Grocery Store, Pittman’s Grocery Store, and numerous others, and, ironically, most of them were owned and operated by our Jewish community. Not all of them, but some of them. That’s about all I can say about the retail piece, but then, when we look at the entertainment community, we had two major theaters: the Lincoln Theater and the Savoy Theater. I really don’t know who owned them, but my speculation is that, again, we had Jewish vendors in our community because of their access to, long history of access to the distribution of movies and the music industry over the years. We had what we called cafes as opposed to restaurants. Such places as El Chico’s, which was located next to the House of Prayer, ironically, and Hood’s Tea Room. Then we had night, the nightclubs that we had were, well, people would probably call juke joints today. Sometimes live music, sometimes not. Piccolos were popular during that time. And we had tea rooms where people just like you have cigar parlors, people would go in and, you know, have a cup of tea and a sandwich, and that type of thing. Called sandwich shops. Then we had some pick-up places, like Oscar Harris’ place where he sold fatback sandwiches, and they were good. I had the pleasure of enjoying many of them. And also, at Hood’s tea room, there was a lady in there who used to make the best hush puppies. You could get two hush puppies for a nickel. And, of course, we would buy those hush puppies, maybe fifteen cent worth to give you six. And they were large, they were the size of a large egg. And then when you went to school and put them in your locker, you can imagine what your locker smelled about the next day. ‘Cause these were fresh onions and garlic in the hush puppies.
SF: Where was this located?
CS: Hood’s Tea Room was located on First Street. Then we had the YWCA and the YMCA. Now, the, the YW- the YMCA was initially located on Second Street in one of the older buildings. I would say, mid-‘50s, early ‘50s, the McCrory Branch YMCA was built on one end of Davidson Street, and the YWCA was built on the other end of Davidson Street. And we enjoyed young people, well, the older adult people, they offered classes in sewing and food preparation, canning, and all types of outreach type of activities. In fact, I learned a lot about it and started going to the YW at an early age because my mother taught sewing there, in addition to her regular teaching job, which was out in the county. Sports, which came out of the community’s commitment to Second Ward. We had football, basketball, and baseball. And, ironically, we didn’t have stadiums where young people could practice. The practice was done at Pearl Street, right down near the other end of McDowell Street over in what we call Blue Heaven, on the backside of it, and of course, Midtown Square was across the street from the Pearl Street playground. Ironically, I think I, I need to mention this as long as I’m talking about sports, how the football players would gather at the school when we were going to have a football game, especially if the Queen City Classic. There was no bus driving then. Oftentimes they walked to Memorial Stadium from Second Ward, which is something that I think will need to, needs to be noted. And of course, at that time, we didn’t have a, two teams. We didn’t have a defensive and offensive team. If you played football, you played both offensive and defensive. So, it was really challenging, but I, I think that it demonstrated a major strength and a sense of belonging to make Second Ward a proud place to be. Then we had our public library located on Brevard Street, the Phyllis Wheatley Branch. And, there’s a name they call it today, billiards? We called it pool. And it was the second gathering place for men outside of their barber shop, but it was [coughs] a place of concern. And in taking a look at nightlife, I have to mention this. I had a unique experience during my undergraduate years. I was in school at King’s College. King’s College, in Union, New Jersey, in a sociology class. We had this sociology book, and we were looking at violence and crime. And in my sociology book there was a statement that said, “In Charlotte, North Carolina, on the corner of McDowell and First Street, more homicides had been committed on that one corner than in any other city in the United States.”
SF: What year was that?
CS: It was 1970, when this appeared in the sociology book. I was amazed, even though I know that, even though I knew that Brooklyn was a place where the profane and the sacred met. It should not have surprised me. But then, we cleaned up our wounds, those of us that were able to survive that violent aspect, and move ahead, and the whole community coalesced. The one thing I have to say, too, is, in tribute to some elements that fostered the type of value system that we had and fostered care in the Brooklyn community was the role of the Episcopalian Church in terms of supporting the Thompson Orphanage, which was located not that far from the Brooklyn community. It’s charitable provision of Good Samaritan hospital, which was located in Third Ward that we all had to use, and- I’ll get back, there’s another prevailing element, but I’ll get back to that later.
SF: Speaking towards the statistics of violence, how was policing in the Brooklyn community during that time?
CS: I think there were approximately, early on, six or seven policemen. They operated like we did, because they worked in the black community. There were black policemen in black communities. And, so, it was more or less up to them to, I guess, provide the care of status quo, is what I would call it. Some of them were popular, some of them were caring, some of them were not. It’s just how they saw themselves and what was expected of them. And we cannot say that they were abusive or did not do their job. They did their job as best they could from being in a sandwich. And if you understand segregation and Jim Crow, then you would have a clear understanding of the role and the position that these black policemen were put in.
SF: You spoke about Good Sam, Good Samaritan Hospital. Can you talk about the logistics of the correlation between Good Sam and the funeral homes that were in the community?
CS: OK. During that time, as far as I know, there was no medic service, it didn’t exist. Most funeral homes provided ambulance services to the communities. So, you know, as far as I know, Grier and Alexander, and perhaps Davidson, I am, I cannot be completely accurate on that, but I do know that they provided an ambulance service. And it wasn’t the type of response system that exists today. It was just, they would get there and by whatever means necessary, they got you to Good Samaritan Hospital. I think that the service that was provided was the best that we could expect because, now, you‘ve got to remember that we had some land phones, but you didn’t have instant communication. We’re talking about something that happens, someone gets hit by a car, or somebody, more or less, has a heart attack, or a stroke or something. Someone, if there wasn’t a phone in that house, somebody had to run over to Grier’s or run to Alexander’s or run to one of the funeral homes and say, “Would you come and get..”, or put them in the back of a truck, or the back of a car, and take them to Good Samaritan Hospital. Now one thing that I have to say about the Catholic Diocese in Charlotte. They were the first one to open their wings. And they opened those wings, a wing at what is now Mercy Hospital downtown, Mercy Main. In the second part of that building, they opened a whole wing for black patients. And I must say that at the time they opened that wing, I, I think that the move to open that wing was encouraged by many of the white physicians that black people were referred to during that time, because, I am making an assumption that most of our physicians were what we commonly call today family practice doctors because they serviced everybody. No the one point that I want to make about the services that were offered in the Brooklyn community, even people who lived on the west side, off of the corridor of Beattie’s Ford Road, came to the Brooklyn community too, to receive services. We’re talking about an era of time where the black community attempted, as best they could, with the resources that we had, to take care of our own. And I think, overall, when I reflect back on it, I think we did a real good job. [coughs]
SF: As far as the services, can you relate to how it was more of an enclave and speak more to how Brooklyn was able to take care of itself? More of that process?
CS: OK. For every business that you have in Brooklyn, whatever you want to call entrepreneurship, whatever, people had to have some type of income. So, I’m going to speak to the employment aspect of the Brooklyn community. I think one of the most interesting things was the mixture of all people. It did not matter whether you were a professional, semi-professional, a service worker, or a semi-skilled worker, or a skilled worker. Now again, I’m still talking about this vast expansion and relocation time period that was going on in Brooklyn, and I’m talking 1951 to 1960. OK, some of the, for the most part, you could say that the Brooklyn community was, more or less, a service community, providing domestics, maids, nannies, chauffeurs, cooks, who were employed in private homes, country clubs, and upscale restaurants. Then you had your professionals: ministers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and of course, bookkeeper. Then you had your semi-skilled workers. You had men that worked on the docks, as we call them today, the platforms, loading and unloading trucks. Ironworkers working at the foundry on, I think that’s Cedar Street or either Pine Street. It’s now been turned into, more or less, a, a nostalgic-type shopping strip. And, of course, truckers. We had men back then driving trucks, coming on the scene, and I would say that one of the oldest companies employing black men during that time was Overnight Trucking. And I think some homage needs to be given to them. Then your skilled workers, and a lot of the skilled workers and semi-skilled workers, again, belonged to the House of Prayer. I’m talking about carpenters, electricians, plasterers, bricklayers, and arborists. You see, a lot of men were in business for themselves. Service in the city of Charlotte, going over into the Myers Park area, tax supported area, to cut down trees, ‘cause that was really a skill, men made a lot of money doing that. Topping trees, and, of course, they didn’t have the type of equipment that we have today. We’re taking about some true labor. Whether they were properly compensated or not remains to be seen. I think that the impact of home ownership came from this economic, I would call it, mesh of people. Those women that did not work, more or less, helped the women that did work and their families and the kids that had parents who had to go to work. The community was one that, where, all the children, when you talk about a village and looking after all the children, all the children were embraced. And when your teacher came home, if you misbehaved in school, all she had to do was walk next door and knock on the door and say, “Little Ellen showed out in school today.” So you got, and no one got- the trust level was so high, if you got a spanking at school, you got a second one when you got home, and the parents praised the teacher for caring enough. Now, before I forget, there is an issue that I will speak to. The United Methodist Church provided the first organized day care in the Brooklyn community. And it is still thriving today, and that is the Bethlehem Center. I graduated from the Bethlehem Center in 1945. So, the United Methodist Church has been around a long time and been of service to this community. So, I, I, I think, something needs to be said about that. I want to speak to one teacher in particular. There were many of them who did a lot of things, but there were two major influences in my life. [coughs] The first one was my sixth and seventh grade teacher. Her name was Julia Bolding. Ms. Bolding was one of the most outstanding teachers that I have ever met and, of course, just retiring from being a professor myself, I think she probably set the bar for how I wanted to interact with my students. Ms. Bolding was a very loving and caring teacher, but she was also a disciplinarian. What I admired about her the most was her personal interest in her students. Each year, Ms. Bolding would take us on several field trips. Everybody wanted to be in her room. Oh, we would pack lunches or she packed lunches, and what we used, what was known as the HI-Fi Club in the later sixties was initially a place called Sunset Park and they had a swimming pool. Ms. Bolding would take us over there. She took us to the JB Ivey home off of, when it was located on Morehead Street, when the tulips begin to bloom in the spring. Myers Street School had an operetta every year. Ms. Bolding made, she produced that operetta, and I think Ms. Mayfield Williams, and two others- all the teachers worked together to pull that operetta off, but Ms. Bolding made sure that everybody was in the operetta, everybody was costumed. Those teachers at Myers Street School had crepe papers, and they made costumes. Some of us were roses, some of us were junipers, flowers of all kinds. We had May Day, you know, and all of us had on our little white dresses and black patent leather shoes cause Ms. Bolding marched us down to Lebo’s, and if you parents could not afford it, Lebo’s, she got Lebo’s to give us shoes. She was a wonderful example of what the love of teacher can do for its students. The second lady, and when I think about her, I just want to burst out into tears, because you don’t find that today, was a woman by the name of Mattie Hall. Mattie Hall taught everybody in the eleventh and twelfth grade how to live. She was an English teacher, and she talked to us about the issues of life, as well as teaching us English, as well as loving us, but being a strict disciplinarian. And, for me, I can say in conclusion that as I ended the article that I wrote ten years ago, I just, it hurts me to know that my grandchildren are not going to be able to have this experience. Because it contributes to the character and integrity of a person with a shared value system. No, everybody was different, everybody’s economic situation was different. You had all of this community woven together, and everybody was on an even playing field. And when I think about the fact that I went from, and this is not in our conversation, but the impact of Brooklyn on my life, and I think this is why I embrace Brooklyn the way I do, from a relatively insecure little girl, from a one parent family on- and the product of divorced parents, from five years old on First Street to moving to Boundary Street, when I was nine or ten years old, and moving from Boundary Street to Fannie Circle in Grier Heights, and even walking on occasion with my classmates, from Fannie Circle to Second Ward High School where that Metro School is located right now, where our gym is still standing, was a pleasure. Because I went from First Street to UNC-Chapel Hill, where my mother could not go, to finish with a terminal degree, which says a whole lot about my teachers. My environment did not impact my ability to learn, and to achieve. And my self-esteem was further entrenched when I went to Winston-Salem State and on to King’s College as an undergraduate student, and then on to UNC-Chapel Hill as a grad student. So, it is my pleasure to talk about Brooklyn, because it is the most significant aspect of my life.
SF: Now, this, this sense of, of, you know, inclusion and trust within the community, what do you think caused its initial demise?
CS: I think some would say urban renewal. I think that the cohesion in the community began to erode with the onset of integration, because there were mixed messages. Most of us in the Brooklyn community, we didn’t know we were deprived until somebody told us. Because our value system wasn’t based on money. Money became an issue. That community was divided because people who did own their properties were put in the position where they could sell and make a little bit of money. I’m not saying that Brooklyn- what I am saying is that Brooklyn could have been reworked. It did not have to be turned into what it is today. The housing was not the best, but the values were not entrenched in the housing. The value was entrenched in people. So, if you’re doing, tearing down the houses and rebuilt some better housing and allowed people to stay there, I still feel that many of our young people today, our youth, would not have so many problems because Brooklyn, just like- well, I think the same thing happened in all of the neighborhoods, when you had York Road, and we have West Charlotte, the last standing vestige that is, appears that we’re getting ready to lose. Building University Park around West Charlotte stabilized it and kept it intact. Schools and churches must have community feeds. They can’t survive without them. So, when the churches began to move away, the schools were allowed to deteriorate. I lived in, in living in Griertown, I didn’t have to go back to Second Ward. I could have caught the bus and gone to West Charlotte, which was a newer school. But the loyalty and the allegiance, and the appreciation, and the caring for my classmates, and what that community offered me. It was just made me feel good just to go back in there even after I had moved. Even when I went away to college, when the community was beginning to lose a house here and a house there, and a tear-down here and pull-up there, I would still go back over there. The community, the length of time that it took the city of Charlotte to destroy that community. It looked like battle zone. You had people still trying to hold out, but they couldn’t because a community into itself cannot survive without people.
SF: Do you remember how you first learned about the city’s plans to raze Brooklyn?
CS: I was not here during that period, so I cannot speak for the 1961 through 1969 period. I’ll take a bye on that.
SF: OK. Well, in your opinion, why do you think Brooklyn was targeted for that? Do you think race was a factor?
CS: No, greed.
CS: Green and greed. There was, of course, like in all cities seeking growth and progress, some win, some lose. Some communities survive, some don’t. The problem with the Brooklyn community is that it was powerless to resurrect itself. We’re talking about disparity in income, we’re talking about a non-economic playing field, and if you rented, what are you going to do about your landlord that sells your property out and says, “Look, you’ve got thirty days to move,” or “You’ve got two weeks to move?” Then those that did own homes, “Why am I maintaining this here?” Business couldn’t survive, it had to have a community to feed it. So, I’m going to keep my beauty parlor on this side of town, when I need to put it somewhere else, and my barber shop. There’s nobody to come. Who’s going to catch the bus at this point in time in the ‘60s? And then the expansion of other businesses opening up into you, up to you, and finally realizing that, hey, having black people come and eat here is not such a bad idea after all. They already work in the kitchen, so let’s open the front door. Your retail shops didn’t have any problem uptown, Butler’s Shoe Store didn’t have any problems. Lerner’s shops, blacks were steady customers. Belk’s. What we used to call Ivey’s is now Dillard’s. Tate Brown. Ed Melon. So, economic impact, greed, on the part of development, under the guise of progress destroyed that community. It not only took away the housing and the buildings, it took away the spirit, which is probably more viable. One thing I also want to say, Mr. Grier, Arthur Grier, Sr., could have easily relocated his funeral home. But that was one of the last vestiges to go. He did develop Grier Town, the street that I lived, and he made it possible for my mother to buy a house because mortgage companies didn’t want to make loans to divorced women, single women. FHA, your Federal Housing Authority, did not want to make loans. And Mr. Grier stood for not only my mother but several other women, he and his wife, stood for them. The other thing, Mr. Grier was a part of Brooklyn because when he left in his limousine in the morning, he could have backed out and gone straight to Monroe Road to come through there with his chauffer. He came out, went down Jean Avenue, and on around Fannie Circle, and those of us that were standing out there, he picked us up and we rode to school in a limousine. [laughs]
SF: That’s amazing. That just speaks to the vibrancy of the community and the inclusiveness. Ms. Simmons, is there anything, any other information that’s important to the story of the Brooklyn community as far as inclusion on a business front, or to explain more about how the community thrived and it was it’s own enclave and it was able to thrive kind of within itself?
CS: I think, if I were outside of my retirement today, and perhaps involved in the new Brooklyn initiative, I think that one of the things that I would want to do is a cursory review of the successes and failures of the Brooklyn community. Because I don’t want it to sound like Brooklyn did not have any failures, like any other community. But its primary failure was based on, in my opinion, the disparity of income. Because if its economic structure had been stronger, and we knew then what we know today, in terms of what credit unions, what banks can do, what lending institutions can do, what the black church can do- I’ve always said this and my colleagues laugh at me. There is one place that I feel that black people would come together in putting their money is if the church had a bank. Because there is a level of trust for the masses in churches serving as fiduciaries for money. Which, I’m not suggesting that that is the way it should go, but I’m saying that the trust level for maintaining and promoting economic development- and when we talk about economic development, my experience at the Mecklenburg of the Carolinas, what they call it now, but when I was there, it had just came, it just came to Charlotte, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Urban League, and I was there from ’80 through ’83 as deputy director. One of the things that the Urban League always encouraged was this, this whole notion of, you can’t have a successful business unless you got successful employment. One feeds the other. We’ve got to learn how to share in the whole notion of economic development. You cannot have a business today. You could have done it forty years ago, and expect to pay yourself well, put yourself on a salary, and then pay your employees as well, the market wage. Many of us, and I’m talking about us as African-Americans, we have this thing where we never know what is enough. And the seeds of greed dwell in us, into us to the point that we have almost incorporated the whole notion of the nuclear family, where historically, it was the extended family, which was inclusive of the nuclear family. We also put our own families together, we embraced each other. Andrew Billingsley has a model, several models within the black family that he speaks to. And I think that as we move along and take a look at maybe the new Brooklyn initiative and in terms of whatever that turns out to be, we need to take a look at the success factors that made Brooklyn what it was because I think part of that is going to help us to reclaim our black youth that we’re losing on the streets because our educational system is in disarray, there are no jobs for our young black men, who have no where to go and seek to make a living in an inappropriate way. We need to examine those factors, ‘cause during my time period, we had young people with less, but they had a strong work ethic. And we don’t have that today. Whatever, by whatever means necessary for us back then was working as a caddy on a golf course, working in the kitchen in some of the more upscale restaurants, working at the country club, gardening, you know, all of those things. And those- bicycling, we didn’t have cars delivering medicine from Pike’s Drug Store or Niven’s Drug Store. They were riding bicycles. Where has that notion of, I’d like to call it hustle, but hustle has become a negative term. But back in the day it wasn’t negative. It just meant that a man put forth a great effort to make a living to be supportive of his family. Also, we got to get back to that nurturing piece. Some of us are not being good mothers, fathers, grandmothers. We’re throwing money at our children. We are throwing material. We need to get back into the business of nurturing. We need to talk to our children, then we need to decide materialistically, what is it that we really got to have that is so important that it overrides the fact that we may have to do without some things to in order to nurture our children?
SF: Thank you for that advice. You spoke earlier about the Urban League. Can you talk a little bit about some of the other organizations that were influential in the community that impacted business or the thriving- like the NAACP or….
CS: I cannot truly speak to that because I was not here during that period. I did not return to Charlotte until 1971. The Urban League did not appear on the scene here in Charlotte until it opened its doors in January of 1980. I cannot say that there was any particular influential black group. I do know that the NAACP was in existence. I don’t know what its impact was on the integrating, the initial integrating of the Charlotte community. The only thing that I can speak to of, on is my relationship of becoming an assistant principal at Myers Park High School in 1974 and the feeder systems that were set up that were not done well, because here you have a community of wealthy, nurturing, white parents and the students bussed into that school came from less economic resources than those that lived in Myers Park. The feeder schools into Myers Park were Hidden Valley, Clanton Road, I mean, Clanton Park, and just putting those groups of students together, black and white, created a firestorm. Because more than race, and the whole process of black and white teenagers going to school, you’re talking about disparity in income again. Economics continues to rear its head. And the burden of bussing, being on those black kids, where your white kids would drive to school, in their, in the cars that their parents had purchased for them. With great aspirations, strong self-esteem, knew where they were going to college. But black kids making an adjustment, being in the minority, trying to be successful in school, feeling the impact of, impact on the self-esteem. I’ve always, because I, I have taught at H, at an HBCU, my position is, the role of the HBCU is to embrace, nurture, educate students and give them, that level of social esteem, I mean, that level of self-esteem, self-worth, so that when they move on to larger, predominantly white institutions, they have the self-confidence that they need to pursue whatever degree of learning that they opt for. Because fifty to sixty percent of the success of that is the whole notion of self-confidence. We have students that know stuff and they’re so insecure about what they know, they don’t even want to put it out there because they can’t deal with the critical aspect of “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Oh, but yes, I do. Let me prove it to you.” And I think the infusion of critical thinking into the college curriculum at HBCUs has greatly impacted that. And the critical thinking, the liberal studies, cognate, and I had the pleasure of teaching in the society and man, cognate, was the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had in my life. Just to see these students put their thinking power out there. And the critical thought, and being able to take an opposing position and defend it. We are teaching, we need to teach students how to think. That’s the focus. All of the other stuff can come later. Let’s learn how to think. We’re not into memorizing and rote learning- to, now, that’s not to disregard the importance of theory concepts and frameworks, but I’m speaking basically about the whole notion that- it’s an old adage “The author gets an A, the professor gets a B, and the student gets a C.” Pro and con arguments on both sides. But anyway, I hope I’ve answered your points of inquiry sufficiently. [laughs]
SF: Speaking about HBCUs, Johnson C. Smith University was key in relation- students at Johnson C. Smith were key in relating to the Brooklyn community. It’s been said that during the times of urban renewal, that they had students do surveys of the community and try to help with those processes. Do you know of any- and what they said was that they were surveying some of the homes. Can you speak to some of the conditions of the homes and even if you believe urban renewal was supposed to be, like, they said there was blighted areas.
CS: Yeah, there were blighted areas. Most of the homes did not have hot water. There was no centralized heating system, but that was common in everybody’s house. We got a Duratherm oil heater when I was in, when we lived on Boundary Street and I was in the, I guess seventh or eighth grade, and I could come on- it had a pilot light on it, but it only heated up one room. But the positive side of that, I conducted an interview in one of my liberal studies courses, I didn’t have one person in that room who could tell me how to make a fire. Every student in there, and this has been six, seven years ago, was of the push-button era. Even though we had to take that shuttle and go down into the cellar to get coal to bring upstairs to make a fire when you got home from school, because most of the houses were heated through wood stoves. Some people even cooked on wood stoves or in fireplaces. On occasion, you did have to move the bed if it rained. You’re talking about houses with tin roofs, some of them. Some of them with regular roofs. Very few people- and the bathrooms were located on the back porch. People did have to heat up water to take baths. Some of the girding of the houses was not what it should have been. The floor would sink. Somebody- you’d call a friend, and they’d come over, wouldn’t even charge you, help you prop the floor right back up. And these were skilled carpenters, that dependency’s what I’m talking about, OK? A man- you got you’re plumbers, you worked for a plumbing company, there wasn’t no such thing as having a plumbing license. “I can’t- the toilet won’t flush.” Something like that. And we’re not talking about toilets like we got today. We’re talking about toilets with a chain and a ball. We’re talking about just lighting hanging down from the ceiling that could have set everybody on fire. One light bulb. Prior to, well, after the advent of the oil lamp- two I still have in my bedroom right now from that era that I kept as a reminder. And before you leave, I’m going to show you a scrub board that I’ve reserved over the years because it’s a constant reminder of the importance of humility. It belonged to my great-grandmother, washing white ladies’ lingerie on it to help. Sent my grandmother to Bennett College, so I’m saying all that.
SF: Well, thank you for your information. I’ve really appreciated you taking your time out with me. You’ve been a great help to this project and the future generations to come.
CS: Thank you.
End of interview. Approximately 73 minutes.