Mr. James Polk was born in Grier Heights (an African American community initially outside of but eventually incorporated into Charlotte, North Carolina; he lives there today. Since he did not live in Brooklyn, he brings a different perspective than most of the people interviewed to get information and meaning about Brooklyn. Mr. Polk had, however, worked in Brooklyn, and visited the community. Working at his uncle’s funeral home, Grier Funeral Home, he got a chance to know its residents from an intimate vantage point. As a man who worked in and visited Brooklyn, Mr. Polk saw its many black businesses and the pride the community took in the stores it patronized. Jim Polk saw urban renewal wipe out Brooklyn. Still, he insisted that urban renewal was good for the community, because some of its residents went from dilapidated housing to better housing. Mr. Polk thinks it is important to tell younger generations about their history, so they will have greater knowledge of their origins and will take pride in them.
Tape Log: Oral History Interview with James Polk
Interviewed by Keith Mann
|Time||Description of Interview Contents|
|1:00||Mr. Polk said he was born and raised in Grier Heights instead of Brooklyn.|
|4:00||Grier Heights was not always inside Charlotte’s city limits. Mr. Polk told why county children went to city schools like Second Ward. It was the only black school around then.|
|10:00||Mr. Polk defined a consolidated school–a school with the elementary, junior high, and senior high grades all on one campus.|
|15:00||Mr. Polk related the challenges of working in Grier Funeral Home, a funeral service run by his uncle, and how those challenges differ from today’s challenges.|
|20:00||Mr. Polk described blacks’ gains and losses from integration.|
|22:00||Mr. Polk told the interviewer how history is lost.|
|26:00||Mr. Polk described Brooklyn’s businesses–a wide variety, all owned by black people, patronized by a proud clientele.|
|34:00||Mr. Polk listed some other, non-profit organizations in Brooklyn–churches, libraries, the YMCA among them.|
|36:00||Rivalries between communities were confined to sports, without lasting hatred.|
|43:00||Mr. Polk talked about Blue Heaven and its connection to the Negro Leagues (the major league of black baseball before Jackie Robinson).|
|49:00||Mr. Polk said urban renewal changed the face of Brooklyn.|
|50:00||Mr. Polk said that all the black churches that left Brooklyn chose to leave.|
|51:00||Mr. Polk talked about the dilapidated conditions of many Brooklyn homes. Most Brooklyn housing was owned by absentee landlords, he said.|
|54:00||Businesses, but not individuals, got fees and/or incentives to help them relocate, said Mr. Polk.|
|58:00||Mr. Polk considered urban renewal the best thing for Brooklyn, because people moved from bad housing to better housing. He says not many share his view publicly. He thought the urban renewal project was a good thing.|
|65:00||Mr. Polk told how to pass on the history of a community, especially if that community no longer exists. He said that oral history interviews need to be conducted now while interviewees can help.|
|72:00||Mr. Polk agreed to be interviewed because he saw the importance of telling younger generations about their past and give them a sense of pride in it.|
|75:00||Mr. Polk maintained that the sense of community is not totally lost.|
May 4, 2004
KM: Keith Mann (Interviewer)
JP: Jim Polk (Interviewee)
KM: Mr. Polk, when and where were you born?
JP: Born in Mecklenburg County. November 7, 1926.
KM: Were you born in the Brooklyn community?
JP: No. Born in this community?
KM: This community. And this is…?
JP: Grier Heights.
KM: So you were born in Grier Heights. What is your earliest memory of the Brooklyn community?
JP: Oh, I guess that would date back to elementary school…years. Is that…that would be…you mean my age at
JP: Oh, probably 12, 13.
KM: Did you go to school in Brooklyn?
JP: No, I did not.
KM: Where did you go to school?
JP: In this community and high school out at Clear Creek High School, which was a county school.
KM: Clear Creek?
KM: So that was outside the city limits of Charlotte?
KM: What is your fondest memory of the Brooklyn community?
JP: Fond memory of Brooklyn. Well, I remember my first knowledge of Brooklyn is the kids in this
community [Grier Heights] attending school in Brooklyn. Also, my uncle had a funeral home in Brooklyn.
That was in the early thirties. And, of course, I got to know a lot of people who lived in the area. And I
worked in the area at one time.
KM: Said your uncle had a funeral home in Brooklyn?
KM: What was the name of that?
JP: Grier Funeral Services. G-R-I-E-R.
KM: Grier Funeral Services?
KM: Where was that located?
JP: On First Street. East First Street in Brooklyn. First and Alexander Street.
KM: Was that the only funeral home that the Brooklyn community had?
JP: No. No.
KM: Had a little competition, if you will?
JP: Yeah. Yes.
KM: What other funeral homes were there?
JP: The Alexander Funeral Home was located in Brooklyn at that time. And, I think there was one other,
earlier. I don’t recall the name of it.
KM: You said that children from Grier Heights went to school in Brooklyn. Which schools did they go to?
JP: The elementary school, Myers Street School and Second Ward High School. This community was just
outside of the city limits of Charlotte. In fact, the city limits stopped just across the street here, at the
creek. That was the boundary of Charlotte. The city limits of Charlotte. And we were in the county, of
KM: And now, when you say the Creek, are you talking about…what?
JP: Briar Creek. Right here.
KM: OK. So at the time, about what year are you talking about?
JP: Early forties.
KM: OK. In the early forties, Grier Heights was outside the city limits of Charlotte?
KM: OK. So Grier Heights is outside the city limits of Charlotte, yet children from Grier Heights went to Myers
Street Elementary School?
JP: Mmhm. Now, there was an elementary school in the community, but some kids attended, even prior to
that, attended Myers Street Elementary School and Second Ward High School was there. So junior high
and high school.
KM: What grade was Second Ward High School? Say, junior high, what grade did they start in?
JP: I think it probably started in sixth or seventh, probably seventh grade.
KM: OK, seventh grade, so seventh through twelfth?
KM: OK. So children from Briar Creek at that time went to Second Ward High School?
JP: On this side of Briar Creek.
KM: On this side of Briar Creek. OK.
JP: Which was in the county of Mecklenburg.
JP: Not in the city.
KM: OK. OK. I’m having a hard time understanding how that worked.
JP: The way it worked at that time, it was a segregated school system.
JP: So, there was not another high school, other than white high school.
KM: Right. Exactly.
JP: Right. So kids attended high school at Second Ward.
KM: So Second Ward was the only black high school…
JP: Right. Right.
KM: In this area.
JP: In this area. Right. And, for a while, the only black high school, really, in Charlotte.
KM: Right. So, basically people from all over Charlotte, and Mecklenburg County, went to Second Ward High
JP: Mmhm. Right. Now, later they built a consolidated high school over at Clear Creek. That included
elementary up through eleventh grades. So, at that point in time, we were bussed to Clear Creek High
School. And the consolidated high schools were built there and at PIneville and Plato Price and Davidson,
and those were black schools.
KM: What were the black schools? Davidson?
JP: Well, there was one at Davidson. I think one was Davidson. One; I know one was Huntersville; one, at
Pineville; one at Plato Price, which is west from here. I think they built five schools at that time, at the
same time, I think.
KM: Five black high schools?
JP: Mmhm. Comprehensive high schools.
KM: And this was for all of Mecklenburg County, not just Charlotte?
KM: For Mecklenburg County?
KM: About what time period was this?
JP: It must have been…I started school in 1939, so it was the late thirties, ’36, 5, 6, something like that,
somewhere close to that. Don’t…
KM: That’s all right. Now, when you say you started school in 1939…
JP: That was the high school.
KM: I just wanted to make that clear. So, now when you talk about the consolidation. When did that take place?
JP: Now, consolidation of the school system?
JP: Mecklenburg County and Charlotte?
KM: Yes, sir.
JP: I…that must have been …I guess…I think this community was taken into the city limits like in…must have
been somewhere in the middle forties, and when exactly when the schools were consolidated…the two
systems were joined, I’m not sure. I’m not sure what dates. But at that time, and, of course, kids here were
in the city. So they attended, then, city schools. But you still had, outside of this community, kids who
lived in Mecklenburg County then continue to attend those schools, so-called consolidated schools.
Consolidated meaning, at that point, elementary, what we know as junior [high] and high[school], all on
the same campus.
KM: Right. OK. So, if you had a consolidated school, are you saying that you have an elementary school, a
junior high school, and a senior high school, all in one campus?
JP: All on one campus.
KM: So when you talk about Briar Creek, Clear Creek. What about Second Ward? Was Second Ward a
JP: No. No. It was a city school.
KM: It was a city school.
KM: So it was a high school.
KM: OK. Where? We’re in the Grier Heights community. And you grew up in the Grier Heights community.
Where is Grier Heights in relation to Brooklyn?
JP: We are several miles west, going toward Central City. As the crow flies, it would be directly west.
KM: About seven miles, you say?
JP: No, it’s not that far. It’s probably 10 or 15 minutes by car.
KM: What was your line of work?
JP: Well? The history of my employment?
JP: I worked at the post office for a number of years. I later went to work for the funeral business. That was
in Brooklyn. From that, headed up a training program, an employment training program. And then, into
KM: And, you’re in business now?
JP: I’m retired.
KM: The post office that you worked at, where was that located?
JP: Downtown Charlotte. The main post office.
KM: At what point was that?
JP: I think I started in ’46 or ’47. I was there for ten years.
KM: From 1946 to 1956?
JP: Something like that.
KM: You say you went to work for a funeral home? Grier Funeral Home?
KM: How did you like that?
JP: How did I like that?
KM: Yeah. Did you enjoy it?
JP: It was interesting and a challenge, because you had an opportunity to work with people at a low ebb, if you
will, in their lives. You’ve lost a loved one, so, you certainly had to be sensitive to working with people
and trying to help them through that grief. And, at that time, the funeral business was somewhat different
from the way they operate now. And you had to provide a lot of kind of services and support to them, and
provide them with information that you gleaned from legal kinds of things. Not that you practiced law, but
you needed to know something about advising them to go to clerk of court if there were estates involved
and that kind of thing, or to even seek a lawayer. Just a lot of business things that funeral homes…they
don’t necessarily get into that kind of thing nowadays.
KM: So, you’re saying that funeral homes provided a greater range of services then than now?
JP: Yes. Right.
KM: So, they just provide now, burial services?
JP: Well, they provide that, and I’m sure they provide information for people who are in need of it. People
today are more sophisticated and knowledgeable about business affairs, so you don’t have to do those
things that you did at that time.
KM: So there was a greater need for the range of services at that time?
JP: At that time.
KM: We talked about neighborhood. How did you get to know people from the Brooklyn community?
JP: It was because I worked there. And we were really in the heart of Brooklyn. First Street and Alexander
Street. We were in the heart of what I know as Brooklyn.
KM: What about school? Did you go to Second Ward?
JP: No, I didn’t attend Second Ward. Clear Creek High School.
KM: Did they ever have any rivalries?
JP: The two schools? No.
KM: Never played against each other?
JP: No. Because, at that time, the county schools did not have football or baseball or basketball. Didn’t have
those teams at that time.
KM: What about the city schools?
JP: Yes. Oh, yes.
KM: Did you see that as a loss?
JP: We did field some teams at one time, but we didn’t have the real competitive thing with other schools
because it was rather new with the county schools. Just getting into those sports. So, we didn’t have similar
to what Second Ward and West Charlotte and out-of-city schools, whether it was Asheville or Salisbury or
rivalries between us, and they produced some real good athletes.
KM: Did you follow any of those athletes that were produced? I understand there was a Queen City Classic.
JP: Yeah. In fact, remember now that, after we were in the city limits, kids from here attended Second Ward.
And a good many of the athletes at Second Ward lived in this community.
KM: So, Second Ward [High School] wasn’t just Brooklyn? It drew from many communities…
JP: Many communities.
KM: And one of those communities was Grier Heights.
JP: Was Grier Heights. Right. And they played, that was the closest school, of course. A few kids, maybe,
attended West Charlotte. That was choice, if they wanted to go over there. That’s a long way. But kids
from here played at Second Ward until the time that kids from integration, so-called integration, that kids
from here were assigned to Myers Park High School, East Mecklenburg High School. Those were the two
closest high schools. At a point in time, some kids in sports, some kids left Second Ward and attended
Myers Park or East and played sports there.
KM: Why do you call it so-called integration?
JP: Well. I’m not so certain how well we were integrated…or desegregated. I’m not sure of the correct term we
use for that.
KM: Did we get what we tried to get?
JP: I think in some measure. I think in some measure. Students had an opportunity to attend go to school
together. I think they were enlighteneed to learn something about other people, other cultures, this kind of
thing on both sides. I think it was…someone said the whole purpose was to maximize cross-cultural
experiences. I think some of that happened. Yeah.
KM: Anything lost through integration?
JP: I think that there were some things lost, like a knowledge of history of the community. The history of this
community by kids who attended those schools. They didn’t get the kind of history and the kind of concern
about the community that they would have if they had been in the community. Or attending schools in the
community. I’m not saying that’s the where-with-all and be-with-all, but that’s kind of what happened. My
kids, several of my kids, were among the first kids to attend Myers Park High School. They gained on one
hand. On the other hand, I don’t know if they paid much attention to the history of the community and the
people who populated this community and their influence on the greater community.
KM: How is that history lost?
JP: Just not talking about it. Some change in the way you do things. At Biddleville Elementary School, which
was a Rosenwald school and which was, like, built here in 1926. The people in this community, rather
than having a plain Rosenwald school with four rooms, said, fine, but they raised money and brickveneered
the school and put a slate top on it. They didn’t just want that offering. Appreciated that offering.
But wanted to do something for themselves. And that was kind of the spirit of the people who lived in this
community at that time.
KM: No charity? No handouts?
KM: Did they see that as a handout? That there were some strings attached?
JP: I’m not sure that there were any…that they viewed any strings attached. They just viewed it as…they
wanted something better than the norm or better than what was being offered at that time. The offering
was good. The offering was a schoool. Although one of the members of the community donated part of
the land to build the school on. And, they accepted the school, but then added to it. Just not the plain, 4-
room, plank building. But they made it a 4-room, brick building with slate top.
KM: So they took what was offered, and…
JP: Enhanced it. Yeah. Improved it. Right. By not continuing to spend a lot of time in the community,
exposed to other things, of course, that took the attention away from some things that they would have
learned. Again, there was real value in attending the other school. Opportunity to meet other people, learn
something about different cultures, even to share something about their own culture or upbringing. I think
it was worthwhile.
KM: So, ultimately you think integration was worthwhile.
JP: Yeah. Yeah.
KM: But it wasn’t a complete gain. There were some losses.
JP: Maybe we shouldn’t categorize them as losses But, there were some things…loss…that would have been
continued. But, you weigh that against the other side of it. What did they gain by attending school with
KM: We’ve talked about some of the schools. What about some of the businesses? You’ve talked about Grier
Funeral Services. Alexander Funeral Services. What were some of the other businesses?
JP: In Brooklyn?
JP: In Brooklyn, there were any number of different kinds of businesses. Second Street in Brooklyn was kind
of the main, commercial area in the community. And, you had grocery stores, barber shops, dry cleaning
establishments, movie theatres, all those things were kind of concentrated in a couple of blocks in the
commercial area of Brooklyn, which is now downtown Charlotte.
KM: So, it’s now downtown Charlotte. What stands where Brooklyn’s commercial district stands?
What’s there now?
JP: What happened was that there was a change of direction of the street. But, what is still left there is the
AME Zion publication house. And that is now Second and Brevard. But that was Second Street. First
Street was, of course, looking this way was to the left. And that had gotten redirected and changed, the
KM: So First Street got redirected. You talked about the grocery stores, the barber shops, the movie theatres.
JP: Restaurants, cafes.
KM: Were all of those owned by black people?
KM: All of them?
KM: No white ownership whatsoever?
JP: Mmhm. Mmhm. Drugstore.
KM: So, basically any black person going in there, going into a business establishment, he saw black people
behind the counter, he saw that black people owned all of this?
KM: Do you think any black customer would get…what kind of a sense do you think a black customer would get
from going into these establishments, in this district, where all of your business establishments–your
funeral homes, your grocery stores, your barbershops are all black owned?
KM: How would a black customer have felt? Would it have been any difference if any of those businesses, or
all of those businesses, had been owned by white people? Or did it make any difference at all?
JP: I suppose that there was some pride among people who felt that blacks owned those businesses. What it
said was that there is an opportunity, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, that maybe you could do that.
There is evidence that this happened. I think it felt good, if you will, about seeing those businesses were
owned by black folk. People who could do business, who could own a business, and could operate a
business, I suspect that caused them to feel some pride about that.
KM: Any sense of community?
JP: Yeah. Yeah. Along with that, of course, a sense of community. Right. And people from all over would
go to that area on the weekend. People from surrounding areas would go. That was, kind of, the
commercial community. And if you were going to a theatre, you wanted to go to a cafe for a meal. And
there were some entertainment areas in there. That’s where you would go. That was it, really. That was
the only place to go.