Fact Friday 274 - Derita
Derita lies six miles north of uptown, close to UNC Charlotte. The community began as a rural farming village and central trade post for farmers throughout Mecklenburg. Access to a local railroad would also help the village to maintain its status as a farming community into the twentieth-century, as farmers could utilize rail service to buy and sale agricultural goods and farming equipment easily. While other neighborhoods closer to uptown experienced urban renewal and gentrification, Derita remains relatively untouched, with local businesses, like Puckett’s Farm Equipment, still in business.
Prior to 1882, the Derita community was known as “Section House.” when the community applied for a post office in 1882 under the name “Derita.” According to Hornets’ Nest, the village of Derita was named for Derita Lewis, a friend of Amos L. Rumple, the postmaster of the first post office. Eddie Conley discusses other origins in June Bug on a String, but acknowledges this is the most common explanation given for the town’s name. In 1896, records indicate Derita had a post office, and over one hundred businesses. (The Derita post office would be one of the only nine remaining in 1960.) Train service played a key role in developing mail service to the Derita community with mail running six days per week, and consequently, the community grew up around the railroad. The AT&O Railroad (Atlanta, Tennessee and Ohio) ran through Dertia initially until a reorganization formed the Southern Railway. The track linked Statesville and Charlotte, with Derita being the last stop before Charlotte. Eddie Conley wrote that Derita was known as a “whistle stop,” meaning passengers had to visually signal the engineer to stop and pick them up. To do this, passengers used a wooden board called a “flag,” which was used into the 1940s. Rail service allowed farmers to purchase machinery, ship agricultural goods, and gave the rural town access to cities. The town of Derita also boasted Rockwell Park-Hemphill Heights, a two hundred acre plot purchased by Mr. J.R. Hemphill, an African-American who lived in the Brooklyn community and owned a business called “J.R. Hemphill, Real Estate Man & Tailor, according to a Charlotte Observer article on local black history. As a real estate developer and property manager, he purchased the land in 1918 and, after subdividing it, began selling lots by 1926.
Public records show that as early as 1843 property was given by private citizens to create a school. The school that was created became a school to educate black children in 1873 when the community’s black population had reached thirty-three percent. In 1875, a Fayetteville native, Charles Chesnutt, was hired to teach at the school at age eighteen, but after reaching the school, learned there was no money in which to pay a teacher. By 1920 or 1921, the Rockwell school was incorporated as a Rosenwald school. In 1927, the Parent Teacher Association raised twenty-seven dollars “to pay for painting the building, repairing windows, and building sanitary closets.” The building originally had a second story & was built to host four teachers. The second story was removed after a 1930s windstorm. By 1952, Rockwell was one of only five Rosenwald buildings still operating.
Photo depicts the student body of Rockwell Rosenwald School in Derita prior to 1935, when a tornado demolished the upper story. Loaned to the Historic Landmarks Commission by Mrs. Elizabeth Weinstein.
Photo of Rockwell School, Tina Wright
Janet S. Gamble and Delores A. Crowder discussed attending the Rockwell Rosenwald school in Derita in the 1950s until the school closed in 1957. Rockwell was a three room school, which then had to be divided to hold two classes in each room; about thirty students. The school was heated by stove and had no indoor plumbing, with a coal house out back. Students used an outhouse but had no place to wash their hands until Rockwell church purchased the property and modernized it with sinks and toilets. Rockwell School was placed on the National Register study list of Rosenwald Schools in 2001, but became a ruin/was destroyed shortly after.
The white Derita School or Derita Academy was built in 1889 following the growth of the area and influx of new school children. By 1902, the school needed to enlarge and a second floor was added. In 1926 the red-brick school building was completed. The school had sixteen rooms, expanded to twenty in 1937, and a 600 seat auditorium. An agriculture program was later funded with WPA money, and a cafeteria was organized by the PTA in 1940. The Derita Branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg public library was built in 1960. Prior to this, a book mobile served the community twice a month for ten years. The Derita woman’s club was instrumental in bringing a library to the community, which eventually opened as a branch of the Charlotte library system.
Once a distinct trading center for farmers throughout Mecklenburg, today Derita remains “almost totally engulfed by Charlotte’s suburban sprawl.” A visit to Derita would prove that unlike other neighborhoods closer to center city, Derita has maintained its rural charm. A strong sense of community bonded neighbors over the years with the help of well known Dertia locals like Ona Welch Puckett, Derita’s late local historian, and Bernard “Bernie” Samonds, a well known community organizer. Today, folks can still stop in at Puckett’s Farm Equipment, which traded in its Oliver Farm equipment for beer, and now operates as a pub.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
UNC Charlotte J. Murray Atkins Library Online - Historic Charlotte Neighborhoods - Derita.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass