In honor of Black History Month, we’re exploring the lives of four Black Charlotteans who are part of the Museum’s Path of Portraits project. Path of Portraits is part of our mission to honor the history of all members of our community and provide a space that encourages visitors to connect with people from the past. Working with Charlotte Is Creative and four local artists, the Museum commissioned four portraits of historic figures in Charlotte history. Each artist painted their respective portrait live at the 2021 African American Heritage Festival, after which the paintings were installed in the Museum with biographical information. The project was funded by the Arts & Science Council.
This week’s featured Charlottean is John Schenck, as imagined by Kalin Devone. Schenck’s life is the stuff of movies! Over his 70 years, he accomplished more than seems possible. He was born enslaved in 1824 in Cleveland County. As a young boy, he was taught to read, which at the time was illegal. But his enslaver had poor eyesight, so young John was tasked with reading for him. He also became a skilled carpenter and was allowed to do extra jobs for pay. Eventually, he saved enough to purchase his freedom. The details of his life are murky after that, but some sources say he traveled to Europe and Mexico as a skilled carpenter. Just before the Civil War, Schenck returned to North Carolina, purchased the freedom of his wife, and joined the Confederate forces at Wilmington as a laborer.
“John Schenck,” as envisioned by Kalin Devone, 2021. The entire Path of Portraits series is on display at the Museum.
Schenck didn’t stay with the Confederate army for long. At some point, he deserted the Confederate forces, joined Stoneman’s cavalry, and participated in Stoneman’s raids throughout the South. His obituary mentions that he convinced his commanding officers to pass by the property of his former owner. After the Civil War, Schenck and his wife returned to Charlotte and he almost immediately became involved in local politics. He served as a delegate to the state-wide Equal Rights League in 1866. He worked to ally Black tradesmen with white leaders as the Republican party was gaining traction. He most likely participated in the May 20th, 1867, march by the Colored Union League and the new Charlotte Republican party announcing their platform of equal rights. And in 1868, he was appointed by the Republican governor to the Charlotte police force, making him the first Black police officer in the city.
Artist Kalin Devone painted her vision of community leader John Schenck at the Museum’s 2021 African American Heritage Festival.
After that, Schenck was elected to 4 terms of the Board of Aldermen (basically city council) as a representative for Second Ward, where he and his wife not only owned a home, but where he would eventually open his own saloon. Several of his political flashpoints surround the fight for alcohol prohibition in the state in the 1880s. After the end of Reconstruction nationally and the defeat of the Republicans state-wide, thanks in part to the rising white supremacy movement, Schenck held on to his influence. He shows up in various records of the meetings of the Board of Aldermen, as the Second Ward representative until 1889, in the Mecklenburg County Republican committee, as a representative and chairman, and in later records as a leading citizen. In his obituary in the Charlotte Observer in 1894, he's described as the most powerful Black man living in the city at that time.
John Schenck’s obituary was published in The Charlotte Observer on March 31, 1894. In it, he’s described as a “good citizen and died respected by white and black.”
Follow along all month to learn more about the Charlotteans featured in the Path of Portraits or come see them on display at the Museum on Saturdays.
Have a great weekend!
Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass