This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
Life In Biddleville
In the early years of the village, Biddleville was populated primarily by professors and students at the university. When the Mattoon began selling lots to African-Americans in the 1880s, farmers, laborers, and other tradesmen move into the village. Biddleville attracted "families who wanted to raise their children in an intellectual atmosphere... around the University, with its cultural offerings." Thomas Christopher Columbus Foster (1848-1936) is representative of the property buyers in Biddleville. Born a slave in Davie County, Foster attended Biddle Institute and was a teacher in Biddleville. Following his retirement from teaching, he purchased land near the village to farm. Foster was active in civic organizations and churches in Biddleville. He was a member and building trustee of the Star Hope Lodge #1790 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. He served as a delegate representing Biddleville Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of Catawba at Presbyterian Church national general assemblies in 1898, 1908, and 1910.
As Charlotte grew and African-Americans began to share in the streetcar-centric suburbanization, new residential developments became attractive to the middle class blacks. Charlote Consolidated Construction Company, owner and developer of the city's streetcar system, began service of the line along West Trade Street to Seversville and Biddleville on April 25, 1903. Over the following decades, neighborhoods developed down Beatties Ford Road beyond Biddleville as the streetcar system continued to expand. Washington Heights was designed to be the Dilworth for middle-class African-Americans in Charlotte, a streetcar suburb platted with modest bungalows. Douglassville was planned by C. H. Watson to be an adjacent black suburb at Beatties Ford Road and Oaklawn Avenue, but the development never grew to be as popular as its neighbor. During the 1920s Western Heights, and 1890s white suburban development on West Trade Street just south of the university, became a majority black neighborhood.
Because of the presence of Biddle University, modern utilities and other amenities became available to the area. A post office opened in the village in 1892. Electricity was provided to the university in 1895, and the following year telephone poles and wires were extended to the village. Municipal water service was not available until later. The "From the Village" section of the December 1921 Young Rooster newsletter of Biddleville Presbyterian Church reports that "a committee of three is working on the proposition of getting water in the village." Plans for a hospital near Biddle University were made also in 1921, but unfortunately it did not come to fruition.
Longtime resident Gene Pharr remembers much about growing up in Biddleville. Gene was born in Charlotte and lived in Biddleville until moving to Washington, D.C. at the age of fifteen in the mid-1940s. After a career in the military, including service in Korea, Gene moved back hoe to Biddleville in 1970. The Pharr family has been in Biddleville since around 1880, when Alex Pharr came to Charlotte from Cabarrus County. Gene's father Bernard (1889-1949) was the first African-American truck driver for the local Coca-Cola bottling company. As Gene recalls, Biddleville was a small close-knit community where "everybody knew each other," and you could eat at anyone's house.
While Biddleville was home to Biddle University, which was renamed Johnson C. Smith University in 1923, and a strong middle class that dominated the Beatties Ford Road corridor, the neighborhood did have its share of poverty. Rev. Howard W. Givens, pastor of Biddleville Presbyterian Church and later Memorial United Presbyterian Church for nearly 40 years, remembers the condition of Biddleville Presbyterian Church when he arrived:
Many of you who worship here now can hardly imagine your church with no toilet facilities, homemade benches, no church school facilities... Maybe you can't, but I can. I remember them for these conditions existed when I came to Biddleville in 1940."
Much can be learned about Biddleville through an examination of the people interred in Biddleville Cemetery. Many of the residents of Biddleville who were buried in the cemetery were originally from surrounding rural areas of North and South Carolina. During and following Reconstruction, many former slaves moved from their former plantations to towns and cities across the south. This rural-to-urban migration continued well into the twentieth century. South Carolina natives buried in Biddleville Cemetery include Sarah Fredrick Ellis (1900-1933), Peter McKee (1858-1933) of York county, and Martha Mills McElmoore (1864-1921).
Many infants and children are buried in the cemetery, most dying of diseases or conditions that tay we consider easily preventable or curable. Common diseases and sicknesses included tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia. Thirteen persons buried in the cemetery are known to have died of tuberculosis. Records of thirty persons show they died of pneumonia, with half being infants and children. Many death certificates are marked "no doctor," indicating that medical care was less accessible in Biddleville and other African-American areas of Charlotte.
Nutrition was also an issue. The "Three M" diet of meat, molasses, and meal, common among poor Southerners, was apparently a staple of Biddleville residents, many of whom suffered from pellagra, or niacin deficiency. During the early twentieth century, the epidemic of pellagra afflicted 250,000 and caused 7,000 deaths per year primarily in the South. Among the victims of pellagra buried in Biddleville Cemetery are Lula Grier Adams (1884-1917), Minnie Brown Bland (1868-1914), and Ellen Bogan Dixon (1862-1913).
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Until next week!
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "Biddleville Cemetery: Located in Five Points Park, French Street," November 2016
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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin