Fact Friday 407 - The Life and Legacy of Sarah Stevenson

Fact Friday 407 - The Life and Legacy of Sarah Stevenson

Happy Friday!

This week's Fact Friday comes from the Charlotte Observer (source link below).


Sarah Stevenson, a Charlotte civil rights pioneer who helped create an influential forum for political and social dialogue on the city’s westside, died Tuesday, her sister said. She was 97. Stevenson was a leader in desegregating the city’s schools in the 1970s and in 1980 became the first Black woman elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. She also co-founded the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, her gentle nature guiding determinedly civil discussions of some of the city’s thorniest issues. The Forum said Stevenson’s sister, Elloree Erwin, had informed them of Stevenson’s death at University Place Nursing & Rehabilitation Center Tuesday morning. Friends and family said she listened deeply and tried to find the best in everyone. “The best thing I remember is (her) determination and (that) she was a very good mother and the best mother in the world you could have,” her son, Thomas Stevenson, told the Observer on Tuesday. “How she would keep on things that she was involved in and her determination, her willpower to get things done, that’s what I remember.”

In an online message shared on the Breakfast Forum’s website in 2020, Erwin wrote that she’d had a video chat with Stevenson from quarantine at her care facility that Sept. 2. “She is feeling that the end is nearing for her and she feels her work on this Earth is done,” Erwin wrote.

“She asked me to share with you all, her church members, Prince of Peace Lutheran, the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club and NANBPW members, (National Association of Negro Business & Professional Women) that she loves all of you and that she hopes to see you all in heaven.” Stevenson was born Oct. 26, 1925 in Heath Springs, S.C., the oldest of 14 children. She moved to Charlotte to live with an aunt, get a job and save up to attend junior college, according to a Charlotte Observer interview in 2015. There she met and married Robert Louis Stevenson, a coworker in housekeeping at Charlotte Memorial hospital. The former seamstress later worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, the Charlotte Area Fund and the city’s Community Relations Committee. “My mother and father always told me to remember: ‘You can do anything you want. You have to be willing to work hard to get it. Don’t let anybody tell you they are better than you. But remember you’re not better than the other person. You’re equal,’ ” she told The Observer in 2009.

The Rev. Joseph McCutchen, left, Sarah Stevenson, center, and Rabbi Murray Ezring sing ``We Shall Overcome’’ during a service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday Jan. 15, 1995 at Charlotte’s Marshall Park. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD

Her years of civic activism began when one of her three sons came home from his desegregated school with a well-worn band uniform that had been handed down from a white school. She began working with the PTA to raise money for new uniforms.

“It was always where the little Black children seemed to be the underdog, and we did not have the political will, or even the compassion, to treat everybody right and to be fair,” she told an Observer reporter. “That’s sort of what I’ve been working toward as long as I can remember now.” Stevenson rose to head the school district’s Black PTA council, then worked with her white counterpart to merge the two. When she was elected president of the consolidated council, some white members walked out. She later served on a citizens advisory board to help create a plan to bus students for desegregation when the Supreme Court ordered it in a landmark ruling in 1971, and in 1980 and 1984 was elected to the school board.

In those years, Stevenson suffered snubs from people who weren’t ready for a Black woman with power and criticism from Blacks who thought she wasn’t aggressive enough in demanding change. “Sometimes I get discouraged in the midst of being hopeful,” she told the Observer in 2015. “I pray a lot, but then I know with prayer you have to put some action behind it.”

Stevenson and other members of the Black Political Caucus created the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum in 1980, modeling it after a similar group in Atlanta. The weekly meetings have been held in recent years at Belmont Regional Center on Parkwood Avenue. The sessions are designed, its website says, to present “information of importance to the African American community in particular and the rest of Charlotte in general.” The forum’s rules encourage succinct questions of speakers and a variety of points of view. No name-calling is allowed. Stevenson’s civic contributions have been widely recognized. She was awarded North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, Johnson C. Smith University’s Arch of Triumph award, the Martin Luther King Jr. spirit award, MeckEd education champion, Woman of the Year, Liberty Bell and Sojourner Truth award. George Dunlap, chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, said Stevenson had positivity and invited him to her 98th birthday just a couple weeks ago when he last saw her.

“While it’s a sad occasion,” he said, “I will tell you that during my conversation with her that she said she spent her time praying and reading the Bible, so she was at peace.” Dunlap plans to award Stevenson posthumously with the Order of the Hornet, the county’s highest honor, awarded to people who display valor or service to the residents of Mecklenburg County. The Forum will celebrate the life of Sarah Stevenson at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at Belmont Center, 700 Parkwood Ave. Parking is available in a lot off Parkwood near Davidson Street, and on the uphill side of the Belmont Center on McDowell Street. Additional arrangements have not been made available to the public.

Sarah Stevenson holds a photograph of her being sworn into the school board in Jan. 26, 2009. T.ORTEGA GAINEST.Ortega Gaines-ogaines@charlott


May Sarah rest in peace and power. 

Until next week.



"Charlotte civil rights activist who helped desegregate schools dies," by Bruce Henderson; The Charlotte Observer. September 28, 2023.

Email chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

Back to blog