Fact Friday 59 - Jimmie McKee and the Historic Excelsior Club
Happy Friday everyone!
The Excelsior Club, located on Beatties Ford Road about one-half mile north of the main entrance to Johnson C. Smith University, was for many years the leading private black social club in the Southeast, and one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast. In addition to its importance as the only social club for black professionals in the area, it also became a political focal point of the city and county for both black and white candidates for office, and a meeting place for boosters of Johnson C. Smith University.
Hardly anyone, even native Charlotteans, would recognize this building. The large, four-square house with off-center porch was built around 1910 on Beatties Ford Road in the Washington Heights neighborhood. It became an important gathering place for black businesspeople, and in 1944 acquired the name it bears today: the Excelsior Club.
This is the Excelsior Club as it appeared nearly 50 years after its 1952 transformation from a two-story, wood-framed house into the Art Moderne eye-catcher pictured here, and looks the same today. Today the building is an impressive period piece, rivaled as a Charlotte Art Moderne landmark only by the 1939 Woolworth Store uptown at 112 North Tryon Street. In both its well-thought-out crisply modern exterior and in its warm and unpretentious interior, the Excelsior Club is an important symbol of the cultural aspirations of Charlotte's middle- and upper-income blacks in the post World War II era.
The story of the founding and the success of the Excelsior Club is that of its original owner, James Robert "Jimmie" McKee (1913-1985). Born in South Carolina but raised in the village of Biddleville, McKee dropped out of school at the age of fourteen to go to work so that his athlete older brother could finish school following the death of their father. About 1934, when he was twenty-one, he managed to get a job as mail clerk with Horton Motor Lines, and over the next ten years rose to head mail clerk supervising six employees. In order to help support his two brothers and four sisters, he also served at parties and tended bar at the city's country clubs, and about 1939 began to entertain the idea of the need for such a club for the black community, which had nothing comparable. Over the next few years he gathered information from friends who worked in other private clubs and researched the organization schemes of the existing white ones. It was also in 1939 that he was married to the former Minnie Jackson of Charlotte, to whom he remained dedicated all his life. Mrs. McKee received her B. A. from a teacher's college in Winston-Salem and an M.A. in Elementary Education from Columbia University in New York, and taught at the Double Oaks School in Charlotte for a number of years.
In 1944 Jimmie McKee was able to make his dream a reality when a suitable property became available: a seven-room, two story house on Beatties Ford Road, which he bought at public sale for $3510 in July. 2 The house was originally built about the late Teens or early Twenties by Laura Davidson, a domestic, who sold it in 1929 to I. D. L. Torrence, a real estate agent, and it subsequently remained a rental property until Jimmie McKee bought it fifteen years later. 3 It had been a part of Washington Heights, a suburban development for middle-class blacks, which was put together by banker-developer W. S. Alexander through his Freehold Realty Co. (1912-1920).
Once the new club had a home, plans proceeded apace to get it into business. In the same month as the purchase of the property, Jimmie McKee, Oscar Jackson (McKee's father-in-law), John Black, Ruben McKissick and Edward B. Pharr became the original incorporators of the Excelsior Club. 5 The name was suggested by Jimmie's attorney, who had always advised him to "exceed all others" in his endeavors, and the subsequent history of the club bore out its appropriateness. 6 By September, 1944, all the necessary paperwork and remodeling were completed, and the club opened with a small bar and seating capacity for seventy-five.
From the beginning, the club was exclusive: candidates for membership were carefully screened after being recommended by a member. It was also very successful. Over the next few years, the membership grew from the original twenty five to many times that number, and came to include a large proportion of Charlotte -Mecklenburg's black professionals: doctors, lawyers, educators, ministers, businessmen and others. "The club's growth has come because from the very beginning I've tried to give the best service I could, not only to the members of the club, but to the community as well," Jimmie McKee explained in a 1977 interview. At times, some of the best talent available entertained at the Excelsior, including the legendary Nat "King" Cole and Sam Cooke. The club also became the home for a number of bridge, social and civic clubs (both men's and women's) as well as for fraternity and sorority meetings. One of the most notable of these organizations was the "100 Club," which was organized in 1965 by Jimmie McKee, Dr. Emery L. Rann, a lifelong friend of Jimmie's, and others to help raise funds for Johnson C. Smith University. Not only did they reach their initial goal of $12,500, by 1967 they had given the University $50,000 as their part of the school's centennial fund-raising drive. 1
About 1952, the original two-story house was incorporated into the much larger building that one sees today as part of a major expansion of the facility. It was the most extensive of several renovations undertaken to modernize the building. McKee himself subcontracted all the work, and the design appears to have been his own.
An unintended, but eventually very important, feature of the club was its significance for local and statewide politics. Since its members included so many leading citizens of the black community, it was a natural political meeting place. Starting in 1946, when the Democratic candidate for county sheriff made a campaign stop at the club and went on to win the election, a succession of white and later, black, political candidates have made it a point to try and pick up support from black voters by campaigning at the Excelsior. In 1957, Jimmie McKee and three other members of the board of directors of the club organized political support to get a black elected to the Charlotte City Council. For his efforts on behalf of local politics, in 1975 McKee was awarded a plaque in a ceremony at the club, which read in part, "To Jimmy McKee. Thanks for the many years of dedicated, untiring support of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. 10/30/75. D. Kelly, Chairman." For the occasion he also received the congratulations of U. S. Senator Robert Morgan (D-N.C.) and N. C. Attorney General Rufus Edmisten.
The social and political importance of the Excelsior Club, however, does not complete the measure of Jimmie McKee. His was, in fact, an impressive success story in the best tradition of the American dream: a youth who dropped out of school to help support his brothers and sisters, who worked hard and put together a unique institution that was based on his own vision and succeeded by the force of his own personality. But above all, he cared about others. This is the quality that underlies much of what he did, but his philanthropy, good will, and boosterism extended beyond the better-known activities of the club, and he put much of himself back into the community where he had achieved his success.
His philanthropic contributions included sponsoring membership for any boy who wanted to join the YMCA's boy's club in the 1940s; the purchase of a building on Oaklawn Avenue in the early '60s which was then turned into a nursery and kindergarten; numerous contributions to charitable organizations; and many transactions that were done quietly behind the scenes. 16 For promoting racial cooperation and opportunities for blacks, one could cite, in addition to the political activity mentioned above, Jimmie's bringing a golf tournament to Charlotte that was held at the Meadowbrook Golf Course in 1948, which resulted in blacks being able to use the course at all times. That same year, he had talks with Francis Fitzgerald, the president of a new radio station, WGIV, about broadcasting live from the Excelsior Club and having "Genial Gene" Potts as MC to entertain black listeners. Thus was launched a nearly thirty-year career for the highly popular "Genial Gene" with the station, and his success paved the way for for other black radio talent in the city. For these and other achievements, Jimmie McKee was elected to receive the Charlotte Post' s Sepia Man of the Year award in 1957.
Local officials would later recognize club founder James Robert “Jimmie” McKee for his civic contributions by proclaiming November 16, 1984 as “Jimmie McKee Day.”
A Fortieth Anniversary celebration was held at the club to honor its founder. It was both a happy and sad occasion, for many of his friends were able to offer their congratulations and an anniversary booklet had been published, but Jimmie McKee had contracted cancer and was retiring from ownership of the Excelsior. That same month he sold the club to two Charlotte businessmen, Ken Koontz and Phil Hachett, who intend to carry on the traditional role the Excelsior Club has played in the community for over forty years. It is a fitting personal testimonial to a truly significant part of Charlotte's history.
To read more about the architectural significance of the building, written by Tom Hanchett, hit the Char-Meck Historic Landmarks Commission link below.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Black America Series, Charlotte North Carolina; 2001, Vermelle Diamond Ely, Grace Hoey Drain, and Amy Rogers
Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission
Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass