Happy Friday everyone!
Certainly there were influential women in this community before Bonnie Cone. Not the least among them was Gladys Avery Tillet. Tillett labored tirelessly for the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, even using a handkerchief embroidered “Votes for Women.” She helped found the Mecklenburg League of Women Voters and was an active Democrat under her death in 1984.
The First Lady, Mrs. Bess W. Truman, with various women Democratic Party leaders. From left to right: United States Ambassador to Luxembourg Perle Mesta, Mrs. Truman, Treasurer of the United States Mrs. Georgia Neese Clark, Democratic National Committee Vice-Chair India Edwards, and Mrs. Gladys Avery Tillett. (circa 1950)
1961 Press Photo: President John Kennedy & Mrs Gladys Avery Tillett (beside woman shaking President Kennedy's hand)
It was in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that substantial numbers of women began to assume positions of political influence in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. In 1954, Martha Evans became the first female member of the Charlotte City Council. She twice ran for mayor, against James Smith in 1959 and against Stan Brookshire and James Smith in 1961 and also became a North Carolina Senator. In 1972 Myers Park resident Elizabeth “Liz” Hair won a seat on the Board of County Commissioners and became chairperson of that body in 1974. A founding member of the Charlotte Women’s Political Caucus, Hair was determined to advance issues that were especially important to women. She was instrumental in establishing the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission, the Council on Aging, and the adoption of the county’s first affirmative action plan. She was responsible for the County’s initial greenway master plan and was pivotal in saving the historic First Baptist Church in 1977 as the home of Spirit Square.
Martha Evans accepting the Charlotte Woman of the Year award by WBT/WBTV (1956)
Elizabeth "Liz" Hair
Betty Chafin, now Betty Chafin Rash, was elected to City Council in 1975 and championed the abolishment of the totally at-large system for electing members. That arrangement, enacted in 1917, had assured that white males would dominate local government. “Almost the whole council lived in one quadrant of the city,” declared Chafin’s allies.
Dennis and Betty Chafin Rash honored with Distinguished Service Award from UNC Charlotte (2013)
Sam Smith, a computer software developer, called it “as pure grass-roots an effort as you’ll ever see.” Smith insisted that Charlotte’s Westside was the “stepchild” of the city and would never received just treatment until it was more adequately represented on City Council and on other elected and appointed committees and agencies. Smith recruited other Westsiders, including truck driver Marvin Smith, and leaders of Charlotte’s emerging neighborhood movement to back his efforts.
John Belk, son of New South retailer William Henry Belk, was mayor from 1969 until 1977. He opposed district representation. On October 11, 1976, Belk vetoed a resolution calling for a referendum on the issue. According to Belk, a specific scheme had to be presented to the voters. “Being for district representation is like being for motherhood,” he declared. “In my opinion, you’ve got to find out who your mother is before you come out for motherhood.” Personally, I don’t exactly understand this reference, but hey, it’s a direct quote…
Much like his father, Belk believed that corporate executives and their lieutenants provided the best government. “When you’ve got a winning team,” he maintained, “you ought to leave it alone.” Mayor Belk contended that “district representation would impede growth of the city, create ‘horse trading’ among council members and mean that the district council members would not represent the city at large on some issues,” writes Alex Coffin in his book, Brookshire & Belk.
Sam Smith and his allies overcame Belk’s veto by gathering thousands of names on petitions to force a referendum. The voters of Charlotte narrowly approved district representation for City Council on April 19, 1977. African-Americans broke their traditional alliance with southeast Charlotte and sided instead with middle class and lower middle class white precincts in west, north, and east Charlotte and with neighborhoods such as Dilworth. A reporter for the Charlotte Observer understood the import of what had occurred. “When neighborhood groups in north, west, and east Charlotte combined with a substantial majority of [African-American] voters to pass district representation Tuesday, they said goodbye to a long tradition in city government – the domination of City Hall by well-to-do business leaders from southeast Charlotte.”
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
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Information taken from:
Historic Charlotte: An Illustrated History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County; 2001, Dan L. Morrill.
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