Happy Friday everyone!
The Cherry neighborhood is among the oldest surviving black residential areas of Charlotte, North Carolina. According to local tradition, it was built as a servants' community for the adjoining streetcar suburb of Myers Park, which began to develop in 1912. Cherry is much older than that, however. It was platted in 1891 by wealthy landowners John and Mary Myers. Though Cherry has changed as the city has grown up around it and its administration has passed through successive generations of the Myers family, its early history appears to be unusual among Charlotte's black neighborhoods. During John and Mary Myers' lifetime, Cherry provided black unskilled and semi-skilled laborers with rental housing, opportunities for homeownership, and a number of urban amenities including a city park, school, churches, and tree-lined streets.
The land on which Cherry was developed was part of a thousand acre cotton farm that John Springs Myers had assembled since the 1870s along Providence Road outside the bustling cotton town of Charlotte. Myers' country cottage was on Providence Road at a high point near where Ardsley Road crosses Hermitage Road today. A farm lane wound its way out from town through the family's cotton fields to the back of the house. The lane started from East Trade Street near McDowell Street, crossed Sugar Creek, then threaded its way through a secluded hollow and up the hill past a row of old, whitewashed slave cabins left by the land's pre-Civil War owner.
John Springs Myers
The cherry trees that grew on the hillsides of the hollow evidently inspired the name of both the street and the neighborhood. Eighty-seven year old Laura Foster Kirkpatrick remembers that they were "not wild cherries. Real cherries. They made the best pies." Not everyone referred to the area as Cherry (or Cherryton or Cherrytown). The city directory listed the settlement as Myers Quarter well into the 1910s, despite the fact that deed records indicate that the Myers themselves never called it by that name.
When they were laid out in 1891, the early streets of Cherry were beyond Charlotte's city limits, though probably no more than a twenty-minute walk to the center of town. The nearest section of the city was the predominantly black Second Ward, also known as Brooklyn, half a mile away across Sugar Creek. The white streetcar suburb of Elizabeth, to the north of Cherry, was also platted in the 1890s but did not see much house building until after streetcar tracks were laid up Elizabeth Avenue in 1903. It was fully twenty years before work would begin on the transformation of the remainder of the Myers' cotton farm into the Myers Park neighborhood. For most of its first two decades, Cherry was a village distinct from Charlotte, following the earlier pattern of such black settlements as Biddleville and Greenville elsewhere around Charlotte's border.
The Myers family had a reputation in Charlotte by the 1890s of being concerned with the welfare of area blacks. John Myers' father, W.R. Myers, had donated the land for the nucleus of what is now Johnson C. Smith University and had been one of the most prominent white Charlotteans to be involved in the Republican Party, an organization known for its emphasis on black participation. Both W.R. and John Myers were vestrymen of long standing at St. Peter's Episcopal Church. That organization took the lead in Charlotte after the Civil War in ministering to blacks, including construction of St. Michael and All Angels Church, St. Michael's Training School, and Good Samaritan Hospital, which is believed to be the first privately-funded hospital exclusively for blacks in North Carolina.
The Myers family did indeed offer a goodly number of house lots for sale to blacks, as well as providing rental housing. One of the earliest listings of Cherry residents may be found in the "colored department" of the 1898 Charlotte city directory. It shows some thirty heads of household in Cherry, a number which corresponds to that indicated in the 1900 federal census. By 1900, deed records indicate that six Cherry lots had been sold to five different black buyers, putting home ownership somewhere around twenty percent. For 1905, a different sort of measurement is possible, because the United States Geological Survey map drawn that year allows a rough count of actual houses in place. The map shows some fifty structures, compared with thirteen property transfers through early 1905, putting the percentage of owner-occupied dwellings as high as twenty-six percent.
The pace of lot sales picked up in the mid 1900s and continued at a high level into the mid 1920s, when John and Mary Myers turned over control of Cherry to their children. The family sold some thirty-five lots between 1900 and 1909, and over 125 in the decade 1910-1919. Most lots cost forty or fifty dollars, but could go as high as $100. This was no small sum, but it was well below the $300 to $600 being charged in the early 1910s in the middle-class black streetcar suburb of Washington Heights (home of the historic Excelsior Club) across town. By the beginning of 1925, grantor records show that some 198 lots in Cherry had been sold to individual blacks. By comparison, a count of residents listed on Cherry streets in the city directory that year produces a total of 305 heads of household, all black, meaning that as many as sixty-five percent of the residents could have been homeowners.
Information on Cherry residents is sketchy, but from city directory, census, and chain-of-title records, it is possible to create a picture of the early inhabitants of the Myers' development. In its first two decades, almost all Cherry citizens were unskilled or semi-skilled urban laborers. There were virtually no household servants, despite the area's present-day reputation as having been developed as a servants' quarter. There were also virtually no representatives of the black middle class -- ministers, teachers, store owners, doctors, lawyers -- that was much in evidence in other Charlotte black neighborhoods in the period, including Brooklyn, First Ward, and Biddleville. This absence is particularly noticeable among Cherry homeowners. The Myers appear to have created in Cherry a place where urban laborers could own their own modest dwellings, rather than being forced to rent in the crowded back alleys of center city neighborhoods.
Among the preponderance of unskilled and semi-skilled homeowners in Cherry were a small number of heads of household who held skilled positions. Andrew Wallace worked as a laborer before he and his wife Dorrina bought their lot at 1704 Luther Street in 1909, but afterwards was listed as a blacksmith. John Lewis ran a shoe-making and cleaning shop in the heart of the black Brooklyn neighborhood for some twenty years before he and his wife Carrie purchased property at 628 Cherry Street in 1918. Perhaps the most highly skilled craftsman was Robert S. Jackson. City directories indicate that he was accomplished at cabinetmaking, furniture construction and upholstery, and that he passed his skills to black youths as an instructor at St. Michaels Training School. He lived in Cherry for many years, evidently as a renter, before buying property on Baxter Street near the corner of Cherry Street in 1906.
Read more about how the face and foundation of historic Cherry is drastically changing today.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
The Cherry Neighborhood, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission – Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett.
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