Pollution and Displacement: A Critical Look at Environmental Racism and Forced Migration in Charlotte’s Historically Black Communities.

Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood was a foundational space for the Black community who thrived within it and now lives on through fond memories. The same harmful tactics used to drive Brooklyn residents away were being used in the neighboring communities of the historic West End. As if racially biased redlining practices weren’t enough, major roadways struck through the oldest neighborhood in Charlotte in an attempt to further devalue the space. Now, residents are suffering from increased air pollution due to the harmful amount of vehicle exhaust coming from the highways. This digital exhibition showcases the groundbreaking history of these neighborhoods, as well as the issues which plague the community today.

They had a culture all its own as you know. They even had a language almost all its own. But the poverty was unbelievable. But this was an area that was…obviously very important to the development of downtown

Don Bryant, Charlotte City Councilman 1961, oral history March 26, 2004
The photo above is featured as one of the cover images for the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission’s urban renewal plan book. Commission leaders are seen “breaking ground” on the blighted Brooklyn residential area. This home was the first of many to be destroyed during the Commission’s initiative to demolish inadequate housing.

Although urban renewal and the removal of the Brooklyn residents certainly had a racial element, the health problems caused by pollution that the city identified were real. The pollution of nearby Sugar Creek, exacerbated by decades of chemical waste and lax enforcement of policies prohibiting dumping, was a significant contributor to the blight identified in Brooklyn. As a result, the residents of Brooklyn can be considered environmental refugees. Man-made environmental problems—in this case, the pollution of Little Sugar Creek—led to health concerns and displacement in the name of urban renewal.

The photo abpve shows the inhumane levels of pollution within Sugar Creek. The water level has severly risen, threatening the health and wellbeing of residents and local businesses in Brooklyn

This process took place not only in Charlotte but also in Black neighborhoods and cities across the United States, and some scholars have argued that a new wave of urban renewal has begun in the twenty-first century. It is our hope that by providing this knowledge we also send out a call to action, so that the many residents still being affected by environmental racism can be heard. This project acknowledges the social, racial, educational, financial, and environmental differences in privilege that occur when researching and presenting various disparities. We hope you keep this truth in your thoughts while interacting with the exhibit.

A Look into Historic Brooklyn

Urban renewal in Charlotte is many activities of many people for many people with one large goal—a better city for all of the people in Charlotte to live in.

—“A Better Charlotte Through Urban Renewal” booklet, published by the Redevelopment Commission of the City of Charlotte in 1966

Before the area was called Brooklyn, the humble log plank cabins that formed the neighborhood were the cause for the name “Logtown” in 1892. The space was established by formerly enslaved people in search of creating a community all of their own. What started as a small town made up of only a few dwellings quickly grew into a bustling community that spanned over Charlotte’s Second Ward. In search of new opportunities, more recently emancipated African Americans came to build the town up, eventually blossoming into Historic Brooklyn. Not all of the residents within Brooklyn were African American, however the majority of residents, businesses, and public services were created by and for the Black community. The neighborhood housed a range of socio-economic classes and provided many opportunities such as education, trade skills, recreational spaces, and public enrichment for all. As described by many former residents, Brooklyn was a “city within a city.” The area formerly known as Brooklyn is now called Second Ward, one of four within the inner city area of Charlotte.

The photo above provides a snapshot of the childhood memories that keep Brooklyn alive today. Five young boys of various ages stop their bike riding adventure as the photographer captures a short moment of their everyday lives in the neighborhood. Their smiling faces provide a lively contrast between the sideways-leaning building in the background.

Brooklyn wasn’t all slums. You had some streets that had beautiful homes

Price Davis , a former resident of Historic Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was home to many groundbreaking “firsts” for the city and Charlotte’s Black community. Dating back to 1886, Myers Street School was the first public school for Black children and remained operational until 1907. The area held many educational opportunities for Black children and was one of the leading reasons why it attracted so many people. Established in 1923, Second Ward High School would be a foundational part of the community until 1969 when desegregation became more implemented into the school system. Still standing in Second Ward today as an iconic historic landmark is the Mecklenburg Investment Company building. Designed by builder and architect W. W. Smith in 1921, the unique yellow and red brick building was one of the many hubs for Black business professionals. At its core, Brooklyn, like many other Black neighborhoods in Charlotte’s Four Wards from the 1920s-1960s, was a self-sustaining community that sought to bring mobility and peace to its residents. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that new federal policies would begin to disturb these areas, most notably, Brooklyn.

The iconic Mecklenburg Investment Company Building still stands today as a historic landmark honoring the thriving space that was historic Brooklyn. The original yellow and red brickwork catches the eye while the patterns and masonic motifs on the façade serve as a timeless tribute to the whimsy of 1920s architecture

The Brooklyn neighborhood was identified as one of the first targets of urban renewal in Charlotte. This excerpt shows the city’s definition of blight, as stated in the 1958 booklet “Brooklyn Area Blight Study,” produced by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission.   It reads: “By definition given in the Law, a blighted area is a predominantly residential section of the community in which two-thirds of the buildings are dilapidated, deteriorated, obsolete, or lacking adequate provision for ventilation, light, air, sanitation, or open spaces…The Law also notes adverse health conditions, high incidence of crime or juvenile delinquency as common consequences of slum and blighted environments.” The 1966 promotional booklet “A Better Charlotte Through Urban Renewal” described the area as “238 acres of blight beyond repair,” and it boasted that “urban redevelopment is wiping the old Brooklyn from Charlotte’s face. Today, new landmarks are beginning to rise from the rubble of demolished slums.”

“Brooklyn Area Blight Study,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, 1958

The Brooklyn Area Blight study reflected that 77% of the residences were blighted by 1958 and in turn, the Federal government provided $1,432,000 to demolish 33 acres of land and relocate around 250 families and quite a few small businesses.

“The State Law recognizes that slum or blighted districts are frequently characterized by, among other things, a high incidence of disease and infant mortality.  The incidence of tuberculosis is one index of the status of public health in an area. … the distribution of active registered tuberculosis cases throughout the community gives evidence of higher incidence of tuberculosis in the Brooklyn Area than for the City as a whole.”

Taken in 1964, this photo shows a group of smiling children standing in front of their home situated across the street from the city courthouse. This is one of the many photos taken by the Charlotte Development Commission, showing the “blighted” conditions of housing within some areas of Brooklyn.

Pollution Promotes Blight

Polluted water was identified as a major problem in the area. Nearby Sugar Creek, polluted for decades by industrial and chemical waste and raw sewage, was the main contributor. The creek ran just behind the Brooklyn neighborhood. City policies prohibited dumping this waste, but mills and industrial facilities had ignored these ordinances for decades. Even the city itself dumped overflow sewage into the creek.

“Charlotte’s inner city urban renewal area,” 1970, Charlotte Redevelopment Commission.

We’ve added a green line on the map to highlight Little Sugar Creek, whose pollution contributed to the blight identified in Brooklyn. The creek formed a southern and eastern boundary of the neighborhood. The blue and tan on the map show areas of Brooklyn available for sale in 1970 as a result of urban renewal and the displacement of residents.

Even in the 1940s, the city of Charlotte attempted to find solutions to the problem of pollution.  According to the Charlotte Observer in 1945, commissioners hired J. N. Pease & Company, an engineering firm, to provide possible solutions. 

“Planning engineers are recommending the adoption of a new ordinance and the creation of a city government unit headed by a sanitary engineer to deal with the problem of controlling industrial wastes. … Charlotte’s present ordinance, prohibiting discharge into the sewer system of any except domestic waste, is not only unenforceable but is so restrictive as to constitute a potential threat to further industrial expansion, the engineers declare.”

The Charlotte News, June 1, 1950.
The Herald-Sun (Durham, North Carolina), August 26, 1959

However, the firm’s recommendations were insufficient, and the pollution of Sugar Creek continued.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the city considered additional suggestions for combatting the waste–and especially the creek’s odor. This article from the 1950 Charlotte News described a proposed ordinance that required “each individual plant to pre-treat liquid waste before putting it into the city sewer system.” Local industrial managers objected to the proposal.

The creek’s odor allegedly reached even Rock Hill, South Carolina. According to the news article above, a 1959 proposal suggested spraying a nearby industrial plant “with perfume atomizers and [dumping] a few tons of perfume concentrate in Sugar Creek.”

In an interview on April 9, 2004, 1961 Charlotte City Councilman John Thrower described the disposal of sewage into the creek:

“The outhouses were built over Sugar Creek. From Central High, which is right by on the other side of Sugar Creek, we could just watch them going into the outhouses.” 

[Interviewer]: “So the outhouses actually sat in, they emptied into Sugar Creek?” 

JT: “Yes sir.”

“Flood plain information, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Vol. 1,” 1968, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Former Brooklyn resident Arthur Williams [1] recalled that the residents had created a rope bridge to cross the creek.  However, in the late 1930s, nine children drowned when the bridge collapsed after heavy rain.  It affected black people mostly because that’s all that was on the bridge was black people, and because the city hadn’t built a connection, or any kind of facility to cross over that creek to get from Brooklyn to Cherry, or from Cherry to Brooklyn, whichever. They had to walk halfway around town to come back up on the other side, you know. Yeah, it affected us. It affected us real, real bad.

Pollution, Blight, and Brooklyn’s Fate

As Charlotte exponentially grew into a significant metropolitan city during the 1950s-60s, distinct housing patterns emerged along racial and economic lines. Affluent white families situated themselves in the southeastern portion of the city while low to middle-class families populated the northeast and southwest. As it had been for some time, Black families continued to take residence in the northwestern part of Charlotte and became the targets of “urban renewal” programs. Many of these areas held a deep historical and cultural importance to Black Charlotteans, yet the city sought to eradicate these communities for the sake of “slum clearance.”

1930-1940: Federal programs make mortgages accessible to Black residents

With mortgages now available to Black residents, developers began building houses in the West End neighborhoods of Charlotte, attracting residents from Brooklyn. One of the most iconic areas in the West End is Biddleville. Often referred to as Charlotte’s oldest surviving historically Black neighborhood, the community held many similarities to Brooklyn from its African American schools to the clubs and offices occupied by the city’s most influential Black professionals and social leaders.

Pictured above is a map of uptown Charlotte in 1969 provided by the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission. In this 1968-69 annual report, the Commission reflects on the various urban renewal projects across the inner city. Highlighted in dark green on the lower portion of the map is the Historic Brooklyn area, now known as Second Ward.

Within 11 years, the city of Charlotte removed 1,480 structures from the Brooklyn area. By doing this, they displaced over 1,000 families.

Brooklyn was eventually bulldozed down to make way for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center as well as Marshall Park, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Data collected from tracking the forced migration of Brooklyn’s former residents showed that the majority of them found housing in other historic Black neighborhoods such as those in the West End. It is important to note that many households did not wish to keep contact with the Redevelopment Commission, thus leaving a few holes in the data they found. Further disruptions to the Black community would occur in the form of highway development during the 1960s through the 1980s.

Expressway Clearance, Air Pollution, and Displacement

Showcased in the 1960 Master Highway Transportation Plan for the city of Charlotte, this map shows the projected growth and geographic placement of the new and extended expressways. The center of the city is framed by Independence Boulevard, the North-South expressway, and the North-West expressway. Residents of Charlotte’s historically Black neighborhoods in West End, such as Biddleville, were outraged by the plan. Community members gathered multiple times to make their voices heard but to no avail. The residents knew just as well as anyone else that the building of these expressways, particularly the North-West, would disrupt businesses, neighborhoods, traffic patterns, environmental factors, and home values.

By building these highways, the city of Charlotte perpetuated the pattern of environmental racism through the complete disregard for the effects that traffic pollution would have on the surrounding communities.

Due to previously established redlining, the residential areas were at a disadvantage when it came to mobility into other affordable neighborhoods.

The purposeful development of highways through Black neighborhoods emphasizes racial and socio-economic disparities.

Here we see a detailed image of the map that clearly shows the various expressways carving through these valuable neighborhoods. While the expressways may not have caused everyone to move the way urban development affected Brooklyn, this development was and still is harmful to the current communities.
The purple line is a modification made to the original map to indicate the West End neighborhood. The yellow parameter, alos added to the original, represents the former area of Brooklyn.

The building of expressways through Historic West End displaced more than 240 families. Because the commission did not grant any financial assistance, residents were put even deeper into crisis and at risk of homelessness due to forced migration.

Understanding What This Means for Residents Today

“Social Determinants of Health.” Provided by the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Issues such as redlining, environmental racism, urban renewal, and gentrification harm neighborhoods by perpetuating a cycle of poverty and socio-economic stigma as well as negative health effects. By stripping a community of its history and culture, resources such as health care, quality food, access to quality education, and a healthy environment become even more limited. While redlining is outlawed today, many residential areas are still plagued by the damaging practice of decreased socio-economic mobility. Gentrification harms these communities by forcing residents out of their homes through increased rent prices and privatized funding that excludes the original neighborhood.

In this 2017 study by the Mecklenburg County Health Department, these interwoven issues become even more apparent and alarming. Education, income, and physical health are all connected and rely on the health of your environment. As the legend shows, the purple sections highlight communities where 25% of the population has less than a high school diploma. Additionally, the orange color represents areas where 30% of the population experiences life below the poverty line. These two statistics are then looked at together in red color. You’ll notice that the areas that are the reddest tend to be communities near the westward portion of the city as well as areas near industrial plants and the airport.

“Life Expectancy.” Provided by the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

The disparities and differences that face many Charlotteans are seen more clearly differentiated along racial lines in this chart. These alarming life expectancy statistics showcase exactly how harmful an over-polluted environment can be, among other factors, to one’s health. The chart states that life expectancy overall has improved over time, however, the gap between demographics is still alarming. The life expectancy of the white population is roughly six years higher than that of the Black population.

“Uninsured Populations.” Provided by the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

A lack of access to affordable health care only perpetuates these issues and keeps those living below the poverty line or in at-risk demographics within a cycle of harm. This final chart examines the disparities within the uninsured population along racial lines. It appears Latinx folks are among the highest population to be uninsured, mostly due to financial limitations. The second population at risk is the Black community, also largely due to excessively expensive health care and lack of financial stability.

Finding a Way Forward

We hope that after learning about various neighborhood histories and examining the harmful effects of environmental injustice, the call to action will be heard. We do not wish for this project to simply conclude seeing as these issues are still ongoing and affecting communities all around us. Rather, we ask that you turn your attention to outreach projects within your city to raise awareness and aid for those suffering in highly polluted areas. There are many local projects and community organizers dedicating time, energy, and passion to demand a better future for those facing environmental and racial disparities. The truths and experiences of former Brooklyn residents live on through the UNC Charlotte Historic Brooklyn Oral Histories ProjectHistoric Brooklyn Oral Histories Project. We would like to graciously thank the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Library and Archives for allowing us access to their invaluable historic material. The work of Johnson C. Smith University and the James B. Duke Memorial Library provided through the Charlotte, NC Historic West EndHistoric West End digital history map and archive project is also to thank for making this project possible.

Additionally, we’d like to spotlight CleanAIRE NC’s digital history and environmental resource project, Clearing the Air in the Historic West EndClearing the Air in the Historic West End for their groundbreaking investigation into the racial environmental injustice within the Charlotte area. Their project works to engage with government leaders, community leaders, and citizens to raise awareness of the air quality within the West End neighborhoods. The project has been a large source of inspiration for both “Over Developed Over Polluted” and “Pollution, Brooklyn, and Blight”.

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