CHARLOTTE — More than 60 years after Charlotte’s City Council voted for a federal urban renewal program that would destroy a prominent Black neighborhood uptown, the city’s leader had a starkly different message.
There are two Charlottes, Mayor Vi Lyles said, and historic city policies have long “impeded the stability, the well-being and progress” of Black residents.
“I acknowledge the history and complexities of systemic racism and our city government’s role in perpetuating those systems,” she said.
Lyles read the apology during last week’s meeting of the Charlotte City Council, the same body that voted in 1958 to raze the Brooklyn neighborhood through a program that displaced Black communities all over the country. Lyles said the current council has a “commitment to equity, social justice and our city’s role to address our own systemic racism.”
It comes as cities around the country are grappling with longstanding effects of racism, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately hit Black Americans and other minority groups, and nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Lyles outlined a commitment to several initiatives, including violence interruption, supporting Black businesses and entrepreneurs, and working with philanthropic, business and faith organizations “to address racism with collective and collaborative action.”
Now, leaders of Restorative Justice CLT, the group that sought the city’s apology, want to build on that acknowledgment and are seeking millions of dollars to invest in Black communities.
Members of the group call Lyles’s apology an important first step.
“Some people didn’t see an apology was needed,” said the Rev. Willie Keaton, chair of the restorative justice group and pastor at Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church. “They didn’t even see having this discussion was needed. But the more you hear the stories, you realize that there was an unresolved trauma there that needed to be addressed.”
Still, Keaton said he’d like to see the city vote on a plan to put money into the areas that the mayor outlined.
“The apology is great, but the restitution has to be equal to the crime,” he said. “There needs to be some restitution for the opportunity that was taken, the land that was taken, the businesses that were destroyed. Restorative justice is appropriate in this context, because what Charlotte has done to African Americans in many ways is criminal and immoral.”
In an interview with the Observer, Lyles did not outline new programs or policies specific to the apology Monday, but pointed to existing efforts the city has around revitalizing neighborhoods and business development.
“Many of those actions are as a result of having what I think is one of the most diverse city councils in the history of our city,” said Lyles, who is Black. “And having these discussions around racial equity and social justice has been something we’ve been doing for at least two years.”
When city officials approved bulldozers to enter Brooklyn, it was hailed as a necessary clean-up for Charlotte’s future. An Observer headline described it as a “slum-clearance” program aimed at reducing blight.
But it was home to hundreds of Black families, businesses and churches. Prevented from living in other parts of the city by redlining and other discriminatory policies, Brooklyn residents built a thriving community in Second Ward that former neighbors remember as community-focused.
By the late 1960s, it was gone.
Cynthia Real, who called herself “a displaced child” after her family was forced to leave their Brooklyn home when she was 9, said she was happy to hear the mayor apologized.
“I don’t believe that you can move forward, or correct what has been done wrong unless you first acknowledge that it was wrong,” Real, who still lives in Charlotte, said. But what’s important now, she said, is what will be done next.
“How do you deal with the fallout (from its destruction)?” she asked. “Unfortunately, the adults that were most affected, most devastated and traumatized by those events are no longer with us, but their children and their children and their children are still experiencing the fallout.”
Darryl Gaston grew up hearing stories from his cousins, godparents and neighbors who lived in Brooklyn. He said they described it as a socioeconomically diverse neighborhood, where working class people and professionals lived side-by-side.
Gaston, a resident of Druid Hills, said he was glad Lyles apologized Monday night, but said harm has already been done.
“The damage has had and is having a rippling effect throughout the Black communities of Charlotte,” he said. “And the only thing that I could think of that could relieve some of the hurt and pain that people experienced because of the Black removal/urban renewal, would be to provide some type of monetary reparations or to provide people with … some land and houses.”
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