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Fighting for Morgan School: Cherry residents who've seen their neighborhood change want their school to remain

Morgan School
Gwendolyn Glenn
Cherry residents fighting for the Morgan School include (left to right): Actress (Jenny of "The Jeffersons") Berlinda Tolbert; Barbara Rainey, vice president of the Cherry Community Association; Yvonne Bittle, last living founder of CCO; Stephanie Gardner, newer resident; Dr. Sylvia Bittle-Patton resident and CCO member; Doris Dennis, resident.

The Cherry community, less than a mile southeast of uptown, was established in 1891 to promote home ownership for working-class African Americans. Over the past 10 years, it has experienced dramatic changes. Gone are many of the quaint bungalows that lined the streets, and a lot of those that remain are sandwiched between huge, new homes. Many of the longtime Black residents were displaced during this gentrification process and Cherry, which was about 70% African American a few years ago is now almost 60% white.

Cherry residents have fought to save what’s left of their community, with the latest battle over securing ownership of Morgan, Cherry’s now-closed school.

"When I look at the school, it always brings back memories," said 77-year-old Doris Dennis, a Cherry native. "It means a whole lot to me."

 Berlinda Tolbert and Barbara Rainey talk outside Cherry's Morgan School.
Gwendolyn Glenn
Berlinda Tolbert (left) and Barbara Rainey talk outside Cherry's Morgan School.

Dennis and numerous family members attended Morgan from first through sixth grades, and she has fond memories.

"When I pass by, I can remember the voices of the children running through and the cafeteria with the good food," Dennis said. "We had great teachers and we had people who went on to become pro football players. Juan Dickey Westmoreland went here. We had students who went on to become doctors, nurses and teachers."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools owns the Morgan school building. It was home to a charter school in recent years and used for training and other purposes. CMS had proposed leasing Morgan to the youth organization Arts+, but Cherry residents opposed that move.

CMS has since taken Morgan off its lease list and put it up for sale. The Cherry Community Organization has put in a bid to buy Morgan.

On a recent day, Dennis and a group of past and present Cherry residents gathered in front of the school to reminisce and talk about the future they want for Morgan. Among them was Berlinda Tolbert. She grew up in Cherry and went on to play Jenny on the sitcom "The Jeffersons." Tolbert has spoken at school board meetings about the importance of Morgan and its legacy.

"This is the very first place where I was given permission and encouraged to dream and to have what I think is high aspirations," Tolbert said. "The first time I was on a stage was ... there's a little stage on the side of the school there, that's a part of the cafeteria. I can remember being on that stage in the school orchestra. I can remember playing my first violin and then me playing there. I can remember that Leonard Bernstein had a national children's concert series that he did around the country, and one of the students from Morgan School won that contest.

"Those memories are special. And I watched Charlotte to do right by its people and its community as Charlotte continues to grow. Charlotte has done a poor job of respecting that history. The fact that Cherry has been able to sustain itself for the length of time that it has, it speaks to Cherry's grit. Cherry has grit."

Dr. Sylvia Bittle-Patton is a native Cherry resident who works with the Cherry Community Organization as well as the Cherry Neighborhood Association.

"We've already submitted an offer for purchase and we are going to be working in concert with Preservation North Carolina," Bittle-Patton said. "They will come in and purchase the building, and then within 24-48 hours, we'll purchase the building from them and they will overlay the covenants for preservation, the covenants for conservation and those covenants are in place in perpetuity."

Gwendolyn Glenn: Is there a deadline?

Sylvia Bittle-Patton: So, Dec. 13 is the deadline for CMS.

Glenn: So, do you have others that you are aware of who are also bidding on the building?

Bittle-Patton: CMS has indicated that there are others with interest. We doubt very seriously that there are any others who have been expressing interest for half a century, as we have been.

Glenn: And Barbara Rainey, vice president of the Cherry Community Organization, tell me what you envision for this building?

Barbara Rainey: Well, I see it as a community center of sorts where Cherry residents or any resident would be welcome to come and get health care, food, nutrition program, or maybe an after-school program for the kids. Adult learning, computer training, all kinds of services that people today need.

Cherry neighborhood bungalows
Gwendolyn Glenn
Bungalows like these once lined Cherry's streets. Now, with gentrification, many have been torn down to make way for newer and bigger houses.

Glenn: And financially, I know that CCO, the organization, has properties that you guys still manage. If someone asks: financially, how will you be able to run the program? Is the organization financially stable and strong to be able to carry that out?

Rainey: Not only are we stable and strong, but we also have strong supporters who have stepped in, and that is what really gave us the confidence to know that we can do this.

Yvonne Bittle is a founder of the Cherry Community Organization, and she also was in attendance.

Glenn: So your children attended school here, your son and your daughter. What did this school mean to you as a parent?

Yvonne Bittle: This school meant everything to me because I live right across the street from the school. Right in front of the school is where my children were born. So, it was within walking distance.

Glenn: Did you ever think that you would be here fighting for the school as you are today?

Bittle: Never. Never thought that this would be what we would have to go through with for a school that was built for the Cherry community.

Glenn: Do you think people understand that strong connection that I hear in your voice that you feel toward the school?

Bittle: Yes. Yes, I definitely do. And I will tell anybody that we will fight any day for Cherry because this is something that belongs to the Cherry community, and we're gonna still stand. And so whoever wants to come in and join us, you are welcome to come and join us.

Glenn: Stephanie Gardner, you moved here in 2018. The faces of Cherry that most people think about or see are African American and longtime residents. You are white. Tell me about the importance for you to personally get involved in this.

Stephanie Gardner: I can see the building from my house, and it is absolutely gorgeous. I didn't know much about it when I first moved here, but since speaking with the residents and listening to their stories, I've learned the real significance of it to the Cherry neighborhood. And it would just be a shame to have it pass hands over and over and potentially get into a private entity's hands and not be preserved in the way that they want to preserve it.

And so I really felt it was important to align myself with them because they've had their mission for over 50 years and they've carried it out and they've provided affordable housing for low and moderate income people. And they've also sought to preserve the history of this community and this neighborhood. And for me, I align myself with those missions, too, even if I live in one of these newer houses. That doesn't mean that I'm not aligned with the mission of preserving history. I mean, that's a huge part of the value of this neighborhood to me.

Morgan School activists
Gwendolyn Glenn
A group of Cherry residents stand outside Morgan School, talking about its future.

Glenn: So, Berlinda, hearing what the Cherry residents said out here today, what what are your thoughts going forward?

Tolbert: It's simple. Do the right thing. Growth does not have to mean that you leave cultures and history behind. One does not have to cross out the other. You can have both. And I trust that those people who are running this city, they understand that. They've just got to figure out how to get it right. But you can't correct it if you give it to somebody that has no respect or regard for the history of it. You've got to look at where it belongs.

As the group continued talking on the sidewalk across from Morgan, a young woman jogging by stopped to ask if she can do anything to help them get possession of the school. They tell her their plans for it.

These Cherry residents say they believe CMS is working with them in good faith and clearly hears their reasons for wanting to keep Cherry in the community’s hands. CMS did not respond to requests for comment on the future of the school.

But Cherry residents say their faith is strong and they believe that the time has come for Morgan to finally belong to the Cherry community.

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Video for this story by Damilola Banjo.