Finding Home: The Fight To Save Smithville
Residents of Cornelius’s Smithville neighborhood have endured segregation, sewage problems, civic neglect. Last year, when the state proposed a road through part of their community, few people – not even Smithville residents – would have predicted what would happen next.
On an April evening in 2018, several N.C. Department of Transportation officials stood in the sanctuary of a Cornelius church packed with residents of Smithville, a century-old black neighborhood, trying to explain why a connector road through their community was the superior solution for one of the town's biggest traffic headaches.
The presentation was received about as badly as one would expect. Residents asked how they could stop the project and why Smithville, located just east of Interstate-77 at Exit 28, was being forced to handle traffic it didn't create. They argued the project, which would have taken private property to add third lanes and medians to portions of two residential streets, would divide their community. They murmured disapproval when a traffic engineer described it as the best option when you considered only motorists.
And then they outright cheered when one attendee, a white woman, gave voice to what many were thinking: "If this were The Peninsula or any other white neighborhood," she told the traffic engineers, "that would not be happening."
Many small towns in the South have communities like Smithville – the land where white people permitted black people to live during segregation. After the Civil War, these parts of town were home to sharecroppers, nannies, maids, janitors. Smithville, among the oldest black neighborhoods in northern Mecklenburg County, was created next to cotton fields in 1908, settled by descendants of enslaved people from area plantations.
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Today, kids play baseball and lacrosse on that land where cotton grew. Across the street, Smithville hangs on, an enclave of lower-income black residents in a town replete with lakefront mansions, many in The Peninsula, the neighborhood referenced at the N.C. DOT meeting. Recently, less than an acre on Lake Norman – no house, just land – listed for $1.56 million. Many Smithville properties, by contrast, are valued at less than $100,000. The neighborhood includes well-kept homes but also dilapidated houses and empty lots. Its homeowners get a steady stream of mailings – "I can pay you CASH no matter what the condition!" – from investors looking to snap up undervalued land for eventual development.
Its population, about 200 people, has been dropping as elderly homeowners die. Among town leaders, there's been talk of letting the market do its work. Smithville's demise, until recently, seemed almost certain.
But that was before the Smithville Community Coalition began an ambitious revitalization project, before Willie and Pam Jones, an affordable housing expert and a community activist, happened to retire in Cornelius and lend their expertise. It was also before Smithville residents learned last spring that their own town commissioners – including the commissioner who lives in Smithville – had given their blessing to the connector road.
"We stayed in our place. It's been whatever the town wants." Ron Potts, a Smithville Community Coalition leader whose family has lived in Smithville for six generations.
In an earlier era, that road might have been built with little opposition. When Smithville wanted running water from the town in the 1950s, its residents agreed to dig their own trenches for pipes, according to longtime residents. When they asked Cornelius to annex them in 1967 so they could get sewer lines, the town refused, and they waited 13 more years, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Governmental neglect created low expectations.
"We stayed in our place," says Ron Potts, a Smithville Community Coalition leader whose family has lived in Smithville for six generations. "It's been whatever the town wants."
But this time, the neighborhood stood up to both the town of Cornelius and the state of North Carolina. "This is really the first time we actually pushed back," Potts says. To the surprise of nearly everyone, even some residents, Smithville prevailed.
The neighborhood is still fighting for survival, however. It faces gentrification, a threat more complicated than a proposed road marked in bright yellow on an N.C. DOT map, yet capable of wiping out the historic black neighborhood.
'The Colored Town' Of Cornelius
The town of Cornelius has a split personality – divided by its past, and, literally, by Interstate 77.
After Duke Power dammed the Catawba River and created Lake Norman in the early 1960s, the town was able to annex 70 miles of Lake Norman shoreline west of I-77. Twenty miles north of uptown Charlotte, Cornelius now brands itself as a lake community, with a logo that features a sailboat.
But Cornelius began east of I-77 as a modest mill town. Like the rest of the Piedmont, north Mecklenburg County was built on cotton grown on area plantations – Potts, Cedar Grove, Walnut Grove – that used labor from enslaved people. Most plantations are gone now, though Potts Plantation, with several hundred acres, still exists. Today, it's a working farm down a private road, out of public view.
Smithville's story emerges from this antebellum world. In 1908, Jacob Lafayette Smith, who'd married into the family that owned Potts Plantation, began selling land to black sharecroppers, including the ancestors of current residents. These sharecroppers might have been formerly enslaved, or they were the children or grandchildren of the enslaved. This was during the rise of Jim Crow laws and segregation, not long after the state instituted poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise black residents. Smith's actions were controversial, rankling white neighbors, according to town history.
Smith wanted these families to have a place to live so they wouldn't be forced to separate. Separations had been so common during slavery that antebellum African-American marriage vows had an added phrase: until death or distance do we part. Smithville Community Coalition President Lisa Mayhew-Jones says her family's history includes a story of a brother sold and never seen again. In Cornelius Town Hall, a history exhibit tells Smithville's story, praising Jacob Smith's "concern and compassion." There's no mention of segregation, however, or that Cornelius refused to annex Smithville until 1980. During segregation, Smithville's children were bused past Cornelius Elementary to a black school in Davidson. As adults, they were shut out of certain jobs. Forbidden to visit the public library, they borrowed from a bookmobile instead.
They also lacked services that other communities take for granted – sewer lines, for instance. Through the 1960s, residents relied on outdoor privies and leaking septic tanks. Raw sewage created such a health hazard that in 1967, The Charlotte News wrote a story headlined "Germtown, U.S.A."
"Smithville is 'the colored town' of Cornelius," the Charlotte News wrote. "Few people know it exists – and nobody wants it. Not Cornelius, which refused to annex it. Not Mecklenburg County, whose health department refuses to enforce the law. Not North Carolina, whose director (sic) advised Smithville residents to write their congressman."
The late Wilson Potts, a barber, Smithville community leader and Ron Potts' father, was quoted in the story. More than 100 people had gone to a town meeting asking to be annexed, he said. He pointed out that Smithville's sewage carried disease that posed a risk to everyone, including white people. But town leaders refused the request, citing Smithville's lack of a tax base, saying they couldn't ask their residents to pay for Smithville's sewage facilities.
The article also quoted John Zuidema, then director of the Charlotte Area Fund, a nonprofit that was advocating for Smithville. "What I would like to see is for Cornelius to exercise some enlightened responsibility and humanitarianism whether it costs money or not," he said.
Smithville's struggles aren't unique. Many small towns, including towns outside the South, have balked at annexing communities of color, says Allan Parnell, vice president of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in Mebane, which has studied racial exclusion in N.C. towns. With people in these communities outside of town, he says, "then you're not a citizen. You don't vote, and you don't get services."
In Smithville, it was Mecklenburg County that finally installed sewer lines, with residents raising more than $2,000 toward the project's cost.
Cornelius remained almost exclusively white until it annexed Smithville in 1980. In 1970, the U.S. Census counted 40 blacks in Cornelius, 3 percent of its 1,296 residents. Why did the town finally change its mind about annexation? The decision became almost unavoidable. Smithville lay in the path of new Lake Norman neighborhoods to the west, land the town was eager to have.
An Uphill battle
By the time the N.C. DOT unveiled its road plans for Smithville in April, the neighborhood had been declining for decades. Many residents who'd grown up during segregation had moved away to better opportunities. When homeowners died and left their properties to multiple heirs, houses were left vacant and fell into disrepair.
The community center, originally a Rosenwald school for black children, had closed. Smithville straddles Catawba Avenue, just east of I-77, and as Cornelius's population ballooned from 5,000 in 1990 to 31,000 today, the community found itself adjacent to one of the town's busiest intersections, Catawba Avenue and N.C. 21, also known as Statesville Road. But the Smithville Community Coalition, a group of residents and supporters, was intent on revitalization. Seeing investors' interest in Smithville, they recognized that change was coming, and they wanted to manage it, bringing in new residential development without displacing current residents.
"I know what our forefathers went through to get that neighborhood," says coalition President Lisa Mayhew-Jones. "It would be a travesty for it to go away."
The coalition had been working for seven years, mostly on manageable projects, such as neighborhood cleanups, a community garden and home repairs. They'd struggled to make progress on big goals – building mixed-income housing and upgrading infrastructure. Mayhew-Jones had concluded that some town leaders wouldn't mind if Smithville simply disappeared. She says one commissioner, Dave Gilroy, once stated that Smithville should be bulldozed and perhaps developed as a golf course. Gilroy denies making those remarks.
"That's a falsehood," he says. "I find it offensive, insulting and a complete 100 percent slander." But three coalition leaders – Mayhew-Jones, Ron Potts and John Quinn, a business consultant who lives in Davidson – all say Gilroy made the remarks while meeting with them to discuss Smithville's future shortly after they'd organized in 2011.
The coalition faced skeptics within the neighborhood, too. Some residents were wary of change and suspicious of motives. And the man who seemed an obvious choice to help lead a community revitalization – Thurman Ross, the only town commissioner who lives in Smithville – was often at odds with the group.
Ross works in real estate. He and his family members own a total of seven Smithville properties. He says he has good support in the community, including from residents who don't attend coalition meetings. Some property owners don't trust the coalition, he says, and haven't embraced its affordable housing goals. "I don't know if the coalition really respects property owners," he says. "Let the market work. There may be natural gentrification."
Until recently, that's where the coalition stood, trying to convince reluctant property owners and town leaders, making little headway on revitalization.
Then Pam and Willie Jones joined the group. They'd retired to Cornelius from Boston in 2014. Pam Jones had a background in community organizing and development. Willie Jones had just earned a divinity degree from Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury. Both saw helping Smithville as service they were meant to do. "Working for justice is part of the Gospel," Willie Jones says. "Smithville has been treated unjustly."
But Willie Jones wasn't merely an eager do-gooder. He'd been a senior vice president at The Community Builders, a national nonprofit that builds affordable and mixed-income housing. Jones had graduated from Brown University, lectured at Harvard, taught real estate investment at Tufts and been inducted into Affordable Housing Finance Magazine's Hall of Fame. He'd helped revitalize neighborhoods in more than a dozen cities.
Willie Jones likely knew more about affordable housing than anyone in Cornelius. He had exactly the experience Smithville needed. Says Quinn: "If you're religious, you'd think it's God at work. It was a man right there in our midst." Also, as Mayhew-Jones points out, "He's used to being with people who will fight, who don't mind fighting."
With the help of Smithville volunteers, Jones got busy. The group completed a detailed housing inventory that counted 81 occupied homes, 14 vacant ones and 41 vacant lots. In January 2018, he gave this information to town leaders in a 20-page report outlining how the town might "land bank" – acquire land in Smithville as it went up for sale, then recruit a developer to build a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.
He got little response. Some leaders dismissed him as an outsider. It became clear, he says, that "it was never going to happen" unless Smithville drove the process. Coalition leaders decided to write grant proposals and lead revitalization themselves. That's when they heard the news about the proposed connector road.
The Price Of Progress
The road through Smithville was an attempt to fix a mistake. The original plan, on the town's drawing board since 2011, had been a noncontroversial traffic circle at Catawba Avenue and N.C. 21.
But in 2017, engineers discovered they'd been using a flawed traffic analysis that hadn't considered the circle's proximity to I-77 ramps. Once they did a comprehensive analysis, they concluded the project was too close to I77. Picture gridlock in a roundabout.
Their discovery meant Cornelius needed a new plan to relieve the intersection's congestion, and it needed it fast. The project would lose most of its funding – $6.7 million from the state – if it wasn't authorized for construction by June 2020.
And so state engineers hatched the Smithville alternative. It would add a third lane and medians to portions of Hill Street and Burton Lane, allowing engineers to redirect traffic onto those residential streets and improve capacity at the crowded Catawba Avenue-N.C. 21 intersection. It would require the state to take portions of at least a dozen properties and possibly two houses, including the home of 69-year-old Sammie Knox.
Before showing the plan to Smithville residents, N.C. DOT engineers went to the town of Cornelius, which is paying for part of the project. The mayor and town commissioners gave their approval.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Miltich says he doesn't recall if they discussed the impact on Smithville. Other commissioners say that the subject came up but that they didn't see another choice. The road would have affected only a portion of Smithville, Ross says. For the town overall, he says, it "would have been a better plan."
Traffic improvements always impact someone. This is what a state engineer told residents at that April meeting with Smithville. "To be totally honest," he said, "there's no project that's not going to impact someone." That's the price of progress, he said.
Historically, low-income neighborhoods, particularly black communities, have borne the brunt of America's appetite for roads. Charlotte's major thoroughfares are a good example – interstates and highways cut through black neighborhoods, especially in west Charlotte. For decades, governments routed roads through black neighborhoods, where government policies such as redlining had thwarted investment and depressed land prices. "It's cheaper to take black land than any other land," Jones says.
But federal law – Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act – protects neighborhoods, such as Smithville, that have experienced past discrimination.If a project impacts such a community to a greater degree than other communities, the government must prove there are no equally good alternatives.
Willie Jones believed that there were alternatives and that Smithville could win a lawsuit – if residents were willing to sue their hometown.
For Sammie Knox, the decision wasn't difficult. At the time, his house was valued at $70,000, and if the state acquired it, he couldn't imagine how he'd buy another one. "Scared me half to death," he recalls. "I think the town don't care. I'm not going to say all of them, but some of them don't care. They were trying to get out from under their mess any way they could."
Ron Potts had more of a struggle. Raised in Smithville, he'd known Mayor Woody Washam since they were boys. Potts had left for college in 1965 and spent much of his career in the Midwest. When he returned home in the 1990s, he was dismayed to see how Cornelius had transformed while Smithville had been left behind. Ultimately, he says, he asked himself what the town had done for Smithville.
Yes, he told Jones. He'd be a plaintiff.
Soon, Jones had more than a dozen willing plaintiffs. He found a lawyer who agreed to work pro bono. He met N.C. DOT officials. If you proceed, he told them, we will sue.
The Town Concedes
The threat surprised town leaders, who responded by refusing the coalition's request to include the town as a partner on its grant application to United Way. "They were going to include the town in the suit," Mayor Washam says. "So, yes, that was an issue."
Some commissioners considered going ahead with the connector road. One, Kurt Naas, argued that the impact on Smithville could be minimized with tweaks to the design. He proposed using some of the affected land to create a park and community gateway in exchange for the road. He acknowledged, however, that people in Smithville would be justifiably skeptical.
"I understand they would only believe us if we had a proposal and darn near had the money in hand. I get that," he says.
While commissioners debated salvaging the plan, the state, determined to avoid a lawsuit, had already gone back to the drawing board. Engineers working with town staff soon had a new solution that would relieve congestion and avoid Smithville – two roundabouts, one on N.C. 21, south of Catawba Avenue, and one on Holiday Lane, north of Catawba.
Owners of businesses located between the roundabouts hated this fix, pointing out that the new traffic patterns would make it harder for motorists to access their stores. But the town, faced with losing state funding if design work didn't start soon, finally went along. This plan costs more than the Smithville project – $10.4 million versus $8.2 million. The N.C. DOT's Sean Epperson, who is leading the project team, says it will relieve congestion just as well.
Much has happened since Smithville threatened to sue the town and state last spring.
First, the coalition won two planning grants – $10,000 from Davidson United Methodist Church and $22,500 from the United Way, awarded despite the town's refusal to be a partner. Then it hired Neighboring Concepts, a respected Charlotte architectural and planning firm headed by Darrel Williams, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner. Among the firm's specialties: designing mixed-income housing in lower-income neighborhoods.
In October, the firm presented a first-draft revitalization plan at Smithville's Union Bethel A.M.E. Zion Church. The meeting began with a prayer, as Smithville meetings always do. A Smithville native asked God to open the group's ears, eyes and hearts.
Then urban designer Eric Orozco unveiled slides of the community re-envisioned, its single-family homes mixed with townhomes and duplexes. "This is quickly becoming one of my favorite neighborhood plans ever," he told the crowd. "It improves things for everyone."
One key to the plan: the length of Jacob Smith's 1908 lots, originally designed to accommodate gardens and farm animals. They were so long, twice as deep as modern-day lots, Orozco explained, that homeowners could sell the rear half of their properties, allowing them to keep their houses and get cash – money they could use to pay property taxes or make repairs. The plan showed alleys between the original homes and new lots, which could be developed with new housing.
For more than an hour, Orozco and Darrel Williams explained their ideas, took questions, emphasized that no one would be forced to move. Williams also echoed what coalition members have been saying for years: "If you do nothing, individuals will start selling and developers will start buying multiple pieces of property, and Smithville will no longer exist."
The neighborhood should thank the coalition for its leadership, he told the audience. "If they were not here, doing what they're doing, there would be no hope for your community."
Cornelius At A Crossroads
In January, UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute released a study of housing needs in Mecklenburg County's three northern towns – Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson – that put numbers and narrative to an affordable housing shortage most North Mecklenburg leaders already acknowledged. It found that 23 percent of the area's households were cost burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
This focus on affordable housing, coming amid the effort to save Smithville, raises questions about the kind of town Cornelius aspires to be. It is now the least diverse of Mecklenburg County's seven municipalities. Its population is 85 percent white and 6 percent black, according to 2016 U.S. Census estimates, a notable statistic in a county where more than half the population is non-white. If Smithville goes the way of gentrification, the town will lose a chance to preserve and increase its stock of affordable housing. And it will likely become less diverse.
Affordable housing, though a hot political issue in Charlotte, hasn't been a priority in Mecklenburg County's small towns, with the exception of Davidson, which requires developers to either include affordable units or pay into a fund for affordable housing. By giving developers the option to pay rather than build, the program steers clear of the legal uncertainty surrounding mandatory inclusionary zoning in North Carolina.
When Washam became Cornelius's mayor in 2018, he discontinued the previous mayor's affordable housing task force. It was "spinning its wheels," he says. Since taking office, he says his thinking has evolved. He now supports developing an affordable housing plan for the town.
"I think we need to accept some responsibility as a town," Washam says.
Washam also has begun meeting regularly with coalition leaders. "The town has probably a better working relationship with Smithville than we've ever had," he says. He credited the coalition for "taking the bull by the horns."
Some commissioners also sound supportive. Gilroy says he'd favor the town taking a role in revitalization. Naas agrees. "I'm a limited government kind of guy, but there are some things where there's an appropriate role for government," he says.
Success remains uncertain, however.
There has been no official town commitment to revitalizing Smithville. The town owns 12 neighborhood properties, acquired over the years, but hasn't committed them for the revitalization project. Neither has the town committed funds, though it plans to apply this year for federal block grant money for infrastructure improvements for Smithville, Deputy Town Manager Wayne Herron says.
Some leaders say they don't want to act until there's agreement among Smithville property owners, and several property owners have criticized the coalition, saying it's not keeping them informed. Some town leaders also say funding affordable housing would be unpopular with the town's conservative voters. "It would take a political lift," says Mayor Pro Tem Miltich, given that the town's property taxes come mostly from affluent neighborhoods.
In Smithville, meanwhile, 2018 brought the deaths of several community matriarchs, including Nannie Potts, a revered teacher who served in the 1980s as Cornelius's first and only black mayor. Mayhew-Jones, who spoke at her funeral, attended the funeral of another Smithville resident that same day.
The gentrification clock is ticking. Coalition leaders know they must act before investors do. The latest version of the redevelopment plan envisions 75 new homes and 80 apartments, some earmarked for seniors. Most would be on blighted land that's now empty or has vacant houses. The developments would rent or sell from 30 percent to 120 percent of area median income. No residents living in Smithville would be displaced. Even renters would be offered spaces in new apartments.
But first, the coalition needs money – for starters, an estimated $1.5 million in loans for land acquisition, Willie Jones says. The coalition would love the town's financial support, Mayhew-Jones says, but it's not waiting for it. The group's leaders are applying for grants and reaching out to funders. Also, she says, they are praying.
Pam Kelley is a veteran journalist and the author of Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race and Ambition in the New South. She lives in Cornelius.
WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.