FAQ City: What Happened To Grier Heights?
Charlotte is made up of a lot of different neighborhoods.
One of those neighborhoods is Grier Heights, a historically Black neighborhood. The area is filled with history, but also is planning for its future.
In this episode, we answer the following from a listener: “What happened to Grier Heights? Founded by a former slave, it was once a thriving neighborhood of working- and middle-class black families.”
How did Grier Heights get started?
“It actually started with Sam Billings,” said Monika Rhue, the director of library services and curation at Johnson C. Smith University.
“He was a former slave, and he bought about 100 acres of land, farmland, and with four houses began what they call Grier Heights. Grier Heights, early on, was what they call a farming community. And then that was around maybe 1890s.”
Billings wanted to create a place where Black people could learn and thrive in their own community.
What were some changes to the area in the 1920s?
In 1907, Billings and a few others bought more land, expanding the neighborhood. As the century progressed, the community grew. In 1927, the area got its school — the Billingsville School.
The Billingsville School was a Rosenwald School. These schools were for Black students, primarily in the South, and were named after the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, and created in partnership with Booker T. Washington.
They were partly funded by both the Rosenwald Fund and the community. Over 5,000 of these schools were built.
“Mecklenburg County actually had some of the largest amounts of Rosenwald schools that were built,” Rhue said.
In Mecklenburg County, 26 of these schools were built. There have been efforts in recent years to preserve these buildings.
The Billingsville School building still stands in Grier Heights today, but more on that later.
Who was Grier Heights named after?
The neighborhood itself, which was once called Grier Town, was named after Arthur Samuel Grier, a funeral home director. Grier was a community leader who also helped the neighborhood grow.
Over time, a diverse Black community emerged — with people from different socio-economic levels and jobs.
One period of growth was the mid-1940s, after World War II. Grier built around 100 homes for those returning from overseas.
What was life like in the mid-20th century?
In the years to follow, more Black families moved in — including James Lee’s.
Lee was a longtime resident of Grier Heights in the 1960s and 1970s. He says no matter how many people moved in — everyone was like a family.
“The community, the leaders back then...it was like a core of families that they put together, they came together, and then just they just exploded," Lee said. "So I couldn't go over to my friend's house to do something bad and not get a whooping when my mom got home.”
Lee says that Grier Heights had its own grocery stores and churches. He says people ventured out, but the neighborhood was a more sustainable community in years past.
“All our amenities were inside the community. For the most part, we were born, we lived... we worshiped all together…you went to school together."
But when Black students began to be bused into white neighborhoods and schools, Lee says his relationship with his community changed.
“I was the one one of the ones that was picked to be bused to the white schools. I got affected because I got kind of disconnected from the community.”
How did the community change in the 1970s?
As areas in Charlotte became more integrated, people moved out.
“So when you think about the overall history of Grier Heights, you got to think about it in those terms, that early period, when the community was very prominent ...was very well known,” Rhue said. “And then you got to think about when all the other things came into play, like crime, and drugs and things like that, that kind of gave that side of the community a negative view.”
James Lee, who grew up in the neighborhood, left in the late 1970s to join the military. He was able to travel the world during this time, and then he came back.
“I graduated in ’79,” Lee said. “I was just getting prepared to leave my family, my friends embarking on a new experience when I graduated. I kept up with things and came back a couple of times."
But he says that he noticed some things had changed.
“That was that time when crack was really starting to be prevalent. So when I got out in ’86, some of the same drug activity was still there. A lot of my classmates have moved out. A lot of their families were still there. The community is really a bunch of renter families. But it's always been one of the transient communities. So we've always had like motion in the demographics of it changing.”
How has the community continued to develop and change in recent years?
The former Billingsville School is now a community center that aids the community in times of COVID-19.
“Right now, since COVID has hit, we have completely turned the community center into a Virtual Learning Hub,” said Tijua Robinson, who runs the community center.
“So daily, we host 40 students from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. at night, just to ensure that our kids are supported academically throughout the school year and have access and to ensure that we are a liaison with school administration and also just kind of a support system for families.”
Robinson wasn’t born in Grier Heights, but went to school at Johnson C. Smith and began engaging with the community when she was a student. She says the community remains resilient — even after all of these years and even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a community that is very much so prideful, in whole tied to the standards of just being successful, in just rallying around everyone just to make sure everybody is benefiting and kind of leaning in towards success in life.”
How has gentrification affected the area?
Housing in Charlotte is expensive but the land in Grier Heights is less expensive than in other areas. And because of that, houses are popping up.
“I'm not mad about folks having an opportunity to live in a neighborhood where they can afford it…even if it's my neighborhood,” Lee said. “But what I have a problem with, is when folks come in, and they feel like that is their neighborhood, they don't have to get to know it. They buy a house and they say this is my home now, which is great. But you're adding to a legacy that you really don't know. And a lot of times, folks that come over there, they don't want to be connected with us, you know, and that's kind of like a slap in the face.”
How is the community looking toward the future?
“I naturally think that this is going to continue to be a blossoming community,” Robinson said. “ I feel like in 10 years, you're going to see this building (Billingsville School) alone really offer any and everything possible. I feel like within 10 years, we'll be in a place where through the services that we provide that you will see the realm of the individuals who are renting or placed in low-income homes or housing, should I say, being able to afford homes of their own and take on homeownership."
But no matter what happens, Lee hopes the area maintains its familial vibe — no matter how many people come into or leave the area.
“We need to continue to keep it going because they created, you know, a beautiful community.”
Dante Miller contributed to this episode of FAQ City.