I went to the Excelsior Club a few times back in the ‘90s, and it wasn’t much to look at even then. Now it’s even more rundown. If you just drive by the club, off of Beatties Ford Road, you might wonder what’s worth saving. But that’s only if you haven’t heard the stories.
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Excelsior was the main stop for black musicians coming through Charlotte – Louis Armstrong played there, and James Brown, and Sam Cooke. There used to be live broadcasts from the club on WGIV, Charlotte’s first black radio station. The club was also a center for social life and politics. If you wanted black votes in Charlotte, you stopped by the Excelsior and shook hands. Bill Clinton did, back when he was running for president.
But over the years the Excelsior went through a bunch of owners, and in 2016 it closed for good. There’s been a long debate over who might buy the place next, whether local government might step in, or if the club is too far gone to save.
Now, the Excelsior has landed on the 2019 list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places. A group called the National Trust for Historic Preservation compiles the list every year. They’re a private nonprofit, so they don’t have any say in whether the Excelsior gets preserved.
There are at least three issues that somebody has to figure out. One, who’s going to put up the money to fix the place. Two, who’s going to own it when it’s done. And three, what purpose the building will serve in the long run.
Allow me to propose a little something.
One reason preserving the Excelsior Club is important is because Charlotte has torn down so much of its history. That’s especially true of our black history. Brooklyn, the black neighborhood that used to be in Second Ward uptown, was razed in the ‘60s as part of urban renewal. It didn’t gleam like the uptown towers do now, but thousands of people made their lives there. Good Samaritan, once the city’s black hospital, is also long gone; where it sat is now the 40-yard line at the Carolina Panthers’ stadium. Good Sam wasn’t as fancy as Charlotte’s mega-hospitals, but for decades it took care of its own.
These days, longstanding black neighborhoods such as Cherry and Belmont are now filling up with white families drawn to property near the center city. In some cases, the newcomers are buying up old houses and – you guessed it – tearing them down for homes that dwarf the ones of their new neighbors.
So maybe we should make the Excelsior Club a museum honoring the city’s lost places. There’s enough to fill the building, no doubt about that.
And you know what? I wouldn’t spend too much on dressing up the place, either. What something looks like from the outside is not always a measure of its value. That’s a lesson Charlotte has never really learned.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.