Community of ‘true grit’ celebrates school’s return

Morgan School provided the spark for Berlinda Tolbert to dream big.

Growing up in the all-Black Cherry neighborhood in the 1950s, Tolbert was surrounded by a circle of support: family, neighbors, and teachers. Tolbert went on to a successful acting career highlighted by a starring role in the 1970s TV comedy “The Jeffersons,” but never lost touch with the community – or the 10-classroom building that helped put her on that path.

“My earliest remembrances are of Charlotte, of the community that I grew up in, which is Cherry, a working-class community,” said Tolbert, who lives near Morgan School and graduated Second Ward High School. “My people are from the working class, and I watched my mom and my dad work extremely hard to support me and the children of that community. Not just their child – every child belonged to every family there.”

With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on the cusp of desegregating campuses in 1968, Morgan School was shut down, as were other formerly all-Black schools. Built in 1925 as Cherrytown School and renamed in 1928, it was old and too small to accommodate an influx of new students. Cherry suffered further indignity when, according to an online history of Morgan School, CMS denied funding for transporting students to their new campus at Myers Park Elementary.

The newly formed Cherry Community Organization pooled resources to buy a bus, nicknamed the “Blue Goose,” and parents volunteered for driving duty.

The drama over schools played out against a backdrop of what became known as urban renewal as cities used federal funds to remake blighted areas. Inner city neighborhoods like Cherry and nearby Brooklyn were threatened or wiped out by mass displacement of Black residents due to redevelopment and gentrification. Cherry held on, albeit without use of Morgan School. Brooklyn, where Second Ward High School was located, didn’t. It was gone by 1969, replaced by today’s urban core.

Morgan School’s history is intertwined with Cherry. The community was platted in 1891 by developers John and Mary Myers as a working-class development. As was the case for Black neighborhoods in a segregated South, Cherry was a self-contained oasis where residents had their owned their homes, businesses, schools and houses of worship.

“The Morgan School represents the African American experience here in Charlotte and in Mecklenburg County for youngsters as well as seniors,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner-elect Arthur Griffin, a Second Ward graduate and former school board chair. “It’s something to hold on to in terms of where did that come from, because if you know where you came from, you’ll have a pretty good sense in terms of where do I go from here, and where am I going?

“It’s a symbol of the life struggles and successes of the African American community that moved from the farms into the city, but into a community of homeowners, which was unique back in the early 1900s for African Americans.”

Cherry was determined to return Morgan School to neighborhood control and launched what became a 54-year campaign for its return. Over the interim, CMS used the campus for myriad purposes: alternative school for students struggling with discipline or emotional issues. A specialized program for teen mothers. Charter school. Citywide arts initiative.

In February, though, the building’s – and Cherry’s – fortunes changed.

The school board voted unanimously to approve Cherry Community Organization’s $2 million letter of interest to buy Morgan School and preserve it as a history and neighborhood engagement center. CCO is partnering with Preservation North Carolina to incorporate protective covenants upon transfer of ownership to the neighborhood established by the Myers’ 1917 deed that developed Cherry.

PNC’s task is to ensure preservation of the school’s historical characteristics. CCO is in the process of raising money to buy the property.

“All of the stars are in alignment,” Griffin said. “One, you have a Cherry Community Organization that has some reasonable leadership today, after the after the previous leadership went through some changes. The leadership now is saying ‘wait a minute, we don’t want to lose any more of the land and properties.’ The city of Charlotte gave title to a number of parcels of property, and over the years the organization lost some of those titles. They’ve sprung back to life now and they want to retain some of that property that historically was a part of the Cherry community, and Morgan School is just one of those parcels.”

Cherry residents turned out last month for a neighborhood parade. The young and elders, Black and white, they lined the streets to celebrate Morgan School’s acquisition, including alumni. It wasn’t the end of a campaign as much as the close of a long chapter.

“It was a day of Cherry celebration, honoring Morgan School, and our accomplishments to date with finally being able to reclaim the school,” said Sylvia Bittle-Patton, CCO’s president.

School board member Thelma Byers-Bailey, who is president of the Lincoln Heights community organization, became an advocate for the transfer after touring the campus and learning about Cherry’s history.

“Everything that I’m looking at, I’m looking at through the lens of what does the neighborhood want,” she said. “What’s the purpose they’re trying to serve by wanting it and what’s standing in their way? So, when they first approached me and introduced me to the Morgan School and why they wanted the schools and the history behind the school, I couldn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t have what they were asking for.”

Even after more than a half-century of disappointment, Tolbert said the acquisition wasn’t a surprise. Gaining possession of Morgan School is another example of Cherry’s self-determination – which includes efforts to maintain affordable housing in the neighborhood as gentrification encroaches.

“That community has true grit,” she said. “It always has had true grit and it is not a community that is going to lie down and say, ‘take me.’ It’s a community that’s going to fight.

“This community has great respect for its heritage. They understand the importance of that heritage, not only for its children and the community at large but what it speaks to in terms of this part of the country and what the African American experience has been.”

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