Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“That’s the way it was”

Attending an all black school, worshipping at an all black church, not being served at restaurants where Caucasians ate, going to the back of the bus…these were all normal part of Madie Smith's everyday experiences growing up in Charlotte, NC in the 30's and 40's.

Last week I began my research for my young adult novel which will take place in 1951 in Charlotte by visiting some places on the African American Heritage Tour in Charlotte. Madie, a friend of my writing compatriot, Linda Phillips, agreed to join us for the day. After nosing around downtown Charlotte and seeing where buildings such as St. Michael and all Angels Episcopal Church and Good Samaritan Hospital used to be (they were torn down when the Panthers Stadium was built in the early 1990's) we headed over to the historic Cherry neighborhood. There we found Mt. Zion Lutheran Church which was erected about 1896 and continuously served as a religious center until a contractor recently bought the building. In a city that is famous for tearing down historic properties in the name of urban renewal, this was one of the first jewels we saw that day.

After lunch, we headed to the Grier Heights neighborhood. We were excited to find the Billingsville School that is now home to the Grier Heights Economic Foundation. One of the few remaining Rosenwald Schools, this school is a memorial to the philanthropy and foresight of Julius Rosenwald. Disappointed that the doors were locked, we continued on to the Arthur Grier House, where George Wallace, executive director of the Grier Heights Foundation and his best friend since birth, Eugene Grier, Arthur Grier's grandson, were walking out to their cars.

Talk about a great moment in the life of a writer researching her first young adult historical novel!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Wallace and Mr. Grier and heard stories of a swimming hole where white boys joined their black peers since "Big Boy" (as it was locally known) was the deepest hole around; stories about both grandparents who worked on Governor Cameron Morrison's plantation where SouthPark Mall now presides; and stories about Mr. Grier's grandfather's funeral business that also ran an ambulance for the black community.

That's the way it was in Charlotte, NC. As a story lover, I can't wait to hear more. Stay tuned, and as I hear them, I'll share them with you.

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