The many ways Mecklenburg County perpetuated systemic racism

The many ways Mecklenburg County perpetuated systemic racism

Second Ward High School. Photo courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

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A new report detailing how Mecklenburg County denied Black residents opportunities for decades will serve as the foundation for a reparations-like effort to correct the wrongs.

What’s happening: Mecklenburg County Commissioners approved $2 million for “equity investments” as part of the county budget last June. While county leaders have distanced themselves from language like reparations, the concept is similar: It’s designed to make up for past government policies that hurt Black residents.

  • County commissioners Mark Jerrell and Laura Meier approached the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, to produce the report, Jerrell tells me.
  • It’s aimed at informing the committee that is deciding how to spend the money.

Why it matters: In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, public and private institutions have wrestled with their own legacies of racism. This report stands out in looking at specific actions of one of our main local government bodies and how they held citizens back.

  • “Sometimes when we have these conversations about race, about equity, about social justice, they’re talked about in such abstract ways that they seem so far away,” Jerrell says. “And I think the report really helps us vet those tangible, real life examples of what happened right where we live.”

Here are some areas where the report says the county has perpetuated systemic inequities.

Politics and representation

The county restricted Black political representation and influence for decades through voting restrictions and the drawing of districts.

Voting: The Board of County Commissioners, established in 1868, were originally Democrats who were against Black political participation. They chose Democratic county registrars, who purged from the voter rolls anyone who had recently moved to the state or couldn’t provide their age or birthplace.

  • That disenfranchised formerly enslaved people.
  • Then followed the white supremacy campaign of 1898, through which local media spread propaganda about “negro domination,” and Democrats held voter intimidation rallies and parades. In 1900, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment for a literacy test, poll tax and Grandfather Clause that shut Black people out of participating in elections.

Drawing lines: The other way that Black voters were disenfranchised was through the system of representation on the county commission.

  • At-large representation was used to dilute the power of minority voting blocs.
  • The idea for district representation on the county commission emerged in the 1960s during a debate over whether to combine city and county government.

Go deeper: In 1982, amid calls for district representation, the commission backed a proposal that would expand the board from five to seven members: four district representatives and three at large. But voters countywide would still elect the district representatives, which led to opposition, including from Bob Walton, the only Black commissioner at the time.

  • Voters rejected the plan, but two years later, approved a new plan through which the district representatives would be chosen only by members of their community.
  • The district maps have been redrawn several times. In 1993, voters expanded the commission again to nine members, with six district representatives, allowing for more minority representation.
  • Today four of the nine county commissioners are Black.

Criminal Justice

Early policing: Before the Civil War, Southern communities were policed by “town guards” who existed only to enforce the laws that limited enslaved people’s movement.

After the Civil War, U.S. troops chose Mecklenburg’s first police forces, but they mostly consisted of former Confederate soldiers and politicians.

  • The county criminalized vagrancy, allowing law enforcement to arrest “all persons who may be found sauntering about having no apparent means of subsistence or neglecting to apply to some honest calling for support,” which largely applied to Black citizens.
  • When the Union withdrew from the South, police violence against Black residents became commonplace.

Courts: The Ku Klux Klan recruited heavily in Mecklenburg between 1868 and 1872, and the courts frequently sided with white men who committed violence against Black people.

  • What is believed to be the first lynching in Mecklenburg County occurred in 1913, after a mob broke into Good Samaritan Hospital (the only hospital in the area for Black people) and shot Joe McNeely. He had been taken to the hospital, located where Bank of America Stadium now sits, after a shoot-out with police.

Convict labor: The county prison system was also created after the Civil War, and the county started using convict labor for constructing roads and laying railroad tracks. Convict leasing, through which the county lent free prison labor to companies, was prevalent.

  • Because the juries were all white, Black residents saw little fairness. In the early 20th century, about 90% of the convicts in the county’s prison camps were Black.

Police brutality: The report questions the perception that the Charlotte area avoided the police violence seen in other parts of the South.

  • Police brutality spiked in the 1980s and ’90s with the War on Drugs and other crime initiatives. After city and county police forces merged in 1993, the city formed a Civilian Review Board for CMPD amid public pressure, but media reports suggest the vast majority of complaints heard by the board against officers have been dismissed.


Mecklenburg County consistently underinvested in educating Black students since education was institutionalized in the 19th century.

  • For example, the first Black secondary school, Second Ward High School, was not built until 1923.

Token integration: After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, North Carolina leaders devised what became known as the Pearsall Plan to minimally comply with the ruling. It gave way to token integration, through which a handful of Black students would be allowed to attend white schools so as not to defy the courts.

  • A state law that followed handed the power to reassign students to local school boards, and directed them not to consider race in school assignment.
  • Mecklenburg County did not approve a single transfer request from a Black student to attend a white school, per the report.

Swann case: The outcome of the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case forced the schools to start busing to desegregate, despite resistance from local officials.

  • In the 1970s and ’80s, the busing system became a nationwide model of success, and test scores and public school performance increased.
  • But a 1999 ruling ended the busing program by declaring integration had been achieved. By 2018, CMS was the most segregated school system in the state.
Julius Chambers on the day he heard the Swann v. Board verdict.

Julius Chambers on the day he heard the Swann v. Board verdict. Photo: courtesy of Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library


Black residents received substandard services from the county in health care, social welfare, sanitation, parks and recreation and libraries.

Health care: The responsibility of public health fell to the county commission in the 1880s, and for a decade after the first white hospital was built, there were no hospitals for Black citizens.

  • The Good Samaritan Hospital, which opened in 1891, was one of the first Black hospitals in the nation, but it was privately-funded. The hospital had to raise its own operating money, largely through philanthropy from Black churches.
  • The Charlotte Memorial Hospital, now Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center, desegregated officially in 1963.

Rev. Janet Garner-Mullins recalls falling ill as a child, and her mother taking her to Good Samaritan. She asked her why she couldn’t go to the other hospital.

  • “She told me we could not go to the white hospital, and I could not understand that,” Garner-Mullis told a group of reporters outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Friday.

Good Samaritan Hospital. Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Social welfare: One of the earliest forms of local welfare was the poor house that Mecklenburg County operated after Reconstruction. But it had separate facilities for white and Black “inmates” as they were called, and the conditions were far worse for the Black residents.

  • Mecklenburg County also carried out a state-ordered program to sterilize poor and disabled people that disproportionately affected people of color.

Sanitation: In the areas outside of several Mecklenburg County towns, Black communities went without adequate sewer and water access for decades.

  • Those situations played out in Smithville, near Cornelius, Pottstown, outside Huntersville, Crestdale near Matthews and Sterling, between Pineville and Charlotte.
  • In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the federal government provided grants to extend sewer and water lines to the communities, and they were annexed by their neighboring towns only after that.

Parks and recreation: The parks commission’s main goal upon its founding in 1927 appeared to be to increase property values in white neighborhoods, per the report. It maintained one five-acre park and one pool for Black people at the time, and the pool was shuttered due to lack of maintenance.

  • The opening of other facilities like Pearl Street Park changed that, but inadequate funding for recreation in Black neighborhoods persisted.
  • Even after formal segregation ended, neighborhood segregation made it difficult for families to visit places like Freedom Park, leading to demands for more parks in Black communities.

Libraries: The first free public library, the Carnegie Library, was funded by Andrew Carnegie, and its charter required the city build a public library for Black residents. That led to the creation of the Brevard Street Library in the historic Brooklyn neighborhood, but like other services for Black residents, it had to rely on community donations and was underfunded.

  • The library systems merged in 1929, before many other institutions were integrated.

Rev. Janet Garner-Mullins speaks at a press conference outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

What’s next: A coalition of more than four dozen organizations, including the local NAACP branch and clergy, is calling on the county to dedicate money from its rainy day fund to address the legacy of racism.

  • “Two million dollars allocated to respond to 154 years of harm is not adequate,” Garner-Mullins, chairperson of the Coalition for Truth and Reconciliation, said.
  • They are also asking the city that some of the funding from the recently announced $250 million racial equity initiative go toward repairing the harms it caused.
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