The Race to Find a New Owner for a Historic African American Club in Charlotte, North Carolina
June 12, 2019.
That’s the date that many people with deep ties to the Excelsior Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, have circled on their calendars. It marks exactly one year since a demolition permit was filed for the building by its owner, and with it, the expiration of its one year of protection owing to its designation as a local landmark. In other words, a focal point of Charlotte’s African American community throughout the era of the Civil Rights movement—and one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places of 2019—may soon face the wrecking ball.“Losing this property, with the history and uniqueness that it has—it would be noticed,” says Michael Sullivan, co-founder of the preservation group Preserve Mecklenburg and a local realtor. “We’ve lost so many relics of our past, and I think the African American community in particular [has suffered].”
Jimmie McKee established the Excelsior Club in 1944, the fulfillment of a long-held dream. While bartending in country clubs around Charlotte (he also worked as a mail clerk at a trucking company to support his six siblings), he observed the lack of comparable clubs that accommodated African Americans. After researching best practices gleaned from successful clubs, McKee purchased a two-story, Foursquare-style house, built in the late 1910s or early 1920s, for $3,510 and welcomed 25 men as the Excelsior’s first members.
Within just a few years, many times that number had joined. Soon the Excelsior had become one of the largest private black social clubs on the East Coast. To meet the needs of his expanding clientele, McKee expanded and remodeled the building in 1952 into the Art Moderne structure it remains today. Using a design he likely drew up himself, he replaced the hip roof with a flat parapet one, built a two-story concrete addition, and added identical glass-block windows to the building’s facade. White stucco was used to completely coat the exterior, and a new aluminum canopy provided cover for new arrivals. Inside, dark wood paneling helped create a more welcoming ambiance, while blue-and-yellow sofas and armchairs served as playful furnishings in keeping with the building’s architectural theme.
With a fresh new look, the Excelsior Club flourished as a posh social and political hub in the pre-integration South. Performers such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong are said to have graced its ballroom’s stage. It was listed in Victor Green's Negro Motorist Green Book as a safe place for traveling African Americans to visit. Many local candidates for public office seeking to rally votes from the African American community held campaign events at the club, starting in 1946 with Clyde Hunter, who successfully ran for county sheriff. McKee would earn a plaque from the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party in a 1975 ceremony for his decades of support.
Despite its rapid growth, exclusivity remained a defining quality of the Excelsior Club. Candidates to join required a recommendation from a current member, then underwent a thorough screening. Applicants ranged from doctors and lawyers to teachers and businessmen. Being accepted into the club meant recognition as a respected member of the community, as well as becoming a beneficiary of McKee’s ministrations. “The club’s growth has come because from the very beginning I’ve tried to give the best service I could, not only to the members of the club, but to the community as well,” McKee once said.
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McKee died in 1986, and the club passed through another owner's hands before Rep. Pete Cunningham acquired it in 1988. Under his stewardship, the club resembled its midcentury heyday more than at any point since. But after he died in 2010, things began slowing down. Events became fewer and farther between. Years of deferred maintenance caught up to the building, which still requires approximately $400,000 of repairs just to bring it up to code. Cunningham's wife, Rep. Carla Cunningham, shuttered the club in 2016 and filed the demolition permit two years later.
Sullivan has watched Charlotte lose many historic places over the years as part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (CMHLC), which he chaired for two terms, and now Preserve Mecklenburg. The Good Samaritan Hospital and the Coffee Cup restaurant are just two examples of functioning historic buildings that were demolished nonetheless.
“Anytime that there’s change, there’s repercussions,” Sullivan says. “And one of them is that Charlotte, like a lot of Southern cities, has lost a lot of its historic properties due to spurts of growth.”
The CMHLC bestowed the local landmark designation that bought the Excelsior Club a year of safety. It has saved some properties by purchasing them and placing covenants on them that guarantee their preservation, including the Grace AME Zion Church and the W.T. Alexander House. It hoped to do the same for the Excelsior Club and the land it occupies, but Cunningham’s asking price of $1.5 million exceeds its budget. And with the more immediate threat of the demolition permit, thinking years ahead is a luxury that Sullivan and concerned parties cannot yet afford.“Saving it for posterity would be the main hope,” says Sullivan. “But if you’re in dire straits, you’re not really thinking about long-term. You’re just trying to get out of this [current] situation. Hopefully whoever buys the property will have plans to preserve it.”
Considering the swiftness with which the city is evolving in the area around the Excelsior Club, finding a buyer with both financial means and an appreciation of its history will be an immense challenge. Gentrification and displacement have become hot-button issues in Charlotte. Property values are skyrocketing—Sullivan estimates that the city’s Belmont neighborhood has seen a 400% increase in the last 18 months—at the expense of adequate low-income housing. The historically black neighborhood of Washington Heights, where the Excelsior Club is located, faces the same problems. The land the club sits on is worth more than the building itself to the average developer.
As June 12 approaches, Preserve Mecklenburg, the CMHLC, and community leaders are working ever harder to find someone who will step forward. Sullivan is leveraging his real estate connection to spread the word about the property’s availability and hopes its appearance on the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list will boost visibility. For those who remember what the Excelsior Club was, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Sullivan has spoken with many of them. “They would talk about the dances that they would have there, and the bands that would come, and the social hours, and the political maneuvering that took place in special meetings,” he says. “And you could just see in their eyes what that place meant to them, and still means to them.
“It’s important that we don’t lose any of these [places] that we shouldn’t. I hope that that’s not going to be the case here.”
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