Where Does Johnson C. Smith Fit in the ‘New Charlotte?’

Erin Chantry writes for the Charlotte Agenda about the changing face of metropolitan Charlotte, a city once known for diverse communities which is quickly shifting to meet the needs of new industry coming to town, and accompanying urban sprawl.

Part of that transformation is the demolition of homes and communities sold for mixed development. Some of those neighborhoods were once African American enclaves powered by Johnson C. Smith University, and black intelligentsia drawn to the city by the private HBCU.

In Uptown’s Second Ward, the African-American neighborhood of Brooklyn Village was razed during the 1960’s “urban renewal” planning movement.

In the search for a new community, many of these families and businesspeople moved to what is now the Historic West End. Anchored by Johnson C. Smith University, an established African-American university, this area has grown to be rich in history and was the home of many of Charlotte’s civil rights heroes.

Now here we are again… displacing African-American culture. This is not to say that market forces and the demand for urban living is on par with a highly-debated planning movement some characterize as racist, but unfortunately, the result is the same.

It is a problem facing metropolitan HBCU cities across the country — what are the roles of black colleges in places like Atlanta, Washington D.C., Houston, Charlotte, Raleigh, Norfolk, Richmond, Nashville, and other municipalities being transformed by the needs of industry, and the desires of the professionals working in these fields?

Cities are looking to attract younger, wealthier, more diverse groups of residents working or starting businesses in manufacturing, healthcare, technology, transportation, and areas supporting governmental agencies.

Are historically black campuses located in these cities in the way, or assets in the future growth?

There’s no question that HBCUs should be considered within the asset inventory of what makes cities livable and attractive to businesses and residents. JCSU has earned headlines in recent months for student and faculty research attracting federal and private funding in STEM and enterpreneurial fields.

It is a historic campus with sports and cultural offerings, and has been the lead voice in the revitalization of Charlotte’s West End, dating back more than a decade.

But as more private developers come into the city and partner with city planners, JCSU will have to make a case to continue as the caretaker of the area’s growth and identity. If JCSU relinquishes or is forced to hand over that charge, it will face the questions and scrutiny faced by Howard University in the debate about gentrification in HBCU urban footprints.

And so will other HBCUs as cities visualize modern living and working spaces against HBCU missions and acreage. Without partnership, these schools will be fairly or unfairly targeted by residents and city lawmakers with complaints about sports event traffic, parking, foot traffic, and ‘community identity’ crises.

It is easy to say that HBCUs should have better working relationships with surrounding communities, do more to entice businesses to set up shop in their shadows, and to encourage faculty and staff to live closer to work. But what do those plans mean if cities are moving ahead with development plans which will inevitably enclose around the schools, and fail to match city amenities with campus culture and logistical needs?

If cities don’t consider their HBCUs, does it exacerbate the challenges which threaten the schools’ existence?

HBCU advocates have long fought against questions about our schools’ academic and cultural relevance, but are they ready and aware enough to add zoning and civic planning to the conversation?