Barbara Brewton Cameron, best known as the woman who defied drug gangs to clean up one of Charlotte’s meanest neighborhoods, died last week in a Florida hospital. She was in her early 60s.
Relatives say she suffered a stroke while visiting one of her two daughters over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Cameron, an ordained minister and mother of three, received national acclaim for the work she did fighting crime in the Double Oaks community in the 1980s. City officials later renamed the area Genesis Park, a nod to its new beginning.
Cameron was founder and senior pastor of Community Outreach Christian Ministries, which operates the Harvest Center, a west Charlotte charity with a mission to “meet the spiritual and physical needs of the homeless and to restore them to full and productive lives.”
She became known as the Mother Teresa of Genesis Park, and her work received funding from some of the region’s most prominent donors. Actor Larry Hagman once raffled off his Ferrari to support the Harvest Center.
At the center’s headquarters just off Oaklawn Avenue, the homeless and poor come daily seeking help. A team of volunteers, mostly members of her church, supplies them with food, health screenings and spiritual uplift. Some leave with basic grooming, such as haircuts; others are tested for HIV-AIDS.
The day after Cameron died, a note was taped to the center’s door: “FOOD PANTRY IS CLOSED TODAY.”
A young mother who last month got bags of groceries from the center stopped by to offer her condolences. Finding the doors locked tight, she waited in her car, penning her thoughts inside a sympathy card.
“We were down to our last,” she told Qcitymetro. “We were taking bill money to buy food.”
The woman asked that her name not be used out of respect for her husband.
Days after receiving assistance, the woman returned as a volunteer, she said, and upon learning of Cameron’s death, she wondered aloud what more she might do.
“It’s hard right now for everybody,” she said. “This place has been such a blessing. I know it will continue to be a blessing.”
Leroy Gray, who said he was a deacon at Community Outreach, described Cameron as a “wonderful person who cared about everyone.”
“She’s going to be missed,” he said. “She changed this whole neighborhood. “The love was great here. They didn’t look down on a person. If a person was down in the street, they’d lift you up.”
Cameron was born in Charlotte, the eldest of eight children. She revered her mother, who often went out of her way to help others who were less fortunate, according to published reports. Her father, she said, was in and out, and eventually left the family for good.
She once told the Charlotte Observer that many of the men who came to her ministry reminded her of her dad.
One night in 1973, Casey Brewton, her husband of five years, was shot and killed in Double Oaks, leaving her with three small children. Angry and depressed, she left the crime-riddled community, vowing never to return.
The New York Times had dubbed Double Oaks one of the most violent neighborhoods in America. Drug gangs openly fought for turf. Syringes littered a forgotten park where children once played.
In a 2006 interview with Spirited Woman Magazine, Brewton said that was when God began to work in her life. Through reading Scripture, she said, she became especially concerned about the community’s children.
“That’s when God said, ‘Go rescue my children,’“ she was quoted as saying. “Not only the young children, but all those that are trapped in a world they can’t escape on their own.”
In 1982 she rented a small house not far from the neighborhood park and and called it Mission House. The center had a modest food center and soup kitchen. She began distributing clothing to the poor and held cookouts for neighborhood children. She organized church services.
Not everyone was happy with her return to Double Oaks. The drug dealers who controlled neighborhood streets began issuing threats. She lobbied city officials for more police presence in the community. She worked with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, Habitat for Humanity and others to buy dilapidated houses from slumlords and get it into the hands of neighborhood owners.
Years later, a Philadelphia man told Cameron that he had been hired by the Charlotte drug dealers to kill her, because she was hurting their business. He told her that after seeing her, something inside would not let him carry out the hit.
Imperceptibly at first, Double Oaks began to change. Cameron later bought a property nearby where she opened Community Outreach Christian Ministries. She later built the Harvest Center annex.
In 1994 she married a fellow pastor named Houston Cameron.
By the fall of 1997, violent crime in the community had dropped 77 percent. City officials renamed the area Genesis Park and gave it street names such as Peaceful Way. The complex of buildings that today houses Brewton’s ministry rests at the corner of Oaklawn Avenue and Brewton Drive.