Harvey Boyd is surrounded by black history.
He lives in a modest ranch home his parents built 65 yeas ago in the Crestdale community in Matthews.
From his wall hangs an aging brass plaque recognizing him as the person who designed the Mecklenburg County seal in 1964.
Across the street stands the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, co-founded by his great-great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Calvin Boyd, in 1867.
It’s hard to avoid black history in Crestdale, one of the nation’s oldest historically black communities, established by former slaves just after the Civil War.
Now Boyd and others are working with the Arts & Science Council and The Light Factory to preserve their community’s past – as well as to recognize its current diversity.
On Saturday, residents gathered on the lawn of Crestdale’s United House of Prayer to share historic photos, personal recollections and family histories. They told their stories to video cameras and had their photos and historic documents scanned into computers.
Using a grant from Crossroads Charlotte, the arts groups will create an exhibit made up of videos, photos and fabrics. Early next year, the work will go on display at the Matthews Community Center. Organizers say they also hope to show the exhibit in other North Carolina towns.
If tiny Crestdale had a resident historian, Harvey Boyd would be it. His family helped settle the community in 1867.
A 1970 graduate of Howard University, Boyd said he worked as a graphic designer in Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. He also lived in Saudi Arabia, helping design Saudi textbooks. He returned to Crestdale in 1988 to care for his aging mother, now 99 years old.
Boyd recalls a time when the Charlotte region was dotted with historically black communities settled by former slaves. They had names like Dixie, Brookhill, Beattytown, Biddleville and Brooklyn. Today, nearly all have vanished, victims of economics and progress.
Boyd said he’s happy to see the arts groups working to preserve Crestdale’s history, but he wishes more could be done.
“It’s time to highlight our history,” he said. “It’s American history. When I go to New York, I see Chinatown. Why shouldn’t I see my history?”
History – it’s a topic that Boyd speaks of repeatedly.
“So many of our communities have no history, but I know we have history,” he said. “Normally, our history is written by people who don’t know our stories.”
Most locals, he said, would be surprised to know that a black man designed the Mecklenburg seal.
Boyd said his drawing was chosen after he entered a contest at age 19. The judges had no idea he was black, he said, until he walked into the room to accept his award.
“That may be why I didn’t get anything for it,” he joked. “They probably were giving away a car until they saw me.”
Once an isolated community, Crestdale is now part of Matthews. Only a handful of its original families remain. Most left seeking better jobs in Charlotte, Boyd said.
But Crestdale recently has seen a modest rebirth. In the 1980s, the federal government began relocating Montagnard families there from Vietnam. The Montagnards had fought alongside U.S. troops in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of Crestdale’s original families also began moving back, thanks to a Habitat for Humanity project that build affordable homes.
Today, Crestdale’s black community lives just a stone’s throw from the small Montagnard enclave, but the two communities have almost no social interaction, residents say.
Dee Grano, The Light Factory’s director of marketing, said that in addition to preserving Crestdale’s past, she hopes the art exhibition will help draw Crestdale residents closer. The Montagnard families also were invited to share their history as part of the Crestdale project.
“It’s really a community-building effort,” Grano said. “It’s about getting people together to learn more about one another and build a more cohesive community.”
Crestdale’s biggest challenge, however, may be progress. Located along a railroad track and a short walk from downtown, the land is prime for new development. And before the current economic slump, residents say, developers were eager to buy land there.
Boyd, who co-owns about 2.5 acres, said development is inevitable. But when it comes, he said, he wants to make sure black landowners benefit, too. For him, that means partnering with developers, not simply selling their property and moving away.
Much of Crestdale’s land already has left black hands, he said.
Just outside Boyd’s home stands a large sign promoting White Development LLC. Smiling families – black and white – beam down at passersby.
Three years ago, before the economy turned bad, Boyd and a partner dreamed of building 11 houses on the land, he said. But with four houses presold, he said, money from the bank dried up.
“Here it is 1929 all over again,” he said.
Boyd said he wants to make sure he and other black landowners don’t miss the next development boom.
“It’s absolutely necessary for my generation to do this,” he said. “The older generation didn’t do it. They did what they could… We had it and we let it go. We didn’t use it to our benefit.”
Boyd said some longtime resident are wary of land speculators. Older residents still recall what happened to Ablow Weddington Stewart in 1942, he said.
According to news accounts, Stewart lost 35 acres in Crestdale when a white lawyer refused to let her pay off a $540 debt and foreclosed on her property.
The Stewart family’s story was part of a 2001 Associated Press series that spotlighted cases nationwide where black families were cheated out of their land. The Stewart property today is developed with middle-income home.
“To me,” Boyd said, “things go around in circles. I can see things today that parallel to things that happened yesterday.”