In Historic West End, neighbors bond and learn community history on slow, Sunday walks

The idea for a "West Side Walk and Talk" had been percolating for years, but then came the long, hot summer of 2020.

Every Sunday morning in northwest Charlotte, a small group of people gather in the parking lot at First Baptist Church-West. They arrive dressed in leggings and trainers rather than suits and heels, but after a one-mile stroll through the Beatties Ford Corridor, they still walk away feeling like their spirits have been fed.

The idea for a “West Side Walk and Talk” had been percolating for years, but it never gained momentum. Then came the long, hot summer of 2020, with its barrage of deadly police encounters. The inaugural walk took place Aug. 23, the same weekend Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by a White police officer.

A flyer for the event promotes its as a “casual walk and conversation with friends.” Topics have ranged from the trivial (favorite Black movies) to the important (financial investments) to the philosophical (what gives you a sense of wholeness).

On a recent walk, residents discussed the death of Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was fatally shot in her Louisville apartment as White police officers were executing a no-knock warrant.

The organizers are advocates for Black homeownership, and during the walks they unabashedly tout the virtues of the neighborhoods to attendees, who run the gamut in age and occupation.

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The walks started with McCrorey Heights residents Sean Langley and Winston Robinson, who live two houses apart. Both attended HBCUs, Johnson C. Smith University and Winston-Salem State respectively, and as both were married with small children, they began meeting up to walk with their kids.

They ran into other neighbors doing the same. Colena Corbett, who lives a few streets over, eventually joined. Robinson leveraged his extensive network to get the word out, and Corbett started the neighborhood’s Instagram page.

“We just thought the time had come to build a stronger sense of community together,” Robinson said. “We were stressed out; we were looking for a break. The idea was to provide a safe Black space, and where else is Blacker than off Beatties Ford Road? Where else is your Blackness not only always accepted but appreciated?”

The walks begin at 8:45 a.m. Led by Robinson and Langley, the troupe traces a course through McCrorey Heights, which was developed by its namesake, H.L. McCrory, the first Black president of nearby Johnson C. Smith University and is called “the neighborhood of firsts” for the number of prominent African Americans who lived here. Other times the path leads through Oaklawn Park, which is in the process of finalizing its historical designation. Biddleville and Seversville sometimes make the cut as well.

While walking, Robinson and Langley share stories about the area. Langley, a graduate of JCSU, learned a lot of the history just by checking in on his older neighbors. Occasionally, the group will come across one of these neighborhood denizens out for a walk, which sometimes leads to a lesson in oral history. Civil rights hero Dorothy Counts-Scoggins came off her porch one Sunday to share her story of desegregating Charlotte schools as a teen. Another day, Korean war veteran Joseph Delane offered his view on the times.

“That’s priceless. You can’t get that anywhere else,” Langley said.

‘Come Home’

The tagline for the walks is “Come on Home,” and that’s another aspect of their purpose. The organizers are advocates for Black homeownership, and during the walks they unabashedly tout the virtues of the neighborhoods to those who live in other parts of the city.

Robinson, a native Charlottean, lived in Wilmore and attended First Mayfield Memorial Baptist Church on Oaklawn Avenue as a child. Every Sunday after service, his mother would drive the family through McCrorey Heights, pointing out the homes of teachers, doctors and professors.

“I honestly wanted to live here my entire life. McCrorey Heights was almost like a concept for me, something other than what I saw in my neighborhood, where the crack era was in swing,” he said. “I came from a community left in peril to a community where people came together to do immaculate things.”

Now as a resident of McCrorey Heights, Robinson said he feels a responsibility to advance its legacy and protect its integrity. “Honestly, I’m recruiting. We want homeowners, families, people looking to build a future here,” he said.

It appears to be working. Several walkers have closed on houses in the historic West End, and others are attracted or actively looking. Jenelle Kellam, a well-known tastemaker who is part of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, drives over each Sunday from her home in the Northlake area. A few of her friends already live in McCrorey Heights and Oaklawn Park. Kellam says the walks are great for learning the history of the area and getting some exercise in, but the real draw is the sense of community.

“Talking to like-minded folks from all walks keeps me coming back. It’s the connection,” she said. “I’d eventually like to move in. I’d recommend the walks to anyone who values community or just likes to learn things.”

Growing up in Preston, Virginia, she was often the only African American in the classroom or in social settings.

“Although I never felt like I wasn’t supposed to be someplace because I’m Black, I’ve become more aware of microaggressions the last couple of years as I learn more about myself and this country and see what’s happening in the world,” Kellam said. “In these COVID times, I’ve done more connecting to what is familiar to myself and my roots. The walks are another way I have connected to myself as a person.”

In addition to attracting new residents to the community, the walks seem to be restitching ties between current members, according to Corbett. In the weeks since walking, she’s not only met long-time neighbors she didn’t know, but as the community manager on the Instagram page, she’s been connecting more with former residents and others with some kind of tie, be it familial or professional. They send archival photos and copies of historical documents that digitally tell the stories of the area.

“Sometimes between chauffeuring kids and working, checking on our neighbors or seeing how one of our elders are doing gets lost in the shuffle,” she said. “The digital storytelling is a way to connect new homeowners to elders who have lived here many years. It’s another way for us to know our neighbors.”

Said Langley: “Some people don’t see the value in living amongst their own people. Or they ask about schools or grocery stores, but don’t see that this is beyond that. It’s Charles Jones’ beloved community, and the right people see that. They yearn for it.” 

This article is part of a Historic West End journalism project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Sign up for our West End Connect newsletter to keep up with our reporting.

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