New West End mural honors Charlotte’s Black history-makers

An unveiling ceremony for the "River of Life" mural will be announced soon.

For years Bernetta Powell, owner of the West End Fresh Seafood Market, would tell Abel Jackson she wanted him to paint “something” for her. 

That time finally came last year when Powell won a City of Charlotte Placemaking Grant, which supports artistic projects that “create and enhance community vibrancy, safety, and identity.”

Powell’s business was one of 11 winners sharing the $165,000 grant. 

Because of Covid-19, the painting process got delayed throughout 2020, but a few months ago, Jackson started the first paint strokes on “River of Life” — a mural that honors local Black history makers who have connections to the Historic West End. 

Inspiration for the mural came from a sermon by the Rev. Clifford A. Jones, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, who once referred to the Beatties Ford Road community as a “river of life” because of the many impactful people who came from and through the corridor, Jackson said.

Artist Abel Jackson working on the River of Life mural at 2206 Beatties Ford Road. Photo: Brooke Brown Photography

With that inspiration, the River of Life mural was birthed honoring Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, James Ferguson, Julius Chambers, Hattie “Chatty Hattie” Leeper, Harvey Gantt and Sarah Stevenson.

The project is an opportunity to have public art in the neighborhood that reflects its history and to also “give people their flowers now,” Jackson said.

“Beatties Ford has always been a very strong community, and so it’s essential that you have community involvement,” he said. “The artwork of that community is a reflection of the community and a way for them to express themselves and say who they are.”

Charlotte’s Black history

Iconic civil rights attorney Julius Chambers founded the first integrated law firm in North Carolina. In 1971, he won the landmark case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court authorized school busing to achieve integration of public schools. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room archives.

Julius Chambers — A Charlotte-based lawyer and civil rights activist. Chambers co-founded the first integrated law firm in North Carolina, where he won eight cases before the Supreme Court that would help shape American civil rights laws.

A man of many firsts, Chambers was the first Black editor-in-chief of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law Review. He also graduated first in his law class of 100 students in 1962. From 1963–1964, Chambers served as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in New York, having been selected by LDF’s Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall.

In July, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officially renamed Vance High School in honor of Chambers. (The school previously had been named after a former North Carolina governor and senator who fought to enact and preserve various forms of racial discrimination.) Chambers died in 2013.

James-Ferguson-excelsior-club
Charlotte Attorney James Ferguson, center, talks with reporters about the uncertain fate of the historic Excelsior Club, Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for Qcitymetro.com)

James E. “Fergie” Ferguson II — Along with fellow lawyer Julius Chambers and others, Ferguson founded North Carolina’s first integrated law firm. A Columbia Law School graduate, Ferguson is known for litigating some of the state’s most well-known civil and criminal trials, including defending the Wilmington 10. Ferguson continues to practice today at Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, P.A.

Sarah Stevenson (Photo: John D. Simmons, The Charlotte Observer

Sarah Stevenson — She was the first Black woman to serve on the Charlotte School Board of Education, from 1980-1984. U.S. Rep. Alma Adams honored Stevenson last year during a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. She called Stevenson a “crown jewel” for her work to make Charlotte’s school system more inclusive. 

Bertha Maxwell-Roddey. Photo: QCity Metro

Bertha Maxwell-Roddey was the first Black principal of Albemarle Road Elementary School and UNC Charlotte’s second full-time Black professor. In 1974, Maxwell-Roddey co-founded Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural Center, which later became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She retired from UNC Charlotte in 1986 as a Frank Porter Graham Professor Emeritus.

Hattie ‘Chatty Hattie’ Leeper — Making her radio debut in 1948 on WGIV, Leeper was the first Black woman disk jockey in North Carolina. She was inducted into both the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and the Black Radio Hall of Fame. 

An undated photo of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first Black mayor.

Harvey Gantt — An architect by profession, Gantt was Charlotte’s first Black mayor. He also was the first Black student to attend Clemson University, in 1963. In 2009, the former Afro-American Cultural Center opened its doors to a new facility in uptown and was renamed the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Visitors to the mural will be able to get a history lesson on each person honored there by scanning a QR code. 

Powell said Johnson C. Smith University is working to create a 3-D augmented reality feature, which will include video and audio.  

The figures selected for the mural, Powell said, is reflective of what residents said they wanted via surveys, but she acknowledged that there are many more history-makers from the Beatties Ford Road corridor that people should know about.

“I’m just sad that we couldn’t get everybody’s name on the wall. You know, we have people like Fred Alexander, whose house got bombed back in the day. He was the first Black person to be on city council,” Powell said. “My wall wasn’t big enough to do it, but it’s a lot of worthy people.”

A history of entrepreneurship

Brenda-Powell-West-End-Fresh-Seafood-Market
Bernetta Powell, owner of the West End Fresh Seafood Market. Photo: Gracyn Doctor | WFAE

For Powell, the West End has always been home. 

While attending West Charlotte High School, she worked after school with business owner and pharmacist Albert Phillips. Along with the pharmacy, Phillips owned a sundry, all housed in the same building at 2206 Beatties Ford Road. 

Years later, Powell returned to that same building, where her tax accountant was located. That’s when she found out that Mr. Phillips had died. That day, she said, she got a division vision. 

“I know it sounds a little crazy, but it’s the truth. At that time, there was nowhere in the West End to get a variety of fresh seafood. God put it in my head for there to be a fish market there, and from there on doors were opening and opening.”

Powell contacted Mr. Phillips’ widow and expressed interest in buying the building, which she eventually did.

As a newbie in the seafood market, Powell didn’t open her business right away — she did research on the industry and built relationships with vendors and suppliers. To gain further knowledge, she and her mother worked odd days for free at a Black- and woman-owed seafood market in Kannapolis. 

In December of 1998, West End Fresh Seafood Market officially opened its doors.

Looking back, Powell said, starting a seafood market wasn’t far off base: she loves seafood, her father was an avid fisherman, and her family is dotted with entrepreneurs and business owners. 

Both of her grandfathers owned and operated tobacco farms in Rowland, N.C. and her great-great maternal grandmother had a store in Rowland named “Rag Mop,” Powell said. 

“It was the only store that had a television and a gas station, so people would come to the store just to look at the tv,” she said. “I think the entrepreneur spirit started from her years ago. I have two uncles that had barbershops, and now my sons have been bitten with the bug too.”

Next door to Powell’s seafood market is The Shed, a drum shop and music studio owned by Clarence ‘CJ’ Powell — Bernetta Powell’s son.

As the Historic West End is transformed by new development, Powell said she hopes her store and the mural will become a beacon for those seeking to learn about some of the city’s Black history. 

“I think it’s very important that we don’t forget where we came from,” she said. “And we don’t forget our heritage too, to show that we have a wealth of people that’s done so much for us and our community.

“With the gentrification going on, we do not want to lose our identity,” she added. “We can combine identities; that’s fine. But you still don’t want to lose part of your heritage and your home.”

An unveiling ceremony for the River of Life mural will be announced soon.

Sarafina Wright
Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com or connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @sarafinasaid.

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