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Excelsior Club added to nation's most-endangered historic sites list
Site is first from NC on preservation group roster
 
Published Friday, May 31, 2019 7:47 am
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

PHOTO | DAN MORRILL
The Excelsior Club, a longtime hub of social, civil rights and political activity, has been added to the list of America's most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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The Excelsior Club, which once counted black Charlotte’s elite among its members, is on an exclusive list of its own – America’s most endangered historic places.


The Excelsior has been placed on a list of 11 at-risk sites “at risk of destruction or irreparable damage” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which made the designation after Mary Newsom, board chair at the Charlotte Museum of History, nominated the club.


“I’ve lived in Charlotte 40 years, so I knew the history of the club and how important it was to the African American community,” she said Thursday at a press conference announcing the designation.


The Excelsior is the first North Carolina location to make the most-endangered list, according to Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The designation “puts a lot of pressure on Charlotte” to preserve the site, especially as a national treasure, he said. “It can be a good thing, or a bad thing.”


Since 1988, the National Trust has used its list to raise awareness about the threatened locales, with more than 300 sites to date, according to the group’s website, with “only a handful of sites” lost. The goal is to locate a buyer for the Excelsior who will restore the building.


Local efforts to save the Excelsior have met with mixed results. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee convening a community call to action in December. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, which tried to find a buyer for the property on Beatties Ford Road, initiated the moratorium to buy time before demolition could start. Mecklenburg County commissioners voted down a proposed deal between Cunningham and the landmarks commission that would give the commission a year to locate a buyer or purchase the property outright.


The Excelsior, which entrepreneur Jimmie McKee opened on Beatties Ford Road in 1944, was a longtime hub of African American social and political activity, but has fallen into disrepair and was closed in 2016. Its owner, N.C. Rep. Carla Cunningham, was granted a permit to demolish the site starting June 12 – which marks the end of a one-year moratorium to preserve the site. The site is for sale and Cunningham told The Post last year refurbishing the Excelsior would require at least $400,000. The property is listed for $1.5 million.


“Losing this property, with the history and uniqueness that it has—it would be noticed,” said Michael Sullivan, a Charlotte Realtor and co-founder of Preserve Mecklenburg. “We’ve lost so many relics of our past, and I think the African American community in particular [has suffered].”


McKee, who was named The Post’s “Man of the Year” in 1957, opened the Excelsior to fulfill a goal of bringing a social space to black Charlotte. A trucking company mail clerk and part-time bartender at white country clubs that barred African American members, he bought a two-story house, built in the late 1910s for $3,510 and initiated 25 men as the first members.


“The club’s growth has come because from the very beginning I’ve tried to give the best service I could, not only to the members of the club, but to the community as well,” McKee once said.


Soon, the Excelsior expanded as one of the largest private black social clubs on the East Coast, and McKee expanded and the building in 1952 into an Art Moderne structure – a rarity in modern Charlotte. As a safe space for African Americans – it was listed in Victor Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book – the Excelsior boomed in the Jim Crow South as an entertainment destination. Nat “King” Cole, Louis Armstrong and James Brown performed there in the 1950s and ‘60s. Even pop legend Prince partied at the Excelsior in the 1980s.


The club was also ground zero in local politics and civil rights. Candidates for public office, starting in 1946 with Mecklenburg County sheriff candidate Clyde Hunter to 1992 presidential hopeful Bill Clinton rallied there. Victory parties celebrated historic wins by the likes of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor to Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president.


Civil rights leaders like Charles Jones, who led Charlotte’s sit-in movement, Dr. Reginald Hawkins and attorney Julius Chambers, who won the historic Swann vs. Board of Education decision that paved the way for busing to desegregate public schools, plotted strategies at the Excelsior.


“I hope we’ll be able to preserve and restore the building,” said Aisha Dew, who lives near the Excelsior and cut her teeth as a political activist and performer at the club. “From a historical perspective, it was one of the earliest African American establishments at the time, so it’s really, really powerful. I live down the street from it, it’s in my neighborhood and to have that piece of history in the neighborhood and have a place that’s functional and functioning …I hope we get to keep it.”

Also:

Preservation committee hosts Excelsior Club town hall

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