Putting Davis House in Order

Putting Davis House in Order

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The two-story Queen Anne-style dwelling, once the home of the first Black professor at Johnson C. Smith University here, was the most impressive house on the block in its day.
But 105 years of wear has stolen the grandeur from the structure known as the Davis House. Now, it is boarded up, its roof ready to cave in and its interior vandalized.
The nonprofit Historic Charlotte group led a lobbying effort earlier this year to persuade the General Assembly to ante up $500,000 to restore the home. But after Hurricane Floyd left much of the state in need of  reconstruction, the state Legislature decided against giving the group the money.
However, school officials did manage to snag a small $25,000 grant from the state to finance the redesign of the Davis House.
“The house shows the success of African Americans early on and needs to be saved,” says David Ritch, immediate past president of Historic Charlotte. “I’m not sure people realize there was an African American middle class during that time period.”
The effort is the latest evidence of growing interest in preserving historic Black buildings.
“Our understanding and appreciation of history has gone from preserving houses owned by generals and plantation owners to one that looks at what all people have done,” says David Brook, the state’s historic preservation officer.
In many communities, Black historic buildings have been overlooked in the past because preservation favored more architecturally impressive buildings, officials say.
“The reality is — particularly when you look back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow — that many African Americans didn’t have the money to buy significant property,” says Dan Morrill, consulting director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission. “That doesn’t mean those buildings are any less important.”
In Gaston County and Hickory, historic preservation commissions have applied for state money to inventory Black historic sites in their communities, a necessary first step to someday restoring those structures. In Raleigh, officials have refurbished an old Black neighborhood near Shaw University.
Two years ago, the state created the North Carolina African American Network on Historic Preservation to advise communities how to identify and save Black landmarks.
Various groups in Charlotte are looking at restoring at least a half-dozen sites, including Biddle Hall, also on Johnson C. Smith’s campus, along with the Davis House.
The house was built by George and Marie Davis in the 1890s. George Davis was the first African American professor at the university; Marie Davis was the principal at Charlotte’s Fairview School for 33 years. The couple built smaller houses around their home, creating a well-to-do Black neighborhood.
After he sold the home to the university, it was used for years as housing for professors and students. Two years ago, the school closed it because it was in such disrepair.
In March, university officials began a $5.5 million campaign to overhaul Biddle Memorial Hall, the university’s main administrative building since it was constructed in 1883. They’ve already raised $3.5 million — including two grants of $1 million each from the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Co. — and several other smaller donations from alumni and private sources.
The school’s president, Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancy, says that after a trip to Israel last year where she visited several colleges, she got the idea of allowing people to purchase individual items in the building, which has helped the fund-raising campaign greatly.
“These buildings are our heritage,” Yancy says. “Biddle Hall is the heartbeat and centerpiece of the campus. There’s not a generation of students that have come through Johnson C. Smith that have not used that building.”
Now, it’s in such bad shape that the top two floors are shut off from public use.
But Yancy says the building, which sits on the highest point in the city, is majestic.
“It’s just the jewel of Charlotte and the jewel of the campus,” she says.
Yet Yancy says that she and her colleagues who attempt to raise money for historic building preservation face a tough struggle.
“It’s very difficult to raise money for historic maintenance. People seem more prone to give money for new things,” she says. “It’s kind of hard to raise money for your house when it’s falling down around your ears.”
Still, she presses on. “I just wish we could save them all,” she says.   
— Jamilah Evelyn and the Associated Press



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