Former North Carolina home is part of black history likely to avoid demolition

J. Wilson Alexander Tenant House at Cornelius is one of the last surviving examples of a tenancy house in Mecklenburg County.

J. Wilson Alexander Tenant House at Cornelius is one of the last surviving examples of a tenancy house in Mecklenburg County.

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An early 20th-century smallholding in Cornelius, whose history is important to the black community, looks likely to be spared demolition.

The J. Wilson Alexander House, which was built in the early 1900s, sits on the site of a mixed-use residential and commercial development project.

Now a new handshake agreement between the city and the developer means the historic building will be moved to another part of the property, according to a local historian and Cornelius town officials.

The house plan is the latest effort to save a number of sites in Mecklenburg County with ties to the black community, including the Excelsior Club along Beatties Ford Road and the Morgan School in the Charlotte’s Cherry community.

Cornelius’ house is one of the last tenant houses of this type in the county of Mecklenburg. Its namesake was a prominent cotton farmer who rented the modest one-story house to laborers who worked the land.

Not much has been recorded about the home of tenant J. Wilson Alexander, according to an architectural assessment by engineering consulting firm Terracon. But this is an example of a farm gate.

After the Civil War, sharecropping, or sharecropping, emerged as a system in which formerly enslaved people rented homes and land for farming from white landowners and returned the profits to the landowner.

Cornelius Site Maps

As of October 2020, the fate of the unoccupied home has remained in limbo after the City Board of Commissioners approved a rezoning plan by Florida developer Win Development.

Win’s plans call for the construction of more than 100 freestanding senior housing units, 77 single-family homes and more than 120,000 square feet of commercial space, including a grocery store.

The tenants’ home, estimated to be less than 1,000 square feet, sits on the northwest corner of the approximately 55-acre development site.

Win worked with the city and the nonprofit group Preserve Mecklenburg to save the house. One plan was to move the house twice: once off the site while a park was built on the property, then back to the park once it was completed.

But that plan ran into a few problems, and most agreed that moving the house twice might not be the best idea given its age and condition, said Wayne Herron, deputy director of Cornelius.

New plan, new location

That’s when Win stepped in and said the developers would be interested in moving the house to a prominent, tree-covered corner on the property, Herron told the Observer on Tuesday. The corner is at the intersection of West Catawba Avenue and Westmoreland Road.

The new site wouldn’t require a long-distance move, but it does mean Win must submit a modified application, Herron said. The City Council of Commissioners would then hold a public hearing and vote on this request.

As part of the deal, Win is likely to request 13 additional senior housing units, according to Herron and Dan Morrill, a prominent local historian who works with Preserve Mecklenburg.

A representative for Win Development declined to comment on Tuesday.

Herron said he presented the deal to city commissioners, who indicated they would be willing to support the idea.

Win has until the end of the week to file an amended request if she wants to be on the May 16 agenda.

The city, the developer and Preserve Mecklenburg ran into an April 12 deadline to come up with a solution to move the house. That’s because the development site includes a creek, Morrill said. A federal environmental review process has been triggered, setting the deadline and also requiring a review of any impact on historic resources.

The state accepted a consultant’s report that the house was eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore a preservation solution should be sought.

About J. Wilson Alexander

J. Wilson Alexander was a prominent farmer in Mecklenburg County in the early 1900s.

Born in 1887, Alexander later served for many years on the county school board, according to Morrill. In 1928 he won a state award for producing more cotton per acre than any other North Carolina farmer.

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J. Wilson Alexander was a prominent farmer in Mecklenburg County around the 1930s. He owned a large farm in Cornelius where a farmhouse still stands today. Observer Archives

That year, it produced 816 pounds of cotton lint per acre during the growing season, according to Susan V. Mayer, a historical research and preservation consultant who researched the property. The standard at that time was 212 pounds.

According to Morrill, sharecroppers and sharecroppers made up a significant portion of the population of Mecklenburg County until the Great Depression. The majority of these farm workers were black, he said, but there were also white sharecroppers.

At one time, Mecklenburg County had hundreds of homes, as did the J. Wilson Alexander Tenant House. There are very few left today.

“It’s a rare historical artifact,” Morrill told the Observer.

In the past month, Mayer has found records of at least one black family who rented the Alexander home. Census records from 1940 show John Norman lived in the house with his wife, Camoline, and their seven children and one granddaughter, according to Mayer’s research.

The Alexandre tenant house has three rooms, one of which has a fireplace, as well as a kitchen area and a bathroom. “It’s an incredibly humble residence,” Mayer said.

A “game changer” in Cornelius

Win Development’s project will be a game-changer for Cornelius, said Deputy City Manager Herron. A project cost estimate was not immediately available.

But it will be at a prominent intersection and will include a grocery store and possibly other amenities like restaurants. Senior housing will fill a big need in the city for people looking to downsize, Herron said.

The developer has already filed grading permits and other permits, which generally means construction could begin within the next three to four months.

The corner where the tenants house will go will be among taller oak trees. These will not be removed or affected, Herron said.

He said one possible use of the house would be “passive recreation”. This means people could come upstairs to look inside the house – not enter it – and see what it looks like. He envisions a sign nearby that explains the story.

“Being able to see something that was about the (Alexander) family on the site and the Cornelius story, that’s a good thing,” Herron said.

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Gordon Rago covers the growth and development of The Charlotte Observer. He was previously a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and began his journalism career in 2013 at the Shoshone News-Press in Idaho.

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