A local treasure
For three decades, “Ms. Mattie” has worked to preserve the character of her adopted neighborhood, Washington Heights
This is the third and final installment of “The World Should Know …” — a special series exploring a remarkable Charlottean through a written story, a podcast and an original work of art by a Charlotte-based creative made in honor of the subject. Enjoy our previous profiles of Rudean Harris and Tommie Robinson.
Mattie Marshall wasn’t born in Washington Heights.
It wasn’t even the first neighborhood she lived in when she migrated to Charlotte from New York in 1977. But she has loved and nurtured the historic westside neighborhood since she first arrived in 1989. No one has done more to enhance and preserve the character of the rapidly changing neighborhood in the 21st century. Marshall has become, in fact, synonymous with Washington Heights.
“Ms. Mattie,” as Marshall is known to many, was born in Hephzibah, Georgia, near Augusta.
“My mother birthed 20-some children,” she said. “Twelve of us survived.”
She spent her early years in the Jim Crow South. Then, she moved “out of the cotton fields,” as she put it, to Jamaica, Queens, New York. She started ninth grade there at, for the first time, an integrated school.
“My family always stressed education.” Hence, their move north.
“In Georgia, everything was just black and white,” she recalled. “In New York, there were cultures from all over the world, and I was fascinated.” Her experience in New York ignited a lifelong love and appreciation for the arts.
MAIN PHOTO CREDIT: Sarafina Wright
HEADED BACK SOUTH
“I had many opportunities after high school, but I wanted a job,” Marshall said. “I looked specifically for companies that offered tuition reimbursement. She started her post-secondary education at Queensborough Community College in New York and then went on to Rutgers University.
An early career in finance took her to some of New York’s best-known financial powerhouses. She worked at Citibank, then at Diners Club and later at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. “All the time,” she said, “I was going to school at night.”
When she tired of all the cement in New York, she came back South. It was 1977 – this time, to rapidly growing Charlotte. It was a place with plenty of trees, which she had missed. But, it was also a city – which she realized during her time in New York was the right fit for her.
She moved first to Hidden Valley, which she ultimately considered “too suburban” for her. (“I missed city life,” she said.) She took another job at a bank – this time at Barclays American Corp. – and later moved to Tryon House Apartments uptown. She could walk to work. But then she came to hate the cement again.
“I missed the trees,” she said. “I missed the grass. In Washington Heights, we’ve got these tree-lined streets.”
AT HOME IN WASHINGTON HEIGHTS
She settled on Booker Ave. in Washington Heights in a house built in 1929. She still lives there. She has been president of the Washington Heights Community Association for more than 30 years.
We asked Marshall about Washington Heights’ significance to Charlotte.
She responded in her gentle, clear voice: “I’m going to start out with one word: Perseverance.”
She talks about the richness of the history of the predominately African-American neighborhood, which was first developed in 1913 and named in honor of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. It was developed at a time when many Charlotte neighborhoods had race restrictions, leaving Black Charlotteans little choice.
Washington Heights is a “front-porch kind of place,” Marshall said. “Neighbors care about each other. It is as much about love and a commitment to community as it is about the architecture.” And the architecture is brimming with bungalows.
A NEIGHBORHOOD OF REMARKABLE NEIGHBORS
Washington Heights was originally made up of doctors, lawyers, teachers, railway porters. It was a mixed-income enclave. “A lot of African Americans with a little money created this neighborhood,” Marshall said.
“We used to be considered part of the Biddleville community,” she said. “Then, when the freeway (Brookshire, also known as I-277) came through, it kind of divided the neighborhood.”
That was in the 1970s, when Charlotte leaders built a ramp onto the Brookshire Freeway, cutting part of the neighborhood off from the rest.
“Everything used to be in close proximity, within walking distance,” Marshall recalled. “I used to tell people about one particular street in the neighborhood called Douglas Street. It was filled with beautiful houses just like what the old Brooklyn neighborhood had. And the same thing happened with Douglas Street in Washington Heights. It was destroyed when they built the freeway.”
“It bothered me because, as I say, it’s like you couldn’t cut off the arm of a person,” she said. “That’s what they did. They cut off one of our arms. At one point, I think probably in the early ‘90s, we had been promised a sound barrier. But that never came.”
A PASSION TO PRESERVE
“We kept persevering and continuing to make the neighborhood better over the years, generation after generation,” she said. “And we continue to do that. Even as new people have moved in, they have mostly respected the character of the neighborhood. We pretty much maintain the front-porch character we’ve always had.”
Just as Marshall strove to help her neighborhood, she was striving to help African-Americans build strong businesses. “Information is power,” she said.
For five years beginning in 1984, she published Mahogany, a guide to African-American businesses. “I saw deteriorating neighborhoods, and I thought part of the solution was to help circulate money within our African-American community,” she said.
She did it all herself and sold it for $3 to cover printing costs. Eventually, she took publishing classes at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) to learn how to lay it out.
PROXIMITY TO A PROUD INSTITUTION
One thing significant about Marshall’s beloved Washington Heights is its proximity to Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), which Marshall called “a hidden jewel in the city of Charlotte and a beacon of hope to so many. So many people do not realize the contributions of HBCUs; they started right after slavery ended.”
Marshall took a position at Johnson C. Smith University in 1989. She still works there, part-time, as the coordinator of the LSAMP program – Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a STEM program that encourages students to continue their science and math studies in graduate school. “We need more people of color to pursue STEM careers,” she said.
Like Marshall, JCSU has been a catalyst in making good things happen for the west side. The university was a leader in getting the Gold Line streetcar to west Charlotte. The Gold Line runs through Elizabeth, uptown and Wesley Heights before stopping at JCSU and terminating at the French St. stop.
“We made sure we [Washington Heights representatives] were at City Council meetings,” Marshall said.
“We had a strong leader in Mayor Anthony Foxx, who went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. We were looking for upward mobility. We were not looking to be gentrified or for ‘urban removal.’”
BUILDING THE FUTURE WITH ART
Marshall’s roots run deep at JSCU. In 1992, she helped create the Washington Heights Youth Services Academy along with JCSU to, as she said, “make sure our children reach their full potential.” At the academy, “Johnson C. Smith students work with young children in the Washington Heights neighborhood. There’s a lot of education and community engagement from Johnson C. Smith faculty, staff and students.”
The Youth Services Academy has brought in arts organizations such as Opera Carolina to work with neighborhood kids on creative projects. “The children actually got to write and perform their own opera,” Marshall said.
“We know that art is transformative, and it’s good for the soul and mind and body,” said the lifelong art lover. “Whenever I see an increase in violence somewhere, I always think that the arts must be missing.”
Marshall shares her love for the arts beyond her own neighborhood. She’s on the board of the Arts and Science Council (ASC).
“Culture Blocks are a big piece of what the ASC does – bringing arts and culture to where people live,” she said. That includes, of course, her own neighborhood.
“We are blessed to have Northwest School of the Arts as part of our neighborhood,” she continued. “We participate in things that are going on there. There are so many assets all around us. I am not one to engage in a deficit conversation – not when I am surrounded by all these blessings.”
THERE’S MORE TO THE STORY
Explore more of Mattie Marshall’s story through special content created to accompany this story.
Hear Mattie Marshall share her story in her own words. Click below to enjoy a conversation with Ms. Marshall conducted by Tim Miner.
ORIGINAL VISUAL ART
To complement this story, please click the images below for a closer look at a pair of custom shoes created by Charlotte artist DeNeer Davis in Ms. Mattie’s honor. See them below.
“The World Should Know” is a special content series developed by Charlotte Is Creative in partnership with Tom Hanchett and Winston Robinson and sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council.
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