Visiting with Rudean Harris on Charlotte’s West Side
This is the first 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. Today’s subject is Rudean Harris.
Today, the sign outside the one-story brick building at 2228 Beatties Ford Road says “Buzz City Bar & Grill.” But generations of Black Charlotteans knew it simply as “Rudean’s.” She opened it when she was just a teenager.
Rudean Harris is retired now, but she loves to share memories. For nearly half a century – from 1957 to 2016 – she helped knit together a community, offering comfort food and a comforting shoulder.
To capture her story and her perspective on her experiences over six decades of running a restaurant, Charlotte Is Creative asked Rudean (accompanied by her daughter, Nichelle Harris) to have a chat with two history-minded listeners.
Winston Robinson has spent most of his 40 years on the westside, son of beloved Charlotte artist Tommie Robinson. He is the founder of Applesauce Group. Tom Hanchett, a longtime Charlotte historian, writes often about neighborhoods along the Beatties Ford corridor for his website HistorySouth.com. [Listen to an extended interview with Rudean on a companion podcast created for this story.]
Here are some highlights, to whet your appetite:
- Rudean is known to have a big heart for folks struggling through hard times. She had first-hand experience, one of five kids on a farm in segregated South Carolina. She says she didn’t know how to smile until she was a teenager because there was little to smile about.
- School was a three-mile walk each way. “Back then we could not ride the bus. The white folks would ride the bus and pass by and throw eggs … and rocks at us.”
- Rudean’s mother died, and her father became disabled. An aunt who lived in Charlotte’s Cherry neighborhood took them in.
“WHERE’S THE MONEY?”
“She had four children and six of us,” said Rudean of her aunt. “All of us lived in a three-room house. We’d be on the floor, the beds, the pallet, wherever, but she kept us in her house.”
A highlight of big-city life, Rudean recalls with a smile, was store-bought bread from the Merita Bakery.
“We were so glad to get some light bread,” she said. “Because we were used to eating homemade bread in the country, cornbread and biscuits.”
Rudean’s father insisted that every child find paying work.
“He’d always sit beside the front door,” said Rudean.
“If you were working, your payday, he’d always know when the payday was. If you walked by him … he’d call and say, ‘Hey, you forgot something.’ And we would say, ‘What?’ He’d say, ‘You didn’t put the money in my hand. Where’s the money?’”
A PLACE WHERE EVERYBODY IS SOMEBODY
By age 15, Rudean had parlayed a job washing dishes into heading up her own restaurant in the 1950s. She started out at 2228 Beatties Ford, initially known as the West Side Drive-In. She changed the name to “Rudean’s” once she became old enough to sell beer. Over the years, she would move to other spots, including Oaklawn Avenue and Third Ward.
Rudean most vividly remembers her location on McDowell Street. Today it’s an avenue best known for the Le Meridien Hotel tower. But, then was a main boulevard of the big African-American neighborhood known as “Brooklyn.”
“McDowell was downtown for us Black folks.” Rudean’s eyes light up when she says this. “When you went to McDowell, everybody was — you could find any and everybody on McDowell. You put on your clothes and walked down McDowell Street.”
“Oh, you looked like money! Everybody was somebody. I don’t care if they didn’t have a job. Just put a suit on and walk down McDowell.”
BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND LATE-NIGHT ON BEATTIES FORD ROAD
Urban renewal in the 1960s wiped out the Brooklyn neighborhood to build today’s government center, so Rudean came back to Beatties Ford Road. Her place became a salon for Charlotte leaders for breakfast and lunch and a regular haunt for a late-night crowd in search of wings and a place to go for kindness and a hot meal.
She welcomed customers from every walk of life: Black history-makers such as County Commissioner Rowe “Jack” Motley and WBTV newscaster Ken Koontz, teenagers from West Charlotte High, farm youths who walked into town looking for work, celebrants at the annual convocations of the nearby United House of Prayer for All People.
And street people. Rudean kept a stash of white T-shirts to give away to folks who came in dirty and disheveled. She stuck with customers who took out their worldly troubles by disrespecting Rudean herself – even the notorious “Joe the Butcher.” [For the whole story, listen to the companion podcast.]
“You got to make people feel like they’re somebody,” said Rudean. “If you know a little boy’s real bad, and everybody else is saying, ‘He’s so bad, he’s this and he’s that.’ If you put your arms ’round to hug him and say, ‘Come on, let’s go over here and talk. Let’s sit down and talk….’”
“If you make them feel like they’re somebody, too, there wouldn’t be as much trouble as there is today.”
THERE’S MORE TO THE STORY
Explore more of Rudean Harris’ story through special content created to accompany this story.
Enjoy the full conversation with Rudean Harris conducted by Winston Robinson and Tom Hanchett.
PHOTO PORTRAIT GALLERY
To complement this story, Charlotte photographer, Will Jenkins arranged a special portrait session with Rudean and her family. See it 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.
It was created to help keep stories of Charlotte’s past alive — stories of neighborhoods and neighbors that have been foundational to our past, but are in danger of being lost to time in our future.
Enjoy the conversation. Remember the story. Share it with someone else.
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