1635 Oaklawn Avenue

This is a draft, now being reviewed by members of the McCrorey Heights Neighborhood Association. Please share comments with Tom@HistorySouth.org 

Oaklawn-1635-b-web

Built in 1949. First owner-occupants – Thomas H. Wyche & Grace L. They resided here all their lives, til Thomas’s death in 1997 and Grace’s death at age 92 in 2016.

Thomas Wyche ranked as one of the Carolinas’ most important Civil Rights attorneys, part of the national network of NAACP lawyers who worked together to attack segregation during the 1940s – 1960s. Wyche played an active role in nearly every major and minor Civil Rights action that touched Charlotte, including desegregation of the airport, schools and health care, as well as the sit-in movement, the 1961 Freedom Ride and the trial of international Civil Rights rebel Robert Williams. Wyche later helped start Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont in 1967, today an important resource for low-income Charlotte-area residents. Wife Grace was a career school librarian who partnered with her husband in activism.

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Thomas Wyche came from one of Charlotte’s most distinguished families. Legal training at Howard University pulled him into the national orbit of NAACP lawyer-activists. In Charlotte he tirelessly strove to find cases that could set local and national Civil Rights precedents.

Attorney Wyche’s father Rev. Robert P. Wyche pastored First United Presbyterian Church on Seventh Street, the top African American institution in a city known for its strong Presbyterian heritage. Seventh Street Church, as it was also called, had begun soon after the Civil War when newly freed African Americans left white-led First Presbyterian Church to start their own congregation. Among Rev. Wyche’s accomplishments was construction of the impressive brick church building in 1896, today an official Charlotte Mecklenburg historic landmark. Rev. Wyche also served over 40 years as a Trustee of Biddle Institute, helping oversee its transition from a basic preparatory academy into Johnson C. Smith University. A profile in the 1921 book The History of the Negro and His Institutions applauded him as “a man who, though beginning his life as a slave, has found the largest freedom in a life of service of others.”

Rev. Wyche married twice. His first wife Isabella opened Myers Street School in 1886, the city’s first educational facility built for African American children, and served as its principal until her death in 1906. When the city built several new schools in the 1930s, it named Isabella Wyche Elementary in her honor. After Isabella’s death, Rev. Wyche remarried. Sarah E. Long Wyche bore two sons, Robert P. Wyche, Jr.(1915 – 10.13.1975), and Thomas Wyche (10.29.1919 – 3.11.1997).

As a teenager at Second Ward High School, Thomas demonstrated his talent for organization when he helped create the Swanks social club. The seven original members included Ray Booton, Jr., who would become the first African American on Charlotte’s police force in 1946, and Gerson Stroud, later a key school principal during desegregation. The group stuck together the rest of their lives.

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After graduating from Biddle University, Thomas went off to Howard University in Washington, DC, the red-hot heart of a rumbling Civil Rights volcano. Law school dean Charles Hamilton Houston had begun training a network of Civil Rights attorneys in the 1930s for the NAACP, sending them out across the nation. Thurgood Marshall would become the best known, erupting into national prominence when he filed the Brown v Board of Education lawsuit in 1951. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown in 1954 declared “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Brown was just one of many cases filed by Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), drawing upon lawyers — many of them Howard graduates — it kept on retainer [correct term?] in key cities such as Spottswood Robinson III in Richmond, James Nabrit III in Washington, DC. and Conrad Pearson in Durham, N.C. Thomas Wyche, just a few years younger, would become the NAACP’s man in Charlotte.

When Wyche entered Howard Law School (Class of 1944), Houston had stepped down as Dean, replaced by the equally activist William Hastie. Dean Hastie would go on to argue the 1946 Morgan v West Virginia case before the Supreme Court which outlawed segregation in interstate transportation, and President Truman would appoint him as the nation’s first black federal judge. That was all in the future; right now Dean Hastie concentrated on nurturing Howard students to be lawyers ready to work for community change.

That included staging the nation’s first sit-ins. In 1943 and again in 1944, members of Howard’s NAACP student chapter carefully planned protests at two restaurants near the university. Leaders included Wyche’s law school classmate Pauli Murray (later a nationally important Civil Rights attorney and professor in North Carolina), who earned recognition as “the mother of direct student action.” On April 13, 1943, eighteen students including Thomas Wyche walked into the Little Palace Cafeteria in groups of three. Each group “requested service, were promptly refused, took seats at table, and began leisurely reading books,” reported the Baltimore Afro-American. “Others followed in regular order until the tables were almost all taken.” The restaurant closed eight hours early but students stubbornly returned, keeping up the pressure for four days.

Finally the cafeteria gave in and ended its whites-only policy. Students repeated the technique at another eatery in April of 1944, though with less success. Howard sit-ins went on to target lunchcounters at the city’s big Peoples Drug chain. Charlottean Reginald Hawkins, who arrived at Howard as a dental student in the Fall of 1944, later pointed to these sit-ins as a key inspiration for his own life of activism. He and Thomas Wyche would soon cross paths back in Charlotte.

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Lawyer Wyche opened his Charlotte office in 1945, one of only four black attorneys serving the city’s African American residents. From the start, he “ignored the habits of the past,” a history of Charlotte’s legal profession noted. “He may have been the first of his race to take a seat in the courtroom in the space set aside for lawyers awaiting the call of their cases.” He built his practice over the next few years, handling every type of local legal work. In 1946 he married Grace Long and in 1949 they took out permits to build their house on Oaklawn Avenue. Oaklawn had been a fashionable suburban address for African American professionals for several years, but it was becoming even more desirable now as H.L. McCrorey began opening the adjacent streets of McCrorey Heights.

Wyche’s first Civil Rights case of potential national significance came in 1951. Ray Booton, Jr. loved to play golf, a pasttime he had picked up during his military service in World War II. He already had experience breaking racial barriers as one of Charlotte’s first pair of black police officers. So on a quiet Monday in late fall of 1951 he boldly went down to the city-owned Bonnie Brae Golf Club in whites-only Revolution Park and asked to play. To no one’s surprise, he was denied.

Thomas Wyche brought in Spottswood Robinson III, NAACP lawyer who was also at work on the Brown case at that moment. Indeed it seems likely that Wyche, Robinson and Booton had planned things in advance. Booton had been one of Wyche’s closest friends ever since Second Ward High School, a fellow member of the Swanks social club. Robinson had been one of Wyche’s professors at Howard, teaching a seminar that considered strategies to attack segregation. In a sequence that recalled the Palace Cafeteria sit-ins, three African Americans foursomes went to Bonnie Brae on December 12 and were rebuffed. The next day two more foursomes tried and failed.

On December 21 the pair of lawyers filed a petition on behalf of sixteen African Americans to desegregate Bonnie Brae. Petitioners included two of Wyche’s McCrorey Heights neighbors on Oaklawn Avenue: physicians Dr. Rudolph P. Wyche (no relation to Thomas Wyche) and Dr. Robert H. Green. The lawsuit attracted national attention. It was an early challenge to segregation in public spaces and it specifically questioned the legality of a “reverter clause.” Parkland donor Osmond Barringer had specified that if the park ever admitted Negroes, ownership would revert to his family.

If the case had been decided quickly, it might be taught today in history books alongside Rosa Parks’ 1955 protest against public bus segregation. But the courts dragged their feet until 1956. Ultimately county Superior Court Judge Susie Sharp (herself a pioneer as a female judge) decided in Wyche’s favor. Bonnie Brae admitted African Americans, reverter clauses were ruled unenforceable, and Revolution Park remained a public park.

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Even before the Bonnie Brae case was settled, Wyche attempted another Civil Rights test of national import, again scoring a local victory but not changing the course of national history. Dr. Reginald Hawkins, now graduated from Howard University dental school, had settled in Charlotte where he took increasing delight in shaking up segregated society. As a dentist who served black clients, he was somewhat insulated from white economic pressure and he used that independence with glee.

On July 10, 1954 Charlotte proudly opened a new airport terminal. The federal government funded construction and the facility was for “interstate transportation” — which the Supreme Court had ruled (in Dean Hastie’s 1946 Morgan case) must be desegregated. But Charlotte being a Southern city, local administrators barred African Americans from the terminal’s restaurant. Dr. Hawkins and Thomas Wyche decided to mount a challenge — a Howard University-style sit-in. They brought along a pair of McCrorey Heights neighbors, insurance agent W.W. Twitty and Civil Rights attorney Charles V. Bell, and drove out to the airport.

As writer Barry Yeomans recreated the scene years later:

Reginald Hawkins could feel his heart racing as he and three friends made their way through Douglas Municipal Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dressed in his best Sunday suit, the 30-year-old dentist and Presbyterian minister sought to accomplish a simple task: to sit at the Airport ’77’ Restaurant, with its big picture windows overlooking the two asphalt runways, and eat his lunch unmolested….

“As he and the others entered the restaurant, the hostess … said, ‘We don’t serve blacks here.’ ….[The] four brushed past her, spotted an empty table, and took their seats. The ensuing commotion caught the ear of Frank Littlejohn, Charlotte’s chief of police, who was at lunch with several city bigwigs. The chief knew Hawkins from previous protests. He walked over to the dentist’s table. ‘Doctor, won’t you all leave?’ he said. ‘You’re embarrassing us.’

“’I’m sorry,’ Hawkins replied. ‘But we’ve been embarrassed all our lives.’”

The action won attention in the media, including the Carolina Times of Durham. “The Negroes were herded off into a small room adjoining the kitchen of the eating establishment to obtain meals,” it reported. The affront meant that Attorney Wyche now had grounds to file suit. Headlined the newspaper: “Queen City Group Seeks Injunction Against City Airport Restaurant; Charge Unconstitutional Bias.”

After two years of legal wrangling the airport restaurant did desegregate in 1956. The victory brought no wider repercussions, though.  In 1960, college students would use similar tactics at a Woolworth lunchcounter in Greensboro, sparking the nationwide Sit-In Movement. And in 1961, students with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) would mount the Freedom Ride, which systematically sought to “make real” the desegregation of interstate transportation facilities.  Attorney Thomas Wyche would be involved in both. But for now, the time was not yet right.

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Thomas Wyche was discovering the challenging pace of a Civil Rights attorney.  The small legal staff at the headquarters of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (affiliated with the NAACP but funded by separate donations) in New York City worked with local lawyers in every community, helping them bring lawsuits on Civil Rights issues. Under Thurgood Marshall until 1961, then under Jack Greenberg, the NAACP LDF participated hundreds of lawsuits. Success in any one of them could fight injustice at the local level, but the real jackpot came when a case moved to higher courts. There it could set a precedent and thus affect many other cases.  The rare case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and shift the direction of American history.  For a local lawyer, being affiliated with NAACP LDF meant being a juggler — always keeping multiple Civil Rights balls in the air — and all the while pursing a busy roster of non-Civil Rights work to keep the bills paid and serve the local community.

In addition to his law practice, Wyche served as an officer in Charlotte’s small but active NAACP chapter. Newspaper stories in 1952 and 1957 listed him as Chairman of the Charlotte Branch Legal Committee. In 1954 he was one of ten members who served on a committee that pushed Charlotte schools to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision.

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Among all of the various lawsuits that NAACP LDF lawyers filed during the 1950s, school segregation turned out to be the most effective issue. Marshall and his stable of attorneys cheered in May of 1954 when the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling mandated desegregation. But a follow-up by the Court stated that change could come “with all deliberate speed.” What did that mean?  For Civil Rights activists, it meant years of keeping the pressure on every local school district.

In North Carolina the NAACP, led by state president Kelly Alexander of Charlotte, sent out a letter to affiliates statewide asking for “law abiding citizens … to translate this decision into a program of action to eradicate racial segregation in public education as speedily as possible.”  The letter noted that attorneys Wyche and Bell of Charlotte and Durham colleague Conrad Pearson (yet another Howard University law grad) stood ready to assist anyone anywhere in the state willing to file suit.

In Charlotte, Alexander, Wyche, Hawkins and half a dozen others in the city’s NAACP chapter sought ways to move forward. Wyche himself ran for School Board in 1955 — a courageous move in an era when “a Negro has never been appointed to a policy-making body,” in the words of Kelly Alexander. Wyche’s election bid failed, but he gained the ear of School Board Chair Herbert Spaugh. Wyche, Alexander and Spaugh met in Spring of 1957.  They agreed that the NAACP would select four black students to attend white schools starting that Fall.

On September 4, 1957, Reginald Hawkins walked 14-year-old Dorothy Counts to her first classes at Harding High School. Newspaper photographer Don Sturkey’s images of the angry — though non-violent — mob that met her appeared on front pages nationwide.  Dorothy’s parents Herman and Olethea Counts (who were building a house in McCrorey Heights) would soon withdraw her and send her away to boarding school. The other three black students that day managed to stay in their assigned schools, however.  Desegregation was at last underway.

Or was it really?  In Charlotte and throughout North Carolina, white officials proved adept at finding ways to slow meaningful change. Under the Pearsall Plan of 1956, the state of North Carolina turned pupil assignment responsibilities over the local school systems — making it impossible for NAACP to file a statewide suit. White-led school boards then set up purposely difficult processes that required individual black families to apply for transfers to white schools. Compared to outspoken resistance in many other Southern states, North Carolina looked “moderate.” But segregation barely budged. Writes historian Davison Douglas, “Only one black student attended a white school in Charlotte during the 1959 – 1960 school year.”

The national NAACP took aim at the North Carolina situation, initiating lawsuits in 1959 in Greensboro, Durham and Charlotte, hoping one would succeed. Thurgood Marshall himself, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s renowned leader, worked with Conrad Pearson of Durham and Thomas Wyche of Charlotte to file Morrow v. Mecklenburg County Board of Education, asking the courts to “forever restrain” operation of segregated schools. Priscilla Morrow and eight other young African American children lived in rural Huntersville just outside the city. The School Board had assigned them to all-black Torrence-Lytle School, nine miles or more from their homes, even though all lived within a mile and a half of white Derita School. Those facts failed to persuade the judge in the lawsuit, however. He ruled that no evidence for discrimination existed. The Greensboro and Durham suits fizzled out as well. The NAACP would try again in 1966, eventually leading to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Swann v. Mecklenburg.

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Meanwhile, attorney Thomas Wyche won a small personal victory in the desegregation fight. The local lawyers’ association had long maintained it was a private organization and thus freely able to deny admission to African American lawyers. In the wake of Brown, the group gave in. It reorganized as the Mecklenburg Bar Association and automatically granted membership to all practicing attorneys. “Four Negro Lawyers To Be Admitted To N.C. Bar Group,” headlined national Jet Magazine on August 18, 1955, naming Thomas Wyche, Charles Bell, L.P. Harris, and Ruffin P. Boulding.

Wyche also had a personal stake in Dr. Hawkins’ newest crusade: equal access to healthcare. Wyche represented Hawkins in a long quest for admission to the North Carolina Dental Association. Membership was not just a matter of professional respect: N.C. Dental Association members ruled on licensing of all dentists, and furthermore most government clinics and hospitals refused to employ non-members. Hawkins’ suit was closely watched nationally, with Thurgood Marshall, Jack Greenberg, James Nabrit and Conrad Pearson all lending Wyche a hand before Hawkins finally won the decade-long struggle in 1964. Never content to fight just one battle, Hawkins also took aim at segregation policies in Charlotte’s big Memorial Hospital during these same years. That would hit closest to home for Attorney Wyche — eventually involving Thomas and Grace’s own daughter Gwendolyn.

Charlotte actually had a black hospital with a distinguished history. Good Samaritan had been the first privately funded hospital for African Americans in the Carolinas and perhaps the South when it opened in 1885. By the 1950s it was frankly a second-class institution, however, far inferior to white Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Hawkins wanted the old place closed.  He found allies in that fight at Good Samaritan itself.

“A group of 21 student nurses at Good Samaritan hospital here who went on strike last week have been suspended from the nursing school,” the Carolina Times reported in 1959, noting that attorney T.H. Wyche represented the strikers. “This action was taken by hospital officials after the girls refused to return to classes and duty…. The girls went on strike in protest of substandard conditions at the hospital, one of the oldest private Negro hospitals operated by the Episcopal church. Suspension of the strikers was put into effect by Edward R. Frye, white administrator…. Striking students are asking that patients be transferred to the Memorial hospital.”

In 1961 Memorial began admitting black patients — but in separate segregated wards. A few months later, Thomas and Grace’s daughter Gwendolyn, about four years old, was battling tumors on her spine. Journalist Mark Price writes:

“[T]he hospital wouldn’t admit her into the children’s ward because she was black, remembers [Grace] Wyche, who turns 90 next month. Instead, the family was told to take the girl back home for the weekend, until a room could be cleared in another ward, Wyche says. The hospital loaned them a bed to use.

“‘I was devastated. I almost went insane. I was bitter about everything and everybody,’ she says.

“‘My daughter, my only daughter, got to where she couldn’t walk, so we had to keep her flat on her back for two days, except when we lifted her up to take her to the bathroom. I suffered all weekend looking at my child in terrible pain.'”

The hospital finally did admit Gwendolyn to an adult ward on Monday and she got the care she needed. Thomas Wyche and Reginald Hawkins continued their fight in the courts, not ceasing until Charlotte Memorial fully desegregated in 1963 and Good Samaritan shut its doors.

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The national Civil Rights movement heated up as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s thanks to two student movements, the Sit-ins begun in 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961.

Four freshmen at black A & T University in Greensboro — who did not know of the earlier sit-ins by Howard University students — initiated a sit-in at the local Woolworth “five and dime” store on February 1, 1960. As they returned day after day, the idea spread to black colleges across North Carolina, then blossomed into a national movement.

In Charlotte the sit-ins started on February 9 and lasted into July.  Student leaders at JCSU included Charles Jones (whose parents Rev. J.T. Jones and Prof. Ione Jones would soon build in McCrorey Heights) and Brumit Belton “B.B.” DeLaine (whose uncles Joseph and Moses Belton both lived in the neighborhood, and whose father and mother would soon build there as well). When protestors were arrested, the Carolina Times reported that “Attorneys for the Negro students were Thomas Wyche and Charles V. Bell, both of Charlotte, and Jack Greenberg of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund staff in New York.” The attorneys, the newspaper continued, “presented evidence that there was sufficient room for customers to pass the Negro students without interference. The only evidence of assault was that by an employee of the store who beat [student Charles] McNeil to the floor.”

Thomas and wife Grace put their own bodies on the line as well, joining the sit-in students in the downtown eateries. “I remember going to Belk [Department Store]; they said they would close up before they let us eat there,” Grace Wyche later recalled. “I remember going to Iveys [Department Store] and they said the same thing.”

Five months of sitting-in succeeded in desegregating Charlotte lunchcounters, but other types of public accommodations required much more pressure. Facilities at Charlotte’s bus station became a focus in 1961 thanks to the national Freedom Ride. That May a small group of black and white college students from across the U.S. (including future U.S. Congressman John Lewis) met in Washington D.C. to start a ride on Greyhound and Trailways buses through the South.  It had been years since the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in interstate transportation. The students would simply obey that national law — but in so doing they knew they would call attention to segregation that persisted on buses, in waiting rooms, and in the stations’ shops and restaurants.

The Freedom Ride ended its first day in Charlotte, perhaps because Attorney Wyche was known to be standing by in case of trouble.  Sure enough, when black rider Joseph Perkins tried to get a shoeshine at a white stand in the Charlotte bus depot he was arrested. This was the very first resistance that the Freedom Ride encountered on their journey. Wyche went to court, got Perkins released within two days, and the young man rejoined his fellow Riders as they moved into the Deep South. Before long the Freedom Ride dominated headlines across the U.S. when a white Alabama mob set fire to a bus with the Freedom Riders on board.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which organized the Freedom Ride, kept up the pressure on public accommodations.  In 1962 they again turned to Attorney Wyche for help. CORE mapped out a campaign of coordinated sit-ins at Howard Johnsons, the national restaurant chain.  Thomas Wyche became the chief lawyer for protestors as they were arrested, driving out from Charlotte to city after city.

Meanwhile, the upscale restaurants in Charlotte were still refusing to follow the example of local lunchcounters and desegregate. On May 2, 1963, Wyche and Hawkins went to the glistening new Manger Motor Inn on North Tryon Street downtown and attempted to eat in its Hearth & Embers dining room. Rebuffed, they asked North Carolina’s attorney general to arrest the proprietor.  The attorney general, however, said that state law “left it up to the judgement of the innkeeper as to whether he will accept any guest or lodger or refuse to do so.”  Without clear recourse in the legal arena, Dr. Hawkins turned to the court of public opinion. On May 20, 1963 — date of Charlotte’s annual “Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence” commemoration of the Revolutionary War — Hawkins led Johnson C. Smith University students downtown to picket in front of Mayor Stan Brookshire’s office. “The time for tokenism is over, the time for gradualism is over,” Hawkins demanded in a stirring speech. “We want freedom and we want it now.”

At that very moment, Birmingham, Alabama, was on TV screens around the world as Police Chief Bull Connor turned firehoses and police dogs on student demonstrators. Mayor Brookshire decided that Charlotte would have a different response. The Mayor asked white Chamber of Commerce leaders to each invite one or two African Americans to lunch.  The result was rapid desegregation — a year before the 1964 Civil Rights act required it. The episode represented a key turning point in the city’s history. Charlotte began to forge a national reputation as a progressive Southern city. Guests of Charlotte Observer publisher C.A. McKnight that week: Dr. Reginald Hawkins and Attorney Thomas Wyche.

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As segregation in restaurants and other public places slowly began to crumble, Civil Rights activists set their eyes on a greater prize, the fundamental American right to vote. Back in the “White Supremacy Campaign” of the 1890s, laws aimed blatantly at voter suppression had been put in place in North Carolina and across the South. One law required voters pay to vote: the poll tax.  Another required voters to prove they were literate — which seemed reasonable until one realized that the test involved reading and understanding the Constitution … to the satisfaction of the local Registrar.  North Carolina dropped the poll tax as a voting requirement early on, probably because it disfranchised too many white voters.  But the so-called literacy test remained.

Dr. Reginald Hawkins took gleeful aim at it in 1964. At a registration drive at a Charlotte high school, the part-time registrar was overwhelmed by the large crowd so Dr. Hawkins helpfully suggested she just administer the oath en masse, rather than individually. When officials later checked on literacy, four voters did not meet the qualification. But they were now legally registered.  Hawkins headed to court with Thomas Wyche, Charles Bell, Jack Greenberg and new young Charlotte lawyer Julius Chambers on his team, along with New York based voting rights attorney Melvyn Zarr.

When the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights act a year later in 1965, it invalidated literacy tests. Dr. Hawkins had been ahead of his time. But the case wound its way through the courts nonetheless, until Chambers (who had by that time taken leadership in the defense) won dismissal of the charges in 1968.

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“Thomas was fearless. He wasn’t afraid.  But sometimes I was afraid,” Grace Wyche remembers. “One time he didn’t come home til four in the morning. What’s when they were down in Monroe.  They’d heard the Klan was coming down from the hills.” Tom Wyche made it back to his home on Oaklawn Avenue hiding in the back of a truck.

The activities of NAACP leader Robert F. Williams in Monroe, N.C., made headlines repeatedly during the 1960s, not just in the U.S. but internationally. Williams clashed often with local authorities, including an effort to integrate a municipal swimming pool (which white authorities closed rather than admit African Americans) and then the “kissing case” in which two black boys ages seven and nine were accused of sexual assault when a white female playmate kissed one of them. Attorney Thomas Wyche became involved during a 1961 sit-in by Williams and others at Jones Drugstore in downtown Monroe. According to the court filing, the owner “went over and told defendant, ‘that the store belonged to us, and it wasn’t our custom of serving colored people at the fountain sitting at the stools and that we had the privilege of serving who we wanted to or who we didn’t want to, and to save trouble it would be good for him to get up and get on out.’ Defendant continued to sit there” until police came to arrest him.

Soon afterward, the story took an unexpected turn. Continual harassment by police and also by the Ku Klux Klan had soured Williams on the Civil Rights movement’s strategy of non-violence.  As his cases dragged on, Williams began openly feuding with movement leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He wrote a book Negroes with Guns, published in 1962, which advocated armed self-defense.  It would become a key inspiration for the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s.  But by that time Robert Williams was long gone.  He fled the United States in 1961 and Fidel Castro welcomed him to Cuba and set him up with a high-powered radio station. Robert Williams broadcast a regular radio show from Cuba called “Radio Free Dixie” which encouraged African Americans to become militant activists.

In 1965 Wyche served as lead lawyer for Williams in absentia. He succeeded in getting the lawsuits dropped from active prosecution, in recognition of the fact that Williams had left the United States and would not likely return.

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The risks and hardships of a Civil Rights lawyer must have worn thin after 20 years in the struggle, and it is likely that Thomas Wyche felt a measure of relief when he learned that the NAACP was sending a hot young attorney named Julius Chambers to Charlotte in 1964. Chambers picked up Civil Rights work, most notably the effort to find a case that could effectively break down school segregation. Chambers organized a fresh group of plaintiffs, including the ever-eager Dr. Hawkins, and in 1966 filed a new suit Swann v Charlotte Mecklenburg. It would become the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 landmark decision on busing for racial integration.

Wyche, meanwhile, focused his attention on a reality that had always been part of being an African American lawyer: lots of folk needed legal assistance but were too poor to pay.  “We were sitting at the kitchen table next door with Carson Beckwith and his wife, talking about how legal services were so needed,” Grace remembers. “He said, ‘Tom, why don’t you instigate starting it?'”  More of the impetus for launching Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont likely came from President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Its Office of Economic Opportunity provided funds and encouragement for legal aid clinics, part of a broad strategy to truly empower American citizens at the grassroots. But whatever the exact mechanism whereby Charlotte’s legal aid non-profit came into being,  Thomas Wyche was there from the start. He served as Deputy Director when the three-person office opened in 1967. Four years later he became Director, then General Counsel, before retiring on disability in the mid 1970s.

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Grace Elizabeth Lane (3.8.1924 –  2016) was born in Raleigh, N.C. She grew up partly with an aunt in Philadelphia, going to integrated schools, and partly in Raleigh. She won a scholarship to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, but family connections with Leland Cozart (eventually a McCrorey Heights neighbor) took her to Barber-Scotia College where Cozart was president. She got into library work there, a student job funded by National Youth Administration (“started by Franklin Roosevelt, he’s my favorite president,” she says). After finishing Barber-Scotia’s two-year program she completed her undergraduate degree at Shaw University in Raleigh.

That was where she met Thomas at a Presbyterian Sunday School conference. Thomas told a friend, “I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry, but she doesn’t know it yet.” He began making the six-hour roundtrip drive from Charlotte to Raleigh to court her. “He was quiet, very ambitious. He wanted to succeed and I wanted to succeed,” she recalled. They married in 1946.

Soon after, she walked up Oaklawn Avenue to see if there might be a job at Biddleville School on Beatties Ford Road. It turned out that the district was ready to hire its first librarians, and her career began. She would eventually earn a Masters in Library Science from Columbia University in New York and serve in Charlotte schools for 40 years.

The couple had a daughter Gwendolyn (1.4.1958 –   ). May also have cared for Thomas’s older brother Robert Pharoh Wyche, Jr., (1915 – 10.13.1975).  [more research needed here]

The little house, just 1500 square feet with three small bedrooms, welcomed Attorney Wyche’s distinguished NAACP legal colleagues including Spottswood Robinson III, James Nabrit and Jack Greenberg. “I kept all of them in my house,” Grace Wyche recalled with pride. “They didn’t have anyplace else to stay. Thurgood Marshall, too, right here at this house.”

Oaklawn-1635-a-web

Architecture

Tudor cottage. Compact 1.5-story red-brick house with a high gable roof and a front-facing secondary gable. Prominent side chimney. Metal awning front porch and matching awning over the front window likely date from 1959 remodeling.

 

Building permits

Oaklawn-1631-1641-permit
Date issued: August 22, 1949
Owner: T.H. Wyche
Contractor: Ervin Construction
Other permit info: Build residence

Oaklawn-1635-permit
Date issued: June 5, 1959
Contractor: Simpson Electric Co.
Other permit info: install outlets and fixtures
Date issued: June 9, 1959
Owner: White
Contractor: R. L. Walker
Other permit info: install plumbing fixtures

Oaklawn-1635-permit-a
Date issued: June 2, 1959
Owner: T. H. Wyche
Contractor: Charlotte Remodeling
Other permit info: remodel

Building permit files, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

obituary

Wyche, Robert, funeral program in the Obituary Project notebooks, African American Genealogy Interest Group collection, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Wyche, Grace, Funeral program in the History Room, First United Presbyterian Church, Charlotte.

Wyche, Thomas, Funeral program in the History Room, First United Presbyterian Church, Charlotte.

 

First appeared in city directory

1952 – Thomas H. Wyche & Grace L.
He: Harris & Wyche, lawyers (with Leon P. Harris) at 326 S. Alexander.
She: Librarian, Biddleville School.

City directory collection, Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Resources

Batchelor, John E., Race and Education in North Carolina: From Segregation to Desegregation. (Louisiana State University Press, 2015), especially p. 34.

“Bias Suit Filed at Air Terminal,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 17, 1954.

“Black History Month: Charlotte in 1964,” Charlotte Observer, February 17, 2014.

Brown, Flora Bryant, “NAACP Sponsored Sit-ins by Howard University Students in Washington, D.C., 1943-1944,” Journal of Negro History, (Autumn, 2000), pp. 274-286.

Caldwell, Arthur Bunyan, editor, The History of the Negro and His Institutions, North Carolina Edition (Atlanta: A.B. Caldwell Publishing, 1921) pp. 229 – 232.

Catsam, Derek, Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides (University Press of Kentucky, 2011 ), pp. 116 – 117.

“Charlotte NAACP Hits Golf Course Jim Crow,” Memphis World, January 1, 1952.

“CORE Protests Against Howard Johnson Chain,” Harvard Crimson, October 6, 1962.

“Dentist Sues Dental Society to End Bias,” Florida Star [Jacksonville], April 3, 1960.

Dr. Hawkins v. NC Dental Society and Second District Dental Society (230 F. Supp. 805).

Douglas, Davison, “The Quest for Freedom in the Post-Brown South: Desegregation and White Self Interest,” Chicago – Kent Law Review, pp. 689 –  755.

Ellis, Marion A. and Howard E. Covington, Jr., An Independent Profession: A Centennial History of the Mecklenburg County Bar (Davidson, N.C.: Lorimer Press, 2012), pp. 76 – 87.

“Exonerate Dr. Hawkins on Vote Fraud Charges,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 8, 1968.

“Four Negro Lawyers To Be Admitted To N.C Bar Group,” Jet Magazine, August 18, 1955.

“Funeral of Dr. R.P. Wyche,” Africo-American Presbyterian, September 29, 1938. Clipping on display at the History Room of 1st United Presbyterian Church.

Greenberg, Jack, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (Basic Books, 1994).

Hawkins, Reginald, Sr., oral history interview with Melinda H. Desmarais, UNC Charlotte, July 11, 2001. On-line at: http://nsv.uncc.edu/interview/ohha0077

“Jack Greenberg, a Courthouse Pillar of the Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 91,” New York Times, October 12, 2016.

“Light Voting in Charlotte Primary,” Associated Press story in The Robesonian, April 26, 1955.

McNeil, Genna Rae, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).

Morrill, Dan. L, “First United Presbyterian Church: Survey & Research Report,” Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1977, updated 2003. On-line at:  http://www.cmhpf.org/S&Rs%20Alphabetical%20Order/surveys&r1stunitedpres.htm

“Motel Manager Supported” [Associated Press story], Herald-Journal, May 16, 1963.

“NAACP Makes Annual Report,” Carolina Times, June 5, 1954.

“NAACP officials and other  blacks seek a start toward integration of Charlotte city schools,” negatives shot for a March 30, 1957 Charlotte Observer story, in the collection of photographer Don Sturkey, UNC Chapel Hill.

“NAACP’ers Slate Nov. 9 Meeting,” The Campus Echo (NC Central University), October 31, 1957.

Porter, Peggie, Doing Justice for 25 Years: The History of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, Inc., 1967-1992 (Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, 1992).

“One Student Acquitted in Sit-Down Case,” Carolina Times, March 19, 1960.

“Queen City Group Seeks Injunction Against City Airport Restaurant; Charge Unconstitutional Bias,” Carolina Times, July 24, 1954.

“Restaurant Stands Pat in Race Bid: Won’t Serve Negroes for Time Being,” The Register (Danville, Virginia), August 11, 1962.

“Rules Motel has Right to Deny Service” [Associated Press story], The Bee [Danville], May 15, 1963.

“Seven of the Sixteen Negroes Who Were Not Allowed to Play Golf…” (photo), Carolina Times, January 5, 1952.  Text on-line at http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1952-01-05/ed-1/seq-1/ocr.txt

State of North Carolina v. Reginald A. Hawkins (365 F.2nd 559) [Voting rights case], decided Augist 6, 1966. On-line at: https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/272974/state-of-north-carolina-v-reginald-a-hawkins/

State v. Williams (117 S.E.2d 824 (1961) 253 N.C. 804), January 20, 1961. On-line at: http://law.justia.com/cases/north-carolina/supreme-court/1961/440-0-2.html

State v. Williams (140 S.E.2d 529 (1965) 263 N.C. 800), March 3, 1965. On-line at: http://law.justia.com/cases/north-carolina/supreme-court/1965/495-0-1.html

“Swank Social Club Celebrates 60 Years,” Charlotte Observer, November 21, 1994.

“Thomas Wyche, Attorney,” Charlotte Weekly East, Spring 1982. Typewritten copy on display at the History Room of 1st United Presbyterian Church.

“Trio Convicted of Trespassing,” Statesville Landmark, August 27, 1962.

Tyson, Timothy B., Radio Free Dixie: Robert Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001), especially p. 219.

“Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement” [Charles McNeil], on-line at:  http://greaterdiversity.com/un-sung-hero-of-the-civil-rights-movement/

Usher, Jesse, “‘The Golfers:’ African American Golfers of the North Carolina Piedmont and the Struggle for Access,” North Carolina Historical Review (April 2010), pp. 158 – 193.

Wyche, Grace L., oral history interview with Tom Hanchett at her home 1635 Oaklawn Avenue, August 10, 2016.

Yeoman, Barry, “A Taste for Tolerance,” AARP The Magazine, May 1, 2004.