1923 Oaklawn Avenue

 

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

Starting in the 1910s-1920s, Oaklawn Avenue became a preferred suburban address for physicians, ministers and other community leaders. This house is among the earliest on the street, built sometime around 1917 for J. Henry Warren, a barber and civic leader who helped chose the school colors for what is now Johnson C. Smith University. Subsequent occupants included a pair of notable AME Zion ministers during the 1930s, then well-known downtown business figure Thomas Drye from the late 1930s through the mid 1950s.

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Charlotte’s city directories first listed J. Henry Warren and his wife Lula G. Warren living on “Belt Road” in 1917. “Belt Road” was also known as  “Double Oaks Avenue,” renamed Oaklawn Avenue about 1930.

J. Henry Warren ranked among the city’s most important barbers, proprietor of the barber shop closest to Charlotte’s City Hall for many years. Barbering was a trade that African Americans dominated during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a legacy of slavery times when African American artisans handled most of the skilled hands-on work in South. Barbers who served upscale white customers often became leaders in the black community in this era, both because the work meant a steady income, and also because a barber developed ongoing relationships with white movers and shakers.

Warren had graduated from Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) in the class of 1894. The year after graduating, Warren and two fellow alumni chose the school colors that are still in use by the University: navy blue and gold. Among his classmates was Zach Alexander, well remembered today for founding the important black business Alexander Funeral Home and doing early Civil Rights work that was carried forward by sons Frederick Douglas Alexander, Charlotte’s first black City Council member in the twentieth century, and Kelly Alexander, longtime head of the North Carolina NAACP.

As J.H. Warren and  Zach Alexander entered the workforce, African Americans in the South were facing wrenching change. The White Supremacy Campaign of 1898-1900 resulted in a new North Carolina Constitution that disfranchised most black voters. The hatred kicked up during that political campaign spilled over into every aspect of daily life, hardening the separation and inequality of Jim Crow segregation. Alexander chose the funeral business as an economic base for activism; serving black clients, he would be somewhat insulated from white economic pressure. Warren chose an opposite approach; by serving upscale white clients, he developed relationships with men of power. Both strategies were needed in the Civil Rights struggle.

When Charlotte planned its first public park, Warren’s connections played a role. Latta Park, privately owned by developer Edward Dilworth Latta, had welcomed both black and white patrons in the 1890s. But after the White Supremacy Campaign, hardening Jim Crow segregation took its toll. City-owned Independence Park opened in 1905 with legislation specifying that “no colored person shall be allowed.” Black leaders fought the law and lost — but managed to win a promise of a park for African Americans. J. Henry Warren was one of twelve black business leaders appointed to the initial “Charlotte Public Park Commission for Colored People.” It would take many years before that promise bore fruit.

Warren continued to be, as the Charlotte News called him in 1920, one of the “leaders in public life among the [N]egro population of Charlotte.”  When the U.S entered World War I in 1917, Charlotteans organized to encourage young men to enter the military. Warren was among the 15 men appointed to the effort’s “colored committee” chaired by Biddle University president Dr. H.L. McCrorey.  Warren also worked to promote establishment of church Sunday schools, a valuable supplement for black children in this era of poorly funded public schools. During the 1910s he helped organize a series of statewide Colored Interdenominational Sunday School and Educational Conventions. The 1918 edition held at Grace AME Zion Church in downtown Charlotte was led by NC Central University founder James E. Shepard and included Zach Alexander and J. Henry Warren among its officers. In 1923 Warren served as president of a national convention of Sunday School activists held in Cleveland, Ohio, under auspices of the AME Zion denomination. Back in Charlotte, when a black community center at Second and Brevard Streets accidentally burned in 1920, AME Zion Bishop George W. Clinton headed fundraising efforts to rebuild, reported the Observer, alongside J. Henry Warren, “president of the negro community service organization.”

Warren initially moved to Charlotte’s western suburbs in the 1910s. The book “Colored Charlotte,” published in 1915 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, included a photograph of Warren’s house in the streetcar suburb of Washington Heights, recently begun on Beatties Ford Road. Sometime around 1917 he and wife Lula G. Warren, a teacher at Biddleville Elementary School, built this larger, more stylish home a few blocks away on Oaklawn Avenue (then “the Belt Road”) in McCrorey Heights.

Lula Warren came from one of Charlotte’s most distinguished families. Her father was Bishop Thomas H. Lomax, key figure in the growth of the AME Zion religion in the United States. Lomax headed the denomination in the late nineteenth century, helping start Livingstone College in Salisbury, NC, to train ministers and other leaders, and establishing the denomination’s publishing house at Charlotte. Before stepping into top leadership, Lomax had led regional offices of the church, introducing the AME Zion creed in far-flung locales including Missouri, Texas, Michigan and even Canada. When he died in 1908 the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper wrote, “He was regarded as one of the greatest leaders of his race.” The Charlotte News called him “a colored man of remarkable ability” and noted that he left an estate of over $70,000 — more than $1.7 million in today’s dollars.

That family connection, unfortunately, could not insulate J. Henry and Lula Warren from the hard times of  the Great Depression. The long economic downturn that began in 1929 seems to have hurt Warren deeply. The 1933 city directory no longer listed him as a barbershop proprietor, but as janitor at the Nalle Clinic, and by 1934 he and Lula had moved to 510 N. Myers Street in First Ward. During the mid 1930s, the house at 1923 Oaklawn may have been rented. Kirk Miller, a janitor, appeared there with wife Annie in 1934.

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Two important AME Zion leaders occupied the dwelling subsequently. Rev. Benjamin Swain, Presiding Elder of AME Zion’s Charlotte District, was listed at the address with wife Hattie in 1935, 36 and 37. Rev. William A. Blackwell and wife Mary lived there next in 1938. He was Editor of the Star of Zion, the denomination’s national newspaper which was published at the AME Zion Printing House in downtown Charlotte.

Thomas Wesley Drye, employed at Ed Mellon Department Store, bought the house about 1938. In that era, most businesses employed a “porter” to run errands, deliver packages, and do light building maintenance. Thomas Drye worked the porter role with uncommon flair, becoming a beloved public face of the upscale department store. The Carolina Times of Durham, North Carolina’s leading black newspaper, profiled him in a lengthy 1940 article: “Holds Same Job for Fifty Years.” Under a photo of Drye in a cut-away coat and tie, hands full of packages, it lauded his “perseverance, courage, dependability, courtesy, cleanliness, amiability and Godliness.” In addition to working at Mellon, he was deacon at Seventh Street Presbyterian Church, president of the Progress Investment and Realty Company, and a staunch disciple of Booker T. Washington’s message of economic self-help. Drye lived at 1923 Oaklawn Avenue until his death in the mid 1950s. His widow Bertha R. Drye remained there through the end of the decade.

During the 1960s and into the 1980s the dwelling once again became the home of an AME Zion minister: Rev. John A. Moore of Unity AME Zion Church and wife Rebecca.

Oaklawn-1923-a-web
Oaklawn-1923-b-web

Architecture

A rare Charlotte example of the Dutch Colonial style with its hallmark gambrel roof.  The tall roof encloses a second story, with a large front dormer that holds three asymmetrically spaced windows. A sloping shed roof shelters the front porch, supported by four tapered square wooden columns on brick piers. The house is sheathed in wooden beveled-edge siding. The original double-hung window sash have been replaced with aluminum units chosen to fit the original openings.

 

Building permits

No building permits found

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

obituary

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

First appeared in city directory

[Note: Oaklawn Avenue was known as Double Oaks Avenue (also Belt Road) until about 1930. Because it was at the edge of the city, street listings in the directory seem to be haphazard. To get the date that Warren first appeared, I consulted the alphabetically listings in each directory working backward from 1930.]

1916 – J. Henry Warren, barber (residence: Washington Heights)

1917 – J. Henry Warren, barber at 34 N. Tryon, (residence: Belt Road)

1918 & 19 – J. Henry Warren & Lula. (residence: Belt Road)
He: Assistant Secretary Royal Fraternal Association & Barber at 9 W.Fourth St. She: no occupation listed.

1920 & 21 – J. Henry Warren & Lula. (residence: Double Oaks Av, Washington Heights)
He: Barber at 9 W.Fourth St. She: no occupation listed.

1923 – J. Henry Warren & Lula.  (residence: 300 Double Oaks Avenue)
He: Barber at 37 N. College. She: no occupation listed.

1933 — J. Henry Warren & Lula. (1923 Oaklawn Avenue)
He: Janitor, Nalle Clinic  She: teacher, Biddleville Graded School

1934 — Kirk W. Miller & Annie B.
He: Janitor.  She: No occupation listed.

(note in 1934 directory Warren and wife Lula reside at 510 N. Myers. He: Janitor, Nalle Clinic. That year Rev. Swain is pastor at Grace AME Zion, resides 411 E 1st)

1935 & 36 & 37 — Rev. Benjamin W. Swain & Hattie B.
He: Presiding Elder, Charlotte District, AME Zion Church.  She: no occupation. (Sarah R. Swain also at this address)

1938 — Rev. William A. Blackwell & Mary E.
He: Editor, Star of Zion (AME Zion newspaper). She: no occupation listed.

1939 — Thomas W. Drye & Bertha R.

He: Porter, Ed Mellon Co.  She: operates a grocery at 1403 Beatties Ford Road.

( Note that in 1939 directory J. Henry Warren & Lula G. are residing at 303 S. McDowell.
He: Porter, Nalle Clinic. She: Teacher, Biddleville Graded Sch.)

1959 – Mrs. Bertha Drye, widow.

1961 – J. Henry Warren & Lula G.
He: Janitor, Nalle Clinic. She: Teacher, Biddleville Graded Sch.

1969 – Rev. John A. Moore & Rebecca

He: Pastor, Unity AME Zion

1980 — Mrs. Rebecca Moore, retired.

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

Resources

“Holds Same Job for Fifty Years,” Carolina Times, September 28, 1940.  http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1940-09-28/ed-1/seq-2/

“Act to Incorporate Charlotte Park and Tree Commission,” in Laws and Resolutions of the State of North Carolina, Volume 2 (1905), p, 88.

“Bishop T.H. Lomax,” Harrisburg Telegraph, April 2, 1908.

“A Call for Aid,” Charlotte Observer, November 6, 1927.

“Colored Leader Passes Away,” Charlotte News, April 1, 1908.

“Colored Soldiers to Have Club,” Charlotte News, July 25, 1918.

“Negroes Consider playground Plans,” Charlotte News, October 14, 1920.

“Negroes Will Meet to Plan for Fund,” Charlotte News, October 26, 1920.

“Regard Parade with Disfavor,” Charlotte Observer, May 26, 1917.

“The School Colors, Gold and Navy Blue,” on the JCSU History website. On-line at: https://my.jcsu.edu/ICS/History.jnz

“The Sunday School Convention,” Missionary Seer, October 1923.

“Sunday School Meet Opens Here Tuesday,” Charlotte Observer, June 16, 1919.