The ‘certain indignities’ of growing up Black on a street named after a slave owner

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Devna Bose, Danielle Chemtob
·11 min read
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Rain or shine, Iris Wallace’s father tended his yard every afternoon.

Kneeled in the dirt with sweat dripping onto his brow, he cradled azalea and hydrangeas, carefully nestling them into the ground. He pruned bushes that framed their red-brick home and planted monkey grass that followed visitors from the front door to the street.

Even in the stifling Carolina summers, passersby could see Sephus Neal in color-matched outfits mowing his lawn.

His daughter remembers he dressed immaculately no matter the occasion.

Her father’s attention to detail lives on in the gift he gave her of her name.

“We had lots of floral names in our family,” she said. “Roses, daisies, lilies, you know. At the house we lived in before, we had irises growing in the yard.”

Her friends joked that if Sephus had grown chrysanthemums instead, she’d be named Chris.

Iris suspects her father was so devoted to his yard because it was the first he had ever owned. Sephus’s grandmother was born a slave.

Iris says her father bought the home in north Charlotte in 1955 — it was a triumph during a time when Black families faced discrimination and hardship. In their neighborhood, residents took care of each other.

But that was 70 years ago.

An Edenic yard no longer flourishes at 2417 Jefferson Davis Street, and many neighbors have come and gone. Since Iris moved to Atlanta decades ago, nearly everything but the name has changed on Jefferson Davis Street — and soon, that will be changed, too.

Iris Wallace’s father, Sephus Neal, kept their yard at 2417 Jefferson Davis Street pruned and flowered.
Iris Wallace’s father, Sephus Neal, kept their yard at 2417 Jefferson Davis Street pruned and flowered.

‘Certain indignities’

Even as a child, Iris knew her street’s namesake.

“I was familiar generally with the fact that Jefferson Davis was a slaveholder,” she said. “But that was not at the forefront of my growing up or my experiences there.”

The Charlotte City Council unanimously decided in February that Jefferson Davis Street would be renamed, along with eight other local streets named after white supremacists and Confederate leaders.

After the nationwide reckoning with racism this summer, Mayor Vi Lyles formed the Legacy Commission to evaluate Confederate monuments and street names associated with “slavery, Confederate veterans, white supremacy or ‘romanticized notions of the antebellum South.’”

A report concluded that nearly every street named after a person in Charlotte before the late 1800s honors a slaveholding family. The 15-member commission, composed of local historians and community members, prioritized renaming streets named for leaders of the Confederacy and a statewide white supremacy campaign that began in 1898.

The namesake of Iris’s street, Jefferson Davis, was the Mississippi-born president of the Confederacy in the 1860s. Schools, statues, plaques, streets and counties all over the South memorialize him.

Countless children — like Iris, who was a Black girl growing up in the South in the 1950s and 60s — spent their earliest years playing on streets honoring racist men.

Iris learned how to ride a bike, sold Girl Scout cookies, and practiced piano on a street named after someone who enslaved people who looked like her.

There was just nothing they could do about it, Iris says.

“During that time, Black parents were more concerned about building a stable home environment for their children and giving them opportunities to succeed,” she said. “The name of a street was low on their list.”

“Because of the times, you knew what you could change and what you couldn’t change,” she said. “We knew that there were certain indignities that we were subjected to.”

She never questioned why she had to ride on the back of the bus to school, nor why she had to catch two different buses to get to the library. She was Black — that’s just how things were, Iris said.

“Things started to change in the mid-60s, but until then, you didn’t wrap yourselves around something that was beyond your purview,” she said. “You did the best you could do under the circumstances and pray for a time when things were better.”

The United States is pockmarked with reminders of the country’s racist roots. More than 1,700 monuments, public buildings and military bases across the country have ties to the Confederacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates.

And streets that invoke Confederate symbolism far outnumber those named after civil rights leaders, particularly in the South — the country’s Blackest region.

Majority-Black neighborhoods all over the country are named after Confederate leaders — and in some, residents are fighting back.

Though not a part of daily thoughts for many who grew up there, these street names are a form of microaggressions and institutional racism that compound the generational trauma Black people carry.

Every other day, Jamil Steele visits his mother Stephanie, who has lived on Jefferson Davis Street for a decade. He said the street sign is misleading — because it shortens Davis’s name to “Jeff,” he only became aware of who it was named after a few months ago.

Now, it catches his eye every time he pulls up.

“A lot of people might not know who he is at all. For them, it’s just a name on a sign,” he said. “But for those who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, they know who that is.

“And to be constantly reminded of segregation, of Jim Crow laws, it’s a slap in the face.”

Though it might have meant more to her ancestors and the older residents of Jefferson Davis Street, Stephanie said, living on a road named after a slave owner still affects her.

It affected Iris — and her neighbor Johnnie Wallace Jr.

A place where neighbors cared

Johnnie Wallace Jr.’s father worked two jobs to save up for a down payment on a house. When the then family of nine moved into their home on Jefferson Davis Street when he was about 12 or 13, Johnnie said he was overjoyed.

They moved from Fairview Homes, a public housing complex that has since been redeveloped. He said he was excited that they had a big yard in the house, and the family even put up a makeshift basketball net.

“My daddy was the greatest man to have been able to get us a house,” he said.

Druid Hills may have been the first neighborhood in Charlotte to undergo racial change from white to Black, according to historian Tom Hanchett, a phenomenon known as white flight. When the Double Oaks housing development, later demolished and rebuilt as Brightwalk, opened in 1949, real estate brokers started to advertise nearby homes in previously all-white areas as “For Colored.”

Sephus Neal purchased the home in 1955, just after many other Black families started moving into Druid Hills.

The wave of Black buyers was met with resistance that in several instances became violent, including a cross burning, vandalism and a bombing.

Unlike the rest of Druid Hills, Jefferson Davis Street has always been a Black community.

A 1924 plat map laid out the neighborhood and Jefferson Davis Street, though the homes there would not be built until decades later. Historian Michael Moore said it is likely that the original landowners who drew the map, a pair of dentists, named the street.

At the time, their purchases of the land contained deed restrictions barring Black people from owning it. But after the property was resold several times, the homes that were built nearly 30 years later were sold to Black buyers. The subsequent land sales did not include the race-based covenants, Moore said.

Growing up, Johnnie said the street was known for something much different — an expectation that the students who lived there would do well in school.

“Jefferson Davis Street was a place where neighbors cared for neighbors and their children, a street where we as students took pride in our families, where we lived and did not want to bring any disgrace to our neighborhood,” he said.

He learned about Jefferson Davis in school, but he said the name of the street wasn’t a subject of conversation until recently.

“Like so many other things out of our experience as African Americans, we have to go on,” he said. “I learned very early to pick and choose the battles that I might fight. That was a small one.”

It wasn’t until Johnnie grew older that people would give him quizzical looks when he mentioned the street he lived on.

He said it really hit home a few years ago when he was meeting with an organization he belongs to that is majority white. They asked for the address of his childhood home, where he no longer lives but runs L.E.A.P., his youth empowerment nonprofit organization, from. He could tell by the looks on their faces that they felt it was wrong.

Now, he advocated for the name to be changed, so that children that live there can look up to the person whose name it bears. And he said it’s important to recognize the injustices that were perpetrated on Black people and other marginalized groups by people like Davis.

“I think we glorify persons like him without a real understanding of what they did to hurt us,” he said.

“We don’t know the minds of those folk who made the decision to name the street after Jefferson Davis, but I suspect that they knew better than I knew then what this man meant to the Confederacy and all the harm that he caused.

“It is time that this particular error is corrected.”

‘The time has come’

The street renaming process is part of a larger movement to grapple with the legacy of racism in Charlotte and cities all across the country, particularly in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

It’s one of a series of policies and statements city leaders made over the summer, as the protests demanded action, including “reimagining” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and declaring racism a public health crisis. But the city has drawn criticism for implementing superficial or incremental changes rather than deep, systemic reform.

City Council member Larken Egleston, whose district includes Jefferson Davis Street, said renaming streets is important —but alone is not enough to address the history of racism.

“Part of righting wrongs is undoing some of the symbols of that legacy of racism, and legacy of injustice,” he said.

In a council meeting in February, Egleston said the city will support residents and business owners who work or live on the nine streets. The city may make grants available to assist individuals with the expense of changing addresses.

Officials have not yet laid out the process of choosing new names. Egleston said he would like to continue working with the Legacy Commission on recommendations that could be voted on by the City Council.

The commission’s report recommends naming streets after people who have contributed to progress in Charlotte, especially those from marginalized communities. It included a list of possible names, such as civil rights activist Julius Chambers and Kelly Alexander Sr.; Annie Alexander, the first woman to practice medicine in the south; Harry Golden, a Jewish writer and civil rights advocate and Native American leader King Hagler (an anglicized spelling of the name of the former Catawba “head man”).

Local activists have suggested renaming the nine streets after civil rights leaders, but Councilman Tariq Bokhari said at a February meeting that eponymous streets should be avoided to prevent future controversy.

But Johnnie thinks the city should consider honoring former Druid Hills leader and “unofficial mayor of North End” Darryl Gaston, who died last month.

“Charlotte is a good place,” Johnnie said. “But we do have to recognize the atrocities of the past. And we need to do what we can to make amends.”

Iris said as a young girl, she felt helpless when it came to changing the name of her street. But the name motivated her, too.

Her parents were members of the NAACP, and Iris was part of the youth NAACP growing up. She watched her parents register people to vote while still being barred from rights themselves. And her father, who lived on Jefferson Davis Street until his death a few years ago, drove people to the polls in his 90s.

“Back then, you were looking at what small things could be done,” Iris said. “I feel like it’s now time for us to not tiptoe around the things that occurred but look straight in the eyes of communities across the country and say that we endured because we had no choice.”

After all, her green-thumbed father saw violet blooms and thought of her. Iris knows the importance of names.

“The streets should be renamed,” she said. “The time has come for us to be free.”