Location: Charlotte, NC
Before moving to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2018 to serve as the pastor at Mount Olive Presbyterian Church, Willie Keaton had been working to strengthen inner cities for twenty years. “I was organizing before I knew that was the term for what I was doing,” he says.“ If you are a pastor, you are working to strengthen that neighborhood.” He says that being a pastor is not limited to Sundays, nor is the scope of one’s concern limited to the people in your pews. “You are the shepherd of the whole community.”
Willie’s experience with community organizing (he has not only firsthand experience but a Master’s degree in organizational leadership) and his move to Charlotte also brought him to Queens University, where he serves as the Greenspon Center Justice Organizer. He leads students in organizing and providing advocacy around important community issues like affordable housing and criminal justice. Much of his time and effort outside of his church duties has been devoted to pursuing restorative justice for Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood. He has led a team that has spearheaded a coalition of seventeen organizations who are banding together on this issue. Willie recently received the NAACP Community Champion Freedom Award for his work on the Brooklyn neighborhood and his continued efforts to hold the city accountable and right the wrongs that where committed there.
Willie learned about the Brooklyn neighborhood when he first started at the Greenspon Center and it was recommended to him as an issue to look into and possibly tackle as an advocacy project. He engaged in multiple listening sessions and did some research to try to understand what took place. What he learned simultaneously enraged and energized him. The Brooklyn neighborhood is in what is now known as the Second Ward, where Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame is located uptown. It was a historical community that was predominantly African American. It housed a church and school and many successful businesses. In the late 1950s, Charlotte’s all-white City Council unanimously decided to tear down the Brooklyn neighborhood in its entirety as part of an urban renewal program. “We are talking about fourteen hundred homes, nine thousand people, and churches and schools and libraries and black theatres,” Willie says. There was strong opposition from the African American community, but Willie says they did not have a voice. Residents were assured that they would be able to come back but those promises were not kept. “It was incredibly unethical,” he says.
So Willie began doing what he does best and has been doing ever since his youth in another Brooklyn (he grew up in Brooklyn, New York). He started organizing, holding meetings in churches and gathering the support of local organizations to form a coalition. He says he “built on the great relationships that were already in place through the Greenspon Center,” and he shares the credit for the progress that has been made with his core team and especially local attorney Steven Cohen. He describes his role as that of the point guard of a large group of people who share his passion for making things right. “We have been building awareness and gaining momentum,” Willie says. Members of the coalition have testified before Charlotte’s County Commissioners and have tried to raise awareness and educated the community about the history and the importance of addressing and righting it.
The Brooklyn neighborhood history may have been forgotten but for the city’s plans to develop Brooklyn Village, a 750 million project that had, Willie says, “no plans to honor what was done there to the African American community in a way that is satisfactory.” Willie sees many parallels with what happened so long ago and what is happening now in Charlotte and other cities across the United States. “The gentrification that is happening all over,” Willie says, “is history repeating itself in a very similar way where people without a voice are feeling like they are pushed out.” He sees Charlotte as a tale of two cities, which is true of many other places he has lived and worked. Charlotte is ranked last in upward mobility, and Willie sees the gap between the African American economy and standard of living as a large reason for that abysmal ranking. “The goal is for there to be one city,” Willie says.
He sees the way forward, both for the Brooklyn neighborhood and Charlotte as a whole, is to acknowledge the wrongs and try to make them right. “The only way we get there is reconciliation,” Willie says. “And the first step in reconciliation is an apology.” He feels strongly that without an apology and an acknowledgement of the wrong, “you can throw all the money in the world at it and it will still feel like two cities because one side will still feel like it did nothing wrong.” Willie wants the City Council to draft a resolution acknowledging that what they did was wrong. “They need to put in writing that this was a very hurtful initiative,” Willie says. “That is a start.”
But money is needed as well. Willie is also seeking restorative justice that is economically based. “You can’t just have an apology and leave things the way they are. That is an empty apology,” he says. “By destroying the Black Wall Street, you crippled an economy and it never recovered.“ Willie is drawing attention to the new development plans because he sees them as “an opportunity for the rich to get richer.” Instead, he says that some of the funding should be set aside to provide an economic stimulus package for Charlotte’s “black economy.” He sees this as the only way to “attempt to address some of the historical injustices that took place here.”
Some of the parishioners in Willie’s church used to live in Brooklyn and Second Ward. He is also focusing his efforts as a pastor on the church’s young people, making an effort to get to know them and starting an after-school program in partnership with nearby Berryhill Elementary School. But it is clear to Willie that the entire Queen City will benefit from finding a fair and restorative solution to the Brooklyn neighborhood development.