Be a history detective!
Here’s an example of how to combine bits of info to build a neighborhood history.
Oaklawn Park Neighborhood Association asked me to research the history of their neighborhood.
It’s an area of ranch-style houses, which I guessed were built in the 1950s – 1960s when that style was popular. Today it is a mostly African American middle-class neighborhood. What else could I find out about it?
I’ll show you how I used Newspapers, Plat Maps, City Directories, Deeds and Building Permits to create the story you can read at the end of this section.
There’s no right order to do this in, but first I searched Newspapers,
1. Newspapers Charlotte Observer is word-searchable on-line back to the 1880s via the Charlotte public library. All you need is a library card.
What was the first mention of Oaklawn Park? It’s this 1954 ad.
Looks like the neighborhood was developed for African American homebuyers by Ervin Construction, which also created other subdivisions around the city. As I clicked through the other mentions of Oaklawn Park on the newspaper website, I found other early ads and an article, too!
Use your imagination – what else might you look up in these old newspapers? For instance, search for info about Ervin Construction and you’ll learn much about Charles Ervin, the founder, who built dozens of Charlotte neighborhoods from the 1950s into the 1970s.
2. Plat Maps Where exactly were those streets that Ervin laid out? I consulted the Plat Maps, available on-line from Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds via Mecklenburg County’s website Polaris 3G.
Looks like a multi-block area was all laid out at once in 1955, then a small piece of Dean Street added in 1959. By comparing these Plat Maps with today’s streetmap (Google or whatever), you can see if street names have changed.
3. City Directories Who lived on those blocks? I went to the City Directories at the library. They come out every year, sort of like the phone book, but with more info.
Each Directory has a Street Address section. You can discover roughly when the houses first appeared. Look down the street to learn the names of all the residents.
Here’s Miles Court in 1958 and 1959. Wow, lots of new houses by 1959! Consult later directories to track who lived in a house over time.
Once you have the name of a resident, look him/her up in the Alphabetical Section of the City Directory. Let’s try Rev. Raymond Worsley, who lived at 1713 Miles Court.
Look, there’s Rev. Worsley! He’s not only a minister but is also an instructor at Johnson C. Smith University.
The name in parentheses is his spouse, Magnolia A. Worsley. She works outside the home, so this directory also lists her separately. She’s a nurse at Northwest Medical Clinic.
4. Back to Newspapers Aha! I’ve got new names to check, so I head back to the newspapers. Look what turns up!
In 2011 Rev. Worsley was honored for making history during WWII as one of the first African Americans in the Marines!
The next steps (I won’t do them here with you) would be to check ALL the residents’ names we turn up from the City Directory.
5. Another source to check: Property Deeds If I want to go deep, I’ll check real estate deeds, easily available on-line through Mecklenburg County’s Polaris 3G website.
Plug any street address in Polaris 3G and you’ll quickly see the actual deed for the current owner of any property in Mecklenburg County. Deeds list when that person bought the property, among other info.
Here’s the deed for the Worsley house at 1713 Miles Court. Cool stuff – the Worsley family evidently still owns it. In today’s fast-changing world, Oaklawn Park looks like a place that folks love to hold onto.
You’ll notice reference in the last two lines to a PREVIOUS deed. It’s sometimes possible to follow those references back in time – creating a “chain of title.”
6. Another source to check: Building Permits If I have time, I often look up Building Permits at the Carolina Room of the Public Library.
Turns out that all the Oaklawn Park permits were taken out at about the same time. And all listed Ervin as both the “builder” and the “owner.” That tells us that Ervin likely constructed the houses “on spec” – not custom-building for a particular owner.
In some neighborhoods, individual owners each hired their own builder, constructing custom homes – but not here. And sometimes permits will show additions, name the architect, etc.
So permits are worth checking … but usually are a low priority for me.
7. To flesh out your story, set it in local and national context: Three useful books (Click here for more info on these and others >>):
- Mary Kratt, Charlotte: A Brief History.
- Tom Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class & Urban Development in Charlotte.
- Kenneth Jackson: Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.
SO HERE’S A STORY OF OAKLAWN PARK based on the research I’ve just discussed.
Oaklawn Park, developed beginning in 1954 – 55, was advertised as Charlotte’s “first really modern subdivision for the Negro homeowner.” Its “beautiful brick homes” were located off Beatties Ford Road on Charlotte’s west side, a short walk to Northwest Junior High (now Northwest School of the Arts). “Children have no trouble getting to school in Oaklawn Park,” noted a 1955 Charlotte Observer story.
Ervin Construction, one of the city’s most prolific homebuilders in the decades after World War II, laid out the streets and constructed the houses. Other suburbs developed for whites at this same time by Ervin included Providence Park off Providence Road in south Charlotte and Eastway Park off Eastway Drive on the city’s east side.
In Oaklawn Park, Charles Ervin laid out Waddell, Gunn, Dean, Orvis, Miles and Kay streets, along with parts of Russell and Mulberry. Ervin built most, if not all, of the houses in just a few years in the late 1950s.
One early homebuyer was Rev. William Worsley, a Presbyterian minister who also taught at nearby Johnson C. Smith University. His wife Magnolia Worsley worked as a nurse at the Northwest Medical Clinic on Beatties Ford Road. Rev. Worsley was highly regarded in Charlotte for being one of the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marines, an important Civil Rights advancement during World War II. The Worsley family continued to own the home at 1713 Miles Court into the 2010s, indicating Oaklawn Park’s continuing stability and desirability.
And you can go even deeper, if you want. I did that for Oaklawn Park – and came up with this essay. Check footnotes to learn my sources.