Romare Bearden's Charlotte

"I never left Charlotte except physically." – Romare Bearden


Romare Bearden's bold collages and paintings reflect America's 20th century journey from rural to urban. Acclaimed in the latter days of the Harlem Renaissance, Bearden celebrated the bustling everyday life of the big-city North. Yet he returned often to the South of his youth, to folklife scenes in Charlotte and rural Mecklenburg County.

Now you can explore the place that shaped Romare Bearden's worldview in his earliest years following his birth on September 2, 1911. Click on map markers to see his family's home and church, view nearby sights, find African American landmarks, and glimpse the wider Charlotte-Mecklenburg landscape.

©Frank Stewart/Black Light Production
Romare in his studio, with a picture of his paternal great-grandparents Rosa and H. B. Kennedy.

© Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Early Carolina Morning, from the Profile/Part I: The Twenties series (Mecklenburg County). 1978. Collage on board, 29 x 41". Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Clinton N. Levin.

Bearden's Charlotte was a prosperous little "New South" city-on-the-make. Railroads crisscrossed the town, and cotton mills and wholesaling drove the economy, spurring 88% growth to 34,000 people during the decade before Bearden's birth. Cotton fields draped the rolling red-clay hills of surrounding Mecklenburg County. Romare's great-grandparents, the Kennedys, were part of a rising black middle-class, owners of a grocery store and rental houses, members of handsome brick St. Michael's Episcopal Church. African Americans made up nearly a third of the population.

But these years also saw a heartbreaking hardening of racial segregation in Charlotte and the South. A new North Carolina state constitution in 1900 disfranchised most black voters. Charlotte's Seaboard Railway station instituted separate White and Colored waiting rooms in 1895; the city's Independence Park barred black people in 1903; streetcars ordered blacks to sit in the back starting in 1907. Residential patterns began to shift from integrated neighborhoods, such as Bearden's Third Ward, to the segregation of all-black Brooklyn and all-white suburban Elizabeth. No wonder that many African Americans began leaving the South for the promise of the urban North, an exodus called the Great Migration.

Romare's parents joined the Great Migration about 1915, moving to New York City. Yet the family kept close ties to Charlotte, returning often to visit the Kennedys. A photo of the distinguished couple on their Graham Street porch graced Romare Bearden's Harlem studio to the last days of his life in 1988. And his memories of Southern roots showed up again and again in his Mecklenburg series and other works.

Website Created By:
Laurie Blum and Christine Wells, graduate students at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as part of a class on Virtual Cities in the American Studies department during the Fall 2010 semester.

Dr. Tom Hanchett, staff historian, Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte, NC

Special thanks to director Dr. Robert Allen and Project Coordinator Dr. Pamella Lach of Main Street, Carolina, and to the Carolina Digital Library and Archives, all at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are grateful to the Romare Bearden Foundation and VAGA for permission to use Bearden artwork. Thanks also to the Jerald Melberg Gallery and to the Bearden 100 Centennial Committee in Charlotte.

Works Cited:
  1. Bearden, Romare, and Carl Holty. The Painter's Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting. New York: Garland, 1981, c1969. Print.
  2. Greenwood, Janette Thomas. Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White "Better Class" in Charlotte, 1850-1910. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994. Print.
  3. Hanchett, Thomas. Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1910. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998. Print.
  4. Schwartzman, Myron. Romare Bearden: His Life and Art. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990. Print.

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