Historically Black community in Cornelius secures state funding to preserve legacy

CORNELIUS, N.C. — In the Smithville neighborhood of Cornelius, the last several years have been full of change.

A new street, sidewalk and park have all been additions, but while neighbors are embracing the growth, they also want to hold on to its past.

Beyond the shiny new splash pad and bright green field that mark Smithville’s upgrades is a deep, rich history.

Its a predominantly Black area, once segregated and redlined, with many people who are direct descendants of slaves, including Rafford Miller.

“That used to be a field and that is where we played,” Miller said pointing to different spots in his long-time neighborhood.

Homeowners like Miller are relying on the Smithville Community Coalition to revitalize and preserve the area.

The recent commitment of $500,000 in state funding is earmarked -- along with additional money from the town and county -- for that goal, said Willie Jones, executive director of the coalition.

“It helps us jump start the next development component within Smithville,” Jones said.

Improvements called for in a master plan approved by Cornelius’ town board include new water lines, sidewalks and fire hydrants.

Money would also go toward improving existing houses and acquiring vacant land to create hundreds of homes that are affordable and based on income.

First priority would be offered to people already living in the Smithville or who have a proven connection to the community. Cornelius town employees, first responders and people who work for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would also qualify.

“We tried to present a set of offerings for people who work in the public sector,” Jones said.

For current residents like Rafford Miller the hope is that the coalition’s plans keep people from getting forced out of a growing area, so seniors can age in the community they’ve called home for so long.

“You know, this is our home, not some of the finest homes, but this is where these people have lived for years and where they want to stay,” Miller said.

The Smithville Community Coalition is still hoping to raise nearly $3 million to build out the neighborhood within the next four years.

(WATCH BELOW: Group works to improve historically Black neighborhood near Cornelius, while keeping its charm)