Hill topper


September 1, 2020

For more than 150 years, Johnson C. Smith University has been a fount of knowledge and inspiration in west Charlotte. 

by David Mildenberg

Perched on one of the highest points of Mecklenburg County, Johnson C. Smith University has been a jewel of Charlotte as long as any institution in the community. Its history dates to 1867, when two local Presbyterian ministers agreed to start a school for Black residents and received financial support from Philadelphia’s wealthy Biddle family and a donation of 8 acres from Charlotte farmer-banker William Rayford Myers. (Myers Park is named after him.) 

Biddle University was formed in 1876, with the Romanesque Biddle Hall opening seven years later. One of Charlotte’ architectural and historic gems, the 3.5-story building topped with a clock tower now serves as the administrative center and includes a gorgeous, wood-paneled 600-seat auditorium.

In 1922, the university was renamed in honor of an African American businessman in Pittsburgh after his widow, Jane, provided money for a dormitory, science hall and other projects. Two years later, Charlotte industrialist James B. Duke included the university as one of four higher-education beneficiaries of his endowment, ensuring a financial foundation in perpetuity. (The Duke Endowment also funds Duke and Furman universities and Davidson College.) JCSU became a founding member of the United Negro College Fund in 1944.

President Clarence Armbrister has led the university since January 2018, serving during a challenging period for every college leader but especially small private institutions. Tough jobs are nothing new for him; he was city treasurer in Philadelphia in the early ’90s and later served as chief financial and operating officer of Philadelphia’s public schools, then the fourth-largest U.S. system. He was a senior administrator at Temple and Johns Hopkins universities before moving to Charlotte. “I’m proud of the progress we have made on several fronts since I arrived at JCSU,” he says. “We have worked hard to bring the university to financial stability and to increase operational efficiency.”

Plans call for a major review of all academic areas, followed by targeted investments to offer “relevant, rigorous academic programs that meet the needs of students and the rapidly changing economy,” Armbrister says.

Biddle Hall auditorium

Now, the neighborhoods around Johnson C. Smith are receiving unprecedented investment, with property values soaring because of its close proximity to the center city and the Gold Line streetcar service expected to launch in 2021. Homes that sold for less than $100,000 a decade ago are now often listed at more than $300,000, with some new properties topping $500,000.  

Armbrister credits his predecessor, Ronald Carter, for helping convince local officials of the streetcar’s value. “It will literally stop at our front entrance,” he says. “The university’s master plan will build upon this public asset to enhance the quality of life on campus for our students and to build a stronger community by working with our neighbors.” 

The pandemic prompted Johnson C. Smith to an all-online format this fall, leaving the campus eerily quiet when it should be full of enthusiastic learners. “Even though we’re all living with the uncertainty and disruption,” Armbrister says, “our alumni showed their love and support for JCSU by contributing more than $1 million during the 2019-20 fiscal year — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in nearly a decade.”

The university is focused on leveraging partnerships with Charlotte-area businesses, collaborating more closely with community colleges and targeting new markets such as Black male charter schools and mostly Latino high schools. 

“The best way the city can support JCSU is to make sure we remain at the forefront of the consciousness of all those groups when there is a need in the city or region we can fulfill,” Armbrister says. SP

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