Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Reverter dispute involving Charlotte parkland, parking deck settles

Memorial will honor family that donated park for use by white people

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//April 7, 2011//

Reverter dispute involving Charlotte parkland, parking deck settles

Memorial will honor family that donated park for use by white people

Paul Tharp, Staff Writer//April 7, 2011//

Listen to this article

By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer

[email protected]

A suit brought by Eli Baxter Springs IV and the Historic Elizabeth Neighborhood Foundation against Central Piedmont Community College, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County over land two former Charlotte mayors donated to the city in 1904 to be used as a park for white people has settled.

As a part of the settlement, CPCC will erect a monument recognizing the gift of the land to the city by the two former mayors – Eli B. Springs and Dr. R.J. Brevard – and Brevard’s wife, Mary.

The case settled on Feb. 24, according to court documents Lawyers Weekly obtained. A consent judgment resolving the case had not yet been filed by press time. The case is Melanie Sizemore, et al. v Mecklenburg County, et al., Mecklenburg County case No. 10 CVS 8260.

Charlotte attorney James G. Middlebrooks, who represented CPCC, said the college was satisfied with the settlement. Springs and other plaintiffs now recognize that Mecklenburg County owns the disputed land.

Charlotte attorney Kenneth T. Davies, who represented the plaintiffs, said the Springs family was not happy with the result and the settlement didn’t resolve the issues. “We think the reverter issues were still legally viable,” he said.

The 1904 deed provided that the land was “to be held, used and maintained [as a public park for use of white people] and [for] none other [purpose].” The Springses argued that ownership of the land reverted back to the family once it ceased to be used as a public park for use of white people. That clause in the deed is known as a reverter.

Middlebrooks said the land may have reverted to the Springses, but if it did, it reverted as early as 1935 and no later than 1986. The city then became the owner by either the doctrine of inverse condemnation or adverse possession. Because the Springses failed to sue within the applicable limitations periods for those property claims, they lost their right to challenge the taking of their land.

But Davies said adverse possession and eminent domain claims are not applicable in situations involving reversionary interests. Settlement of the case means those thorny issues of real property law won’t be decided.

The county was involved because the city transferred ownership of the parkland to it in 1992, according to Charlotte city attorney Catherine C. Williamson.

CPCC now has a long-term ground lease for the parkland, Middlebrooks said. The parkland has been used for vehicle parking since the 1980s, and the college built a $21 million parking deck there last summer.

Charlotte attorney Zipporah B. Edwards, who represented the county, told Lawyers Weekly that the county believed all along that the Springses’ clams were barred by the statute of limitations.


Unhappy result

But it wasn’t the statute of limitations defense that scared off the Springses, Davies said. They were forced to back down due to a standing issue involving Eli Springs IV. A potential disinheritance issue may have affected the reverter interest he claimed to possess.

But the family won some important concessions, he said. The county is committed to transferring to CPCC the land beside the parking deck that now encompasses Memorial Stadium.

“It is clear that the county is staging the eventual transfer of large chunk of that land to CPCC for campus growth,” Davies said. Under the terms of the settlement, “When anything like that starts up,” the Historic Elizabeth Neighborhood Foundation will have to be alerted “so they can have input and, if necessary, try to stop it.”

Davies said the Springs family hoped to prevent another parkland giveaway, especially in the Memorial Stadium area. “I am frankly disappointed that the county would give away part of the park, even to CPCC,” he said. “I think the family was too.”


The settlement agreement between the parties provides that the Springses and other plaintiffs will submit a memorial plaque design and specifications to the county and CPCC for approval.

“The only thing we have to do once we approve it is put it up,” Middlebrooks said.

Davies said the bronze plaque will be affixed to or posted near the parking deck. It will note that the land was given to the city by two of its former mayors.

The memorial won’t reflect that use of the parkland was intended to be used only by white people. “Those words are not enforceable,” Davies said, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kraemer (334 U.S. 1). “From a cultural, social and community perspective, the clause is a reminder of part of the darker side of our past, but I think very few people today would consider those words to have any force or effect.”

Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Com-munity Relations Committee, said unless someone tried to enforce the clause, the committee would not be concerned about it.

“As long as everyone understands that under current law, that kind of clause is not enforceable, there is no problem,” he said. He added that most homes in nearby Myers Park have deed restrictions that say homes can be sold only to persons of the Caucasian race.

Davies said the former mayors “were acting within the confines of the culture in which they existed,” and their motive was philanthropic.

CPCC student Nathan Sanders said times have changed and while the grantors of the parkland may not have intended for people of certain backgrounds to use and enjoy the land, that has nevertheless been the result. He said he doesn’t have a problem with a memorial commemorating the gift of the land and said it shouldn’t reflect that the grantors intended to limit use of the park to white people.

CPCC student Sheena Evans said the gift may still have been a good deed, even if she was an inadvertent beneficiary. “The law evolved to grant access to everyone,” she said. “It has become a part of the community, and it serves the whole community now.”

Rajeev D. Majumdar, a Washington state attorney who published an article in the Seattle Law Review about racial restrictive covenants, told Lawyers Weekly that while he doesn’t condone whitewashing history, “I imagine that annotating the memorial with sentiments of white exclusivity” would confer few benefits on the Springs family, the city or the college. “In fact,” he said, “it would probably harm all three.”

History is important “when it can be looked at as a lesson on how to improve ourselves,” Majumdar said, “but often history can be used either as a rallying call for historical recidivism or to prop up institutions and traditions that foster inequality.”

Top Legal News

See All Top Legal News


See All Commentary