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Cornelius News

A legacy built on hard work, perseverance and pride

Brick Row housed businesses on Main Street

Founding Families | This is Part Two of four in a series called Founding Families that will highlight the pioneers who laid the foundation for Cornelius before it became what it is today: A classy, small town by the lake with a charming personality.

Dec. 7. By Tonya Rivens. The Smithville community birthed black entrepreneurs and created a close-knit group of families who are proud of their history. The early pioneers were business owners who established a community built on mutual respect and service to others.

Smithville, located east of I-77 off exit 28 and created next to cotton fields, is one of the oldest black neighborhoods in North Mecklenburg. In 1908, Jacob Lafayette Smith of the Potts Plantation, sold land to black sharecroppers, many of them ancestors to current residents, during the rise of Jim Crow laws and segregation.

First business

Clem Alexander Caldwell was the first business owner in Smithville. He owned a convenience store on the lot directly across from QuikTrip at the corner of Catawba Avenue and South Hill Street. His granddaughter, Delorus Williams, fondly recalls eating ginger snap cookies and cheese at the store, which was also the meeting place for the community. 

The convenience store was also the only place in Smithville with a television—which required a quarter to watch. Delorus says the community would gather to watch boxing matches and other shows.

Her grandfather understood the value of generational wealth and encouraged education and promoted entrepreneurship to the men of the community.


Ausie Rivens, the owner of a barbershop and diner, started his career by leasing space as a barber inside of Caldwell’s store. Edith Rivens Summers says Caldwell owned a typewriter, which was a luxury item at the time.  She recalls that he encouraged her and some of the neighborhood children to learn typing and to focus on education.

Wilson Potts, of Potts Barbershop, was another prominent business owner; the business continues to operate at 21324 Catawba Ave.  The original Potts Barbershop was a part of Brick Row which housed businesses on Main Street. Ronnie Potts says he recalls visiting Caldwell’s store, sitting on the window sills and playing checkers by using bottle lids as game pieces.

Gairo Johnson

Mr. Gairo Johnson owned a convenience store that was more like a supermarket in the Smithville community. Johnson’s grandson, Tony Knox, describes the business as a “small country store” with an ice box, scales to weigh meat and stocked with all of the items needed for the community to survive including beans, rice, fresh produce and more. Knox says that Johnson allowed his neighbors to purchase items on a weekly and monthly tab.

Meanwhile men of the community united to create the Smithville Community Center, formerly a Rosenwald School, for several businesses and a place of entertainment.


Caldwell was one of the founding fathers of Union Bethel AME Zion church, which sits at the corner of Catawba and South Ferry.  He also devoted his time to the Masonic Lodge. These business owners duplicated Caldwell’s business and civic models by constructing Caldwell Chapel AME Zion, Hunters Chapel United Methodist and Torrence Chapel AME Zion. 

Members of the Smithville community continue their family legacies by attending these churches today. 

The Smithville community most recently made headlines after the North Carolina Department of Transportation proposed a connector road through the community to help alleviate traffic congestion.  Fortunately, for the residents of Smithville, the plan was not approved by town officials.

There’s an African proverb that says “a good name is better than wealth.”  The founding fathers of Smithville demonstrated that belief in their efforts to build their community as they dealt with inequality and disparity. Although only one black-owned business remains in the community today at 20805 Catawba Avenue, Smithville residents continue to focus on family values, preserving their history and caring for one another.

Tonya Rivens

Tonya Rivens is a multi-skilled journalist in radio and television and is currently heard on Streetz 103.3/100.5 FM, blogs at tonyarivens.com.