Celebrating Smithville’s history
by Staff Writer
CORNELIUS — The Smithville Coalition is bringing black history lessons close to home this month.
As part of Black History Month, the Smithville Community Coalition will give a presentation Feb. 25 from 1 to 4 p.m. at town hall where residents will tell of life growing up in Smithville, how it was and how it’s changed, and look forward to the history still to be made.
The roots of Smithville – known as Limley until around 1910 – go back to 1869, just after the Civil War, when former slaves were freed.
According to Ron Potts, who grew up in the historically black neighborhood, the community was “cemented” by two churches: Torrence Chapel AME Zion Church, built in 1869, and Union Bethel built around 1917.
The community, in the center of Cornelius, eventually became known as Smithville because the Jacob L. Smith family owned the land, including the cotton field where many of the men in the neighborhood worked.
According to “A Town by Any Other Name – A History of Cornelius, North Carolina” by Leslie B. Rindoks, Smith started to parcel out his land to the black families in 1908, hoping they could create a community and not have to, once again, separate from their families. Those who could afford to, paid cash for the land; for those who couldn’t, Smith gave the land for free.
Nannie Potts, the first female and black mayor of Cornelius, moved to Smithville after marrying her husband Gerald “Mickey” Potts in 1959. She remembers hearing stories of Smith delivering cement blocks to residents to help build their homes.
Smith also employed many residents at his cotton field where Smithville Park is now. Others worked as barbers, manual laborers and domestic workers for white families.
Residents established the Smithville Better Community Center in 1954-55.
“That was the focal point of Smithville,” Nannie Potts said. “It’s where everyone (from Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius) came on the weekends, and we would go and dance our hearts to death.”
There were also basketball and baseball games at the center.
The same committee that transformed the community center worked on getting amenities like running water in the neighborhood, with the help of Mecklenburg County commissioners.
Ron and Nannie Potts said growing up in the close community of Cornelius was different than what many blacks might have experienced.
“I will always say I had a great childhood here,” Ron Potts said. “It was just such a good community. We all played all over the community, and the ladies who were domestic workers would bring the kids over to our neighborhood, feed them, everything else. Everyone was our parent.”
Until the 1970s, Smithville was on the outskirts of town. It wasn’t until development began on the lake after the Catawba River was dammed in 1962 that Cornelius annexed Smithville, in 1972. Smithville residents welcomed the change, having first asked to be part of Cornelius in 1967. According to Rindok’s book, they were turned down for the lack of a tax base, leading Gerald Potts to start a garbage collection business for the community, since that service wasn’t provided by the town or county.
While much has changed in Cornelius and Smithville, Ron Potts said the same sense of community and pride is still present and has lead to the upstart of the Smithville Community Coalition, which is working to reestablish a community center in Smithville.
“A lot of people in Cornelius don’t know about Smithville, especially the new people, other than perhaps from the standpoint of crime,” Potts said. “We need to emphasize we have a rich, historical impact on this town.”