CORNELIUS – As the Cain Center for the Arts rises from the ground in the next year, it will stand adjacent to a building in stark contrast from the sparkling, regional hub of entertainment.
That brick structure along Catawba Avenue, the last in the row of “Old Town” Cornelius remnants before Cain’s hard-hat zone that will eventually become the anchor of the town’s future, will remain untouched. With its designation from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, the Stough-Cornelius/Potts Barber Shop has been cemented as a historic building.
Jess Boye has promoted the corridor through her work with event company Bella Love along with being the vice chair of the Cornelius Historic Preservation Committee.
“This is a phenomenal development for our historic preservation efforts,” Boye said at the Oct. 4 town board meeting. “The building is where Potts is located, but it is so much more as a significant place where the community shares together.”
On the building’s east end, Potts Barber Shop has served several generations of Cornelius families for 63 years between two locations. It’s the oldest continually operated Black-owned business in Cornelius, perhaps even in north Mecklenburg County.
Wilson Potts began his career as a barber at Norton’s in the original Brick Row, and later worked for Blakely’s. After finishing barber school in 1956, he bought the place from Clarence Blakely a year later. It had a pool table, hot showers and was even a place to get your shoes shined.
The Potts Barber Shop building has been a prominent center of social activity. Potts was an early civic leader of the Smithville community, one of the oldest African-American communities in north Mecklenburg County.
One of Potts’ six children, Mickey, bought the business from his dad in 1988, but the patriarch continued barbering for another 10 years.
For more than a decade, Potts’ owner and employees were Black, yet all the customers were white. But in 1972, Potts Barber Shop became the town’s first racially integrated barber shop.
Mayor and Cornelius native Woody Washam’s first haircut was in Brick Row, which was torn down around 1960.
“Mick Potts could give a mean flat top,” he said.
The Stough-Cornelius building is named after town founder R.J. Stough and town namesake J.B. Cornelius. A definite construction date from Stough-Cornelius Company could not be pinned down, but it’s estimated to be completed at some point between 1923 and 1938. Its original use was likely an administration building for the namesake, said the county’s Tommy Warlick.
Last summer, Mickey Potts and local business owner Abigail Jennings approached the commission, telling the family business’s story.
“We’ve heard a lot about community tonight. That’s one of things that’s been the most endearing to me,” Warlick said. “They brought us this remarkable story of an 80-year-old building that embodies this singular man, whose professional, personal and civic efforts continue to benefit the Smithville community and the town of Cornelius.”
The Cornelius historic commission has three criteria when rating any structure under consideration, Boye explained: architectural significance, cultural significance and perceived endangerment. Potts Barber Shop is highly rated on all three.
“It’s a simple brick structure that attracts community and gathering in an authentic way,” she said.
Boye wants to start a community journal of memories from those who’ve visited the barber shop. Customers waiting to get a chair manned by one of the Potts brothers are invited to look through the binder, taking a page for their memories.
“He was truly one of the pioneers in this community and one of those names that has stuck with me all these years,” Washam said. “He was certainly an example for all to follow.”