Ben Elbert Douglas

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Newly-elected Mayor Douglas, centre front, and the Charlotte City Council, in May 1935.
Benjamin Elbert Douglas, Sr. (1894–1981) was the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina from 1935 to 1941. He was the son of Benjamin F. Douglas (1831 - 1905) and Margaret L Miller Douglas (1857 - 1953). Douglas was born in Iredell County, North Carolina on September 3, 1894. He served in the United States Army during World War I.  A Democrat, he was also the first mayor of Charlotte that was directly elected by voters, because of a change in the city charter.

Mayor Ben Douglas had a house on Malvern Road in Myers Park . Like so many other New South leaders of Charlotte in the first half of the twentieth century, including Ovens, Duke, and Morrison, and for that matter Tompkins and Latta of an earlier generation, Douglas was not a native. Born in Iredell County, Douglas moved to Charlotte from Gastonia in the mid-1920s and established a funeral home at the corner of Fox Street and Elizabeth Avenue, now Independence Boulevard and Elizabeth Avenue. Older Charlotteans have vivid memories of the Douglas and Sing Mortuary, especially the green awning that extended all the way from the front door to the curb.

A tireless and adroit politician, Douglas was Mayor from 1935 until 1941, and earned the reputation of being the "Builder of Modern Day Charlotte." Douglas loved the drama and passion of the political arena, and he devoted his enormous energies and talents to leading the people into what he regarded as a bright and prosperous future. Born in the 1890s, he reached adulthood during the "roaring twenties," when it seemed that everybody was making piles of money in the stock market. Then came the crippling Depression of the 1930s. Douglas saw himself as a cheerleader, as an urban booster who would rally the people of Charlotte and give them hope.

Douglas's greatest and most enduring contribution to the building up of Charlotte was his commitment to the establishment of a municipal airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which still bears his name. Passenger air service began here on December 10, 1930, but the Curtis Condor airplane had to land at a private field. At Mayor Douglas's insistence, the Charlotte City Council voted on September 3, 1935, to apply for Federal funds from the Works Progress Administration to build an airport for Charlotte. When Washington approved the request on November 13th, the City decided to use the money for land acquistion. Voter-approved bonds were sold on March 1, 1936, to pay for the improvements, including the terminal and the hangar. "Hundreds of unemployed men, bundled in overcoats, stood in line for the first WPA jobs, which consisted of clearing the site of trees and underbrush," writes historian Ryan Sumner. The original hangar at what is now Charlotte Douglas International Airport survives. It is located at 4108 Airport Drive and is the home of the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

Douglas was a prime mover in persuading the War Department to establish an air station at Charlotte shortly before the entry of the United States into World War Two. Dedicated on April 21, 1941, and named Morris Field in honor of William Colb Morris , a World War One aviator from Concord, North Carolina, the air station was devoted primarily to the training of pilots and the maintenance of aircraft. Like Camp Greene during World War One, Morris Field was a boost to the local economy. "The Army Air Base at Morris Field became a $6 million government investment," boasted the Charlotte Observer many years later. Charlotte architect W. R. Marsh designed the buildings, and Blythe Brothers Construction Company and Goode Construction Company, both local firms, built Morris Field.

In 1946 Ben Douglas founded Douglas Furs, after Franklin D. Roosevelt asked a personal favor of Ben Sr. – to find a way to clean the fleece lined fur trimmed flight jackets for the soldiers flying in the then current war in Europe. He used his knowledge gained in the dry cleaning business (he owned one in Charlotte prior) and his ingenuity gained him a government contract and later a thriving business in the fur trade. Ben Douglas Sr. also was the relentless lobbyist for the now well-traveled Independence Boulevard.

Mary Louise Douglas (his widow) continued to work at Douglas Furs 3 days a week until her death on December 29, 2007. People of all walks of life came in and spoke to Mary Louise giving them a first hand tour guide through Douglas' history as well as Charlotte's. The store is lined with historical text, newspaper articles of his election, and pictures of Ben and his accomplishments.

He had been previously married to Harlee Todd Douglas (1899 - 1930) and Carolyn Wilkes Douglas (1907 - 1962).


Robert L. Douglas;
Jean D. Beall; 
Ben E. Douglas, Jr. - Mr. Douglas, 83, died peacefully in his sleep on March 7, 2008 at Liberty Commons Nursing Home. He was born in Gastonia, NC on November 28, 1924, the first born child of Ben E. Douglas, Sr. and wife Harlee Todd. Mr. Douglas graduated first in his class from Porter Military Academy and attended UNC-CH. During World War II he proudly served in the US Army 20th Armored Division, the first Allied forces to enter Germany, crossing the Rhine River and liberators of Dachau, as recognized by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center of Military History. Mr. Douglas was a master furrier and via his craftsmanship allowed Douglas Furs to become a regionally recognized fur business. Mr. Douglas's professional career also included commercial real estate brokerage and hotel/motel franchising business.

He married Norma Gibson Knight Melton (1924 - 2006) and had children: Ben E. Douglas (1949 - 2010), Stephen Todd Douglas, Diane Douglas Carter, Byron Evan Douglas and Benna Harlee Douglas. Their grandchildren: Alyson Hilal, Ashleigh Douglas, Christin Douglas, Jonathan Carter, Meredith Carter, Jade Douglas, Haven Douglas; and one great-grandchild, Mya.



Sources for this article include:
  • The Charlotte Observer

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