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Charlotte in the New South: Restless reinvention

By Tom Hanchett
Correspondent

Look at Charlotte and you might think it’s all brand-new. But look close and there’s history here to see.

Charlotte came to life as a tiny courthouse town in 1768, named for England’s Queen Charlotte. A Revolutionary War battle raged along its main Tryon Street in 1789; British General Cornwallis is said to have called the town a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.”

A boy named Conrad Reed discovered North America’s first gold nearby in 1799, but Charlotte’s gold economy dwindled after the 1849 California Gold Rush.

Civil War battles bypassed us, leaving the town’s rails intact. At the same time, the end of slavery wiped out plantations in other parts of Dixie. Soon, leaders here were building what they called a “New South,” and by the 1920s the Carolinas led the nation in cotton manufacturing.

Myers Park – gracious greenways and curving, oak-shaded streets – was laid out in 1911 for mill owners and bankers. Lake Wylie began as a hydroelectric project of James B. Duke, who sold power to textile companies. NASCAR ran its first stock car race here in 1949, knowing that mill hands had money jingling in their pockets on weekends.

Even our banks – the crown of Charlotte’s skyline – sprang from textile money. Wells Fargo’s Charlotte presence rests on First Union, founded by a cotton broker. Rival North Carolina National Bank became so adept at putting branches in far-flung Carolina cotton towns that in 1982 its leader, Hugh McColl, figured out how to buy an out-of-state bank. This triggered America’s shift to interstate banking, and McColl’s Bank of America became the nation’s first coast-to-coast bank in 1998.

And you can still see reminders of the cotton boom today, in the Charlotte arts district known as NoDa (for North Davidson Street), in parts of the villages of Pineville and Cornelius, Kannapolis and Belmont, Mount Holly and Gastonia. Big brick mill buildings, turned to fresh uses, brood like mother hens over rows of look-alike cottages.

If you know where to look, you can find history celebrated. A hornet’s nest is the civic symbol emblazoned on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police cars, and both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have councils named after hornets’ nests. You can pan for gold at the Reed Gold Mine in nearby Midland, and you can see the reconstructed 1837 U.S. Mint that forms the rear of the original Mint Museum of Art out Randolph Road.

But Charlotte seems more excited about whatever is coming next.

Mecklenburg County has doubled in size since 1990, from half a million to almost a million residents. People are flooding in from across the U.S. and around the world. You can taste this newest New South on older suburban streets such as Central Avenue, where a Mexican tienda, a Somali restaurant, a Salvadoran papusa joint, a Lebanese bakery and a Vietnamese soup parlor mingle on the same block.

Today, Charlotte is still yearning toward a New South, still reinventing itself. That’s our history. And our future.

Tom is staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South: www.museumofthenewsouth.org.
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