It is unlikely that anything resembling the impressive Levine Museum of the New South would exist anywhere else.
A museum of the New North or the New East would be merely peculiar, but here the term "New South" has a venerable heritage, recalling unrealized hopes and great expectations. There is also much at stake in trying to understand what the term really means.
It came into use in the aftermath of the Civil War, signifying the changes that had to take place in the Old South. A rural agricultural world dependent on slave labor had to remake itself under the tutelage and dominance of the industrial North.
This imposition of liberal modernity and urban life incorporated a demand for social transformation, an urgent call for restructuring the economy and a conviction that the South's deepest beliefs must be jettisoned. It called for a full-scale reinvention. But there was little follow-through, so in the decades that followed Reconstruction, the process was punctuated by reversions and rebellions.
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The New South was always contested terrain.
Is there another region of the United States, in fact, where such reinvention was so necessary yet so regularly fraught with violence, nostalgia, outrage and controversy?
Even now, when Newness is firmly established, you can find remnants of old tensions.
In Greensboro this month, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened, thrusting visitors back into the full horrors of Jim Crow segregation that undid Reconstruction's conception of the New South with a vengeance.
A short walk away at Greensboro Historical Museum, vengeance takes another form by conjuring the issue out of existence.
Race is almost completely erased, not through egalitarian vision but through nostalgic reconstructions. The racks of rifles and artifacts seem to invoke the former power of the Old South, aggressively turning away from any hint of the New.
So the achievement of the Levine Museum of the New South should not be underestimated.
From the Civil War on
Its main exhibition, "Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers: Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont in the New South," recounts the history of the South, beginning after the Civil War, when Charlotte was a rural backwater with just over 2,000 citizens.
Then came the railroad and the first factories, the development of textile mills, the expansion of trade, urbanization, the civil rights movement, busing controversies and, finally, contemporary Charlotte: a city of immigration, banking and business.
Along the way, the show offers a cotton gin and samples of seed cotton; selections of 19th-century banjo and fiddle music; and accounts of racism, child labor and strikes. There are also mill-hand songs, celebrations of Charlotte's black musicians and white folk culture, and reports of religious belief and political dissent.
The region's evolution
Over all, the museum's historical account could sound almost...ordinary. That is actually one of the virtues of this show, which was mounted in 2002 by museum historian Tom Hanchett (based on his book "Sorting Out the New South City").
Spend time at many Southern historical museums and you see that the ability to tell a straightforward history (with details about race without being possessed by it, engrossed in Southern possibilities without excessive celebration, and packed with Southern failures without being overcome by guilt) is not easy.
It is strange just how contested and vulnerable the ordinary is, for both the victims of racial hatred and for those who chronicle it. But the Levine's dispassionate survey is so effective that, at least until this year's budget cuts, a visit was a required field trip for the county's eighth-graders.
Hanchett's account also suggests some surprising things about the development of Southern cities.
The segregated Southern city of the mid-20th century, he argues, originated not in the Old South or the early decades of the New; during those periods, he points out, the distribution of races throughout the city was in a "salt and pepper" pattern.
Urban segregation, Hanchett suggests, was a later creation, part of the rebellion against Reconstruction. Segregation was not a tradition; it was literally reactionary, a 20th-century reversal.
It is also illuminating to discover that the typical Southern city is also being supplanted.
In 2009 the museum opened an exhibition, "Changing Places," that is compelling for what it reflects about the continuing evolution of the New South.
"For most of its history, the South was America's poorest region," the wall text tells us. "People left the South to seek opportunity. But since the 1970s, that's changed."
With the growth of businesses, the rise of air-conditioning and the success of the civil rights movement, the South has now become a destination for immigration.
We are told that Mecklenburg County, which surrounds Charlotte, has a population of about 827,000; 24 percent were born in the United States, outside the South, and 13 percent were foreign-born. The largest immigrant group, from Latin America, constitutes 7 percent of the population. Indeed, the show notes, the Southeast now has the fastest-growing Latino population in the nation.
A diversity of newcomers
The theme of the exhibition, though, is that this is not always a comfortable situation; cross-cultural encounters lead to misunderstandings and divisions.
The show is meant to be an educational corrective. The interest here is not in its familiar multicultural approach, but in its locale, providing a sign of what the New South now means.
The novelty of the immigrant phenomenon also leads to spots of real originality.
In one demonstration visitors are asked to gauge their sensations when standing at varying distances opposite a life-size mannequin: distances for holding conversations comfortably, we learn, are 24 to 30 inches for Americans, 36 inches for the Japanese, and 8 to 12 inches for Middle Easterners.
One of the more vibrant aspects of the show are bulletin boards where visitors are asked to post their reactions to questions, like, "When have you had problems communicating in Charlotte?"
One visitor writes, "I didn't know a toboggan was a hat and not just a sled." A Chicagoan notes, "I get very lost when I take directions from a Southerner."
Some of the exhibition's elements, like its discussion of ethnic foods and family customs, would be obvious in the Old North, but in the New South, it has a different effect, a novel accent.
There is an appealing integrity in the way the museum takes on its subjects.
In the future the museum should also take on more controversy-laden topics, examining, perhaps, the romance of the South, or the evolution of racial politics in the region during the last 30 years.
But in the meantime, the Levine museum reflects the mixture of the traditional and the iconoclastic, the combination of a weighty past and an ever-shifting present, that characterize the idea of the New South and may even, one day, make that concept obsolete.