If you went looking for America this Fourth of July, you could have found it at 3500 Shamrock Drive.
The past whispered through the branches of crepe myrtles outside the Hezekiah Alexander House, the oldest still standing in Mecklenburg County. The present spoke solemn oaths at a naturalization ceremony, as more than two dozen people from Nigeria to New Zealand became U.S. citizens.
And the future crawled, tottered or ran around an activity room at the back of the museum, where youngsters made clay marbles and burlap marble bags the way children did three centuries ago on roughly this spot. At a table dubbed “Patriotic Fourth of July Buttons,” a woman and three kids busily sewed cloth backgrounds while talking nonstop in Spanish.
You can always learn about the area’s heritage from the Charlotte Museum of History, which opened as the Mint Museum of History during our nation’s bicentennial celebration. The current “Brooklyn to Biddleville” exhibit examines our once-thriving black neighborhoods and asks the question “Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?”
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Yet Monday morning seemed special. The American Freedom Bell behind the main building clanged with extra sonority when rung repeatedly by a uniformed member of the Sons of the American Revolution. At one point, as if on cue, a hornet flew out from under the bell to match the insect emblazoned on it.
The naturalized attendees took their oaths in a room guarded by a life-sized cutout of King George III, the monarch from whom we declared independence. (We take our city and county names from his German-born wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She was a naturalized immigrant, too.) As they repeated the long citizenship oath, they renounced allegiance to any foreign governments and swore to support the laws and Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic.
Kay Peninger, CEO and president of the museum, noted that the signers of the Declaration of Independence adopted it 240 years ago today to establish “the power of government residing, not in a monarch or a dictator, but in we, the people.”
But they weren’t miracle workers. “Our nation,” she said, “was founded by ordinary people who did extraordinary things.” She exhorted the cheerful crowd, which was about to snack on congratulatory red, white and blue cake, to do the same. “Today, you have become ‘we, the people,’ ” she reminded them.
While the newest citizens partied with their families, old ones could get 300 years of history in 30 minutes from a cheerful docent. The tour of the Alexander homesite comes with museum admission and takes you through a microcosm of America: the settling of new territory by whites, friendly trade with Native Americans and the introduction of diseases that wiped out much of the Catawba Nation, ownership of black household slaves, fur trading, public service and finally rebellion.
You could hear about the much-disputed Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which allegedly predated the national one by more than a year, and the Mecklenburg Resolves, an exhortation to the N.C. delegation at the Continental Congress to cast off King George.
Alexander, a judge and legislator long before there was any such thing as an American, had something in common with the immigrants who stood up to wave U.S. flags on their big day.
Both he and they had to study the laws and history of our nation. Both he and they had to formally accept the responsibilities of citizenship – including, on Monday morning, a vow to perform noncombatant military service or civilian service as needed. How many of us born into this country can say the same?