When I was a 4-year-old exploring the backyards of Dilworth, Charlotte was still a small place – about 250,000 people. A lot has happened on its road to becoming the 17th-biggest city in America.
Whether you’re a newcomer or an old-timer, there are key moments in modern Charlotte’s history that any self-respecting resident ought to be familiar with. Here are my top 11 (everyone has top 10s; Charlotte aspires to stand out, so it needs 11):
11. It’s hard for some to imagine, but there was a day when the Charlotte Hornets were the most popular team in the NBA. George Shinn, a Kannapolis businessman, landed an expansion team in 1988 and quickly proved that Charlotte deserved to be on the major-league map. The Hornets led the league in attendance their first year, and seven times after that. That helped Jerry Richardson land an NFL expansion team that started play in 1995. In just their second season, the Panthers came within one win of the Super Bowl. Seven years later, in 2003, they lost 32-29 to the New England Patriots in one of the best Super Bowls ever.
10. Perhaps our two most famous crimes involved a television evangelist plagued by a sex and money scandal, and a bumbling group of criminals led by an M&M-eating Loomis Fargo employee. Jim Bakker was, with wife Tammy Faye, the founder of the PTL ministry. He said he had consensual sex with his secretary, Jessica Hahn; she said he raped her. The Observer’s reporting on his accounting fraud in 1987 landed him in prison over the protests of millions of loyal followers. David Scott Ghantt, meanwhile, loaded $17.3 million in cash into the back of a van before taking it to co-conspirators and disappearing to a hotel near Cozumel, Mexico, with $50,000. There he lived on burgers and M&Ms until the FBI hunted him down months later. A movie about the heist comes out this year.
9. On April 20, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The unanimous opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, said that busing students to achieve racial integration of schools was constitutional. The school system bused students throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and Charlotte became known as the city that made desegregation work. In a lawsuit filed in 1997, Judge Robert Potter lifted the busing court order by finding that CMS was now “unitary.” Most students started attending the schools closest to their homes, producing the resegregated school system you see today.
8. Know these political pioneers: Liz Hair, Sue Myrick and Harvey Gantt. Hair was the first woman elected to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, in 1972; she would chair the board two years later. Gantt was elected the city’s first black mayor in 1983. Myrick became Charlotte’s first (and to this day only) female elected mayor in 1987. Each set an example that propelled other African-Americans and women into public office.
7. Even as Hurricane Hugo bore down on Charleston in September 1989, Charlotteans thought they had little to fear. Our city, after all, sits 150 miles inland. But Hugo roared ashore at Isle of Palms with 140 mph winds and didn’t slow down. It smacked Charlotte just six hours later, still with 80 mph winds. The storm knocked down thousands of trees, 700,000 Duke Energy customers lost power and schools were closed for as long as two weeks. Many longtime residents regard it as the most powerful storm to hit Charlotte in their lifetimes.
6. Piedmont Airlines selected Charlotte for its new hub in 1979, and traffic doubled. Three years later, a new 325,000-square-foot terminal opened. Piedmont merged with USAir in 1989, and the airline’s heavy presence here has given Charlotte residents – and, importantly, businesses – far more routes than a city our size would normally have. In recent years, Charlotte has been the sixth-busiest airport in the world measured by number of takeoffs and landings.
5. God made the Catawba River, but Duke Power made Lake Norman, the largest man-made lake in North Carolina, from 1959 to 1964. The lake provides drinking water, electricity and recreation to Charlotte and surrounding counties (though public access is limited). Duke Power, helped by the lake, grew into Duke Energy, the second-largest electric utility in the country.
4. In 1959, Leon Levine and his partner Bernard Richter invested $3,000 each in a little store at 1519 Central Ave. Some 6,700 stores later, Family Dollar was sold to Dollar Tree for $8.5 billion. Leon and his wife, Sandra, have become the city’s leading philanthropists, committing or giving away more than $200 million – and counting. From education to the arts to health care to human services to religion, there’s no sector the Levines haven’t boosted.
3. Billy Graham was born here in 1918, but Charlotte’s reputation as a city of churches goes back hundreds of years. Once primarily Presbyterian, the city is now home to dozens of faiths and is the headquarters for a variety of religious organizations. Catholics now rank second behind only Baptists as the most populous denomination. St. Matthew in south Charlotte boasts about 30,000 members. Though as the Observer’s Tim Funk reported this year, the fastest-growing category is “Nones.”
2. Hugh McColl Jr. was born June 18, 1935, and started acquiring banks soon after. McColl’s vision, then creation, of a coast-to-coast bank did more to drive Charlotte’s growth than perhaps any other single thing. His NationsBank bought San Francisco-based BankAmerica in 1998, completing the dream he began work on two decades before. The competition with First Union’s Ed Crutchfield to grow the biggest bank made Charlotte the nation’s second-largest financial center and helped shape modern Charlotte in dozens of ways.
1. McColl tells the story of how he needed a vibrant downtown to lure employees from New York and elsewhere to little ol’ Charlotte. As late as the mid- to late-1990s, uptown was a sleepy place that shut down after 5 p.m., with few residents, fewer restaurants and no retail. McColl, along with Jim Palermo and other lieutenants, changed that, spearheading a broad effort to invest in the center city. Today, uptown is home to 14,000 people, a dozen arts venues, three sports stadiums and a bubbling nightlife.
Taylor is the Observer’s editorial page editor.