Tom Hanchett, keeper of Charlotte’s past, to retire at Levine Museum

Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South, where he has been historian since its 1999 launch.
Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South, where he has been historian since its 1999 launch. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Tom Hanchett, the foremost historian in a city only beginning to celebrate its past, said Saturday he is stepping down from his post at the Levine Museum of the New South later this year.

It’s a retirement in name only, says Hanchett, 59. He plans to go half-time at the Levine on July 1, then leave near the end of the year to become an independent community historian and work on special projects.

He hopes to consult in the future with the Levine, where he has been historian since its 2001 opening on Seventh Street in uptown.

His departure marks a changing of the guard at the Levine. In March, president Emily Zimmern, 66, announced she would retire in November after two decades of leading the Levine and its predecessor organizations.

Hanchett said he and Zimmern had both been discussing their retirements for some time and the decisions were not linked.

Under Hanchett, three Levine exhibits have received national recognition – “Purses, Platforms & Power” in 2005 on the generation that opened doors for professional advancement of women in Charlotte during the 1970s and 1980s, “Courage” in 2006 on school desegregation and “Changing Places” in 2009 on the demographic transformation of the region.

Only five years after opening, the Levine was one of six institutions honored at the White House in 2006 with a prestigious National Award for Museum and Library Service. First lady Laura Bush, a former librarian, said the Levine and the others were “models for the rest of our country.”

Focusing on the post-Civil War history of Charlotte and the Piedmont, the Levine was among the youngest museums to receive the nation’s highest award for museums and libraries.

It was validation for the Levine’s mission of connecting with the community by presenting sometimes unpleasant truths about the past rather than being chiefly a repository of old muskets and historical artifacts.

“If you only tell the good parts of history, it’s happy-face history,” Hanchett said. “No one believes you because people know history is complicated.”

Though many of the museum’s exhibitions have been provocative – in 2012 it hosted “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” that confronted the phenomenon of vigilante executions that peaked around the dawn of the 20th century – Charlotte has been receptive to the kind of programming the Levine does, Hanchett said.

“We’ve had a bare minimum of angry constituents. I can count on one hand the number of people annoyed enough to give us a tongue-lashing.”

First taste of Charlotte came in 1981

A Chicago native who grew up in upstate New York and Virginia, Hanchett arrived in Charlotte in 1981 as a graduate student in urban studies at the University of Chicago. He worked with UNC Charlotte history professor Dan Morrill on a 14-month grant studying what was left of the city’s historic neighborhoods for the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Many of Charlotte’s neighborhoods had been wiped out by urban renewal. Dilworth was teetering on the edge of decay as was Fourth Ward. “Hard to believe now,” said Hanchett.

It was an age before Charlotte began celebrating its history, which dates to colonial times. Today, plaques line Tryon Street and statues along Little Sugar Creek Greenway mark significant chapters of the region’s history.

“People would say, ‘Why are you here?’ There’s no history here.” But Hanchett, who was interested in how cities evolve, found plenty during the years working with Morrill.

Morrill kept getting grants and adding neighborhoods for Hanchett to study. Hanchett left in 1987 to get his Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was in a tenure-track teaching position at Cornell when the Levine lured him back in 1999 to set up its new building. He developed “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” that opened in 2001, the Levine’s centerpiece multimedia exhibit with more than 1,000 artifacts and oral histories.

“He could have been secure in a traditional academic job,” said Morrill, now retired from UNCC. Though mild in manner and casual in dress, Morrill said that Hanchett is a brilliant historian with a deep social conscience.

“He wanted to reach out to the people … He saw history as a way of building neighborhoods. He really is a public historian.”

Jim Williams of the Mecklenburg Historical Association said Hanchett is versed in multiple facets of the region, including ethnic food and music – Hanchett is a skilled bluegrass fiddler.

“He’s not an ivory-tower academic sort,” said Williams. “If you look at the last 16 years, particularly the last five, there’s been a tremendous growth in the interest of history here. His outreach, his walking tours have been a big reason for that.”

His next chapter

Hanchett, who was the go-to historian for national media when the Democratic National Convention came to town in 2012, said he intends to continue to be a “history ambassador” for Charlotte.

One of his first post-museum projects, he said, will be working with community leaders to write a National Register nomination for McCrorey Heights in west Charlotte, a post-World War II neighborhood built by African-Americans.

He also hopes to write Charlotte-oriented books for UNC Press on architecture and food. He also plans to continue his food column in the Observer.

“I like being a history ambassador,” Hanchett said. “And Charlotte seems to like it back.”

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Twitter: @WashburnChObs.