University City

Digging in to Charlotte's history

Walter J. Klein is visiting, writing, phoning, and emailing dozens of Alexanders and Ochiltrees and Spratts weekly in his quest to set the historical record straight.

Klein, 88, is on a mission to settle the two-centuries old debate regarding the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, whose validity continues to be questioned by historians.

Klein has put out a call for every living descendant of the document's signers to contact him. He's compiling a list.

He hopes to use the weight of their collective voice to put an end to the historical questions.

The Mecklenburg Declaration has long been claimed as the first declaration of independence proposed to the Continental Congress of the 13 original American colonies. It was said to be signed on May 20, 1775, in Charlotte, 14 months before the more famous cousin penned by Thomas Jefferson.

With the original thought to be lost in a fire, the first known publication of the declaration was in 1819, 44 years after it was claimed to have been written. Its veracity has been questioned ever since, with one favored theory stating the republished document was an attempt to recreate resolutions (the authenticated Mecklenburg Resolves) documented in Charlotte on May 31, 1775, where local leaders went on record in opposition to British rule.

Klein's research does not align with that theory nor does he doubt the validity of the declaration.

"One need only look at the prominence of the names attributed to Meck Dec's signing to recognize this document existed," says Kline, referring to the signers associated with the document. Those names include such historically significant names as, Hezekiah Alexander, William Graham, Col. Thomas Polk, and Duncan Ochiltree.

"The Mecklenburg Resolves, which no one disputes, make no sense without the Meck Dec preceding it," Klein says. "It seems strange those for 236 years doubters have dismissed the Meck Dec as a fraud or legend but never questioned the integrity of its signers."

Klein's search has used a lifelong association with the Masons, a deeply rooted Charlotte network, and friends with an interest in the declaration to contact descendants of the signers. To date, he has assembled a list of more than 268 descendants. Klein has heard from descendants in Fife, Scotland, New York City, Newport Beach, CA, San Marcos, Tex., and Billy Graham's family in Montreat.

One descendant is Charlotte resident Graham Gourley. Gourley is a descendant of declaration signer William Graham. Gourley is on the board of directors of the Charlotte-based May 20th Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to remembering Charlotte's rebellious and visionary history.

"It is important for people to recall where we have come from," says Gourley, whose great uncle is Billy Graham. "Historically it is the spirit of rebellion and independence that has made us who we are."