Charlotte, North Carolina is a New South city. Although I grew up just eighty miles south of the Queen City, I identified it more with the Panthers and Hornets (a bygone era) than railroads, cotton mills, and segregation. Yet my recent attendance at the Southern Historical Association's Annual Conference in Charlotte made me reconsider the city that I thought I knew so well. Many of the panels dedicated to the postbellum South examined the struggles over citizenship, social and political rights, economic development, and racial strictures that continue to shape the region today. This is certainly true of Charlotte itself, which was relatively undeveloped prior to the Civil War--having a population just over 1,000 in 1850. The city's growth hinged on the expansion of railroad lines which facilitated the development of industries like textile manufacturing. The expansion of industry and trade within Charlotte fostered other industries, such as banking and finance. By 1908 the city had its first skyscraper, and had even been visited by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet the city's history was not a story of unchallenged progress--especially for its African American population. Indeed, historians have determined that Charlotte actually become more segregated as the city developed, culminating in the United States Supreme Court's 1977 ruling in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which gave the federal government greater control over enforcing desegregation of public schools and allowing authorities to use busing to achieve integration.
Unlike much of the region, Charlotte has been fairly forthright in acknowledging the importance of this postbellum history with the Levine Museum of the New South--located just downtown. The museum contains displays dealing with Charlotte's history, from the development of sharecropping and its embrace of cotton monoculture to the growth of the city's considerable banking industry. Visitors can experience a reconstructed sharecropper's shack, feel the machinery from a textile mill, re-enact a sit-in at a lunch counter with Civil Rights activists, and even walk through a simulated city street from the early twentieth century. The museum is therefore particularly good at showing many facets of life and labor in the postbellum history of Charlotte and should serve as a model for the rest of the region in how to approach this critical era.
Cotton Machinery - Levine Museum (Charlotte, NC)
Indeed, although there are numerous museums and displays devoted to the antebellum South and Civil War, the region's public history in large part makes it seem like the southern past ended at Appomattox. Yet, as is clear from Charlotte's history, Jim Crow laws, struggles for social and political rights by African Americans, and industrialization all profoundly shaped southern culture after 1865. Charlotte points to the future of southern public history, and other cities in the South--even those with a storied antebellum past--would benefit from further scrutiny by public historians. Charleston, South Carolina, for example, presents visitors with myriad presentations about the life of the city's plantation grandees, but where are explanations of the city's racial struggles following the Civil War, overviews of the lives of the city's laborers in industries like phosphate mining and commercial fishing, or even displays dealing with the city's 1886 earthquake and its disparate impact on white and black residents?
Drayton Hall Plantation (Charleston, SC)
All of these are critical to understanding Charleston today, but are rarely encountered by most visitors to the city. There are, however, indications that this is beginning to change throughout the region. For instance, Wilmington, North Carolina has finally constructed a monument acknowledging the massacre of African Americans in the city's 1898 race riot. Yet this change has been slow, and public historians should continue to follow Charlotte's lead--working to more fully highlight the region's postbellum history.