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Charlotte in the New South: Restless Re-Invention

Look at Charlotte and you might think it’s all brand-new.  But look close and there’s history here to see.

Charlotte is a quintessential New South city.  What’s the New South?  At the end of the Civil War, with slavery ended and the economy in tatters, the South had to re-invent itself.  Charlotte’s never stopped re-inventing — from fields to factories to finance.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Before the New South there was the Old South.  Charlotte came to life as a tiny courthouse town in 1768, named for England’s Queen Charlotte.  A Revolutionary War battle raged along its main Tryon Street.  British General Cornwallis is said to have called us a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.” To this day a hornet’s nest is the civic symbol emblazoned on police cars and Boy Scout badges.

A boy named Conrad Reed discovered North America’s first gold nearby in 1799. Today you, too, can pan for gold at the Reed Mine historic site east of the city, and you can see the reconstructed 1837 U.S. Mint that forms the rear of the original Mint Museum of Art out Randolph Road.

Charlotte’s gold economy dwindled after the 1849 California Gold Rush.  Instead our future lay in railroads and cotton.

Civil War battles bypassed the town, leaving its railroads intact. At the same time, the end of slavery wiped out plantations in other parts of Dixie. Soon leaders here were building what they called a “New South,” and by the 1920s the Carolinas led the nation in cotton manufacturing.

You can see that history today in the Charlotte arts district known as NODA (for North Davidson Street), in parts of the villages of Pineville and Cornelius, Kannapolis and Belmont, Mount Holly and Gastonia. Big brick mill buildings, turned to fresh uses, brood like mother hens over rows of look-alike cottages.

Cotton’s legacy lies behind other landscapes as well. Myers Park — gracious greenways and curving, oak-shaded streets — was laid out in 1911 for mill owners and bankers. Lake Wylie began as a hydroelectric project of James B. Duke who sold power to textile companies. NASCAR ran its first stock car race here in 1949, knowing that millhands had money jingling in their pockets on weekends.

Indeed, our banks – the crown of Charlotte’s skyline – sprang from textile money. Wells Fargo’s Charlotte presence rests on First Union, founded by a cotton broker. Rival NCNB became so adept at putting branches in far-flung Carolina cotton towns that in 1982 its leader Hugh McColl figured out how to buy an out-of-state bank. That triggered America’s shift to interstate banking. McColl’s Bank of America became the nation’s very first coast-to-coast bank in 1998.

Mecklenburg County has doubled in size since 1990, from half a million to over a million residents. People are flooding in from across the U.S. and around the world. You can taste this newest New South on older suburban streets such as Central Avenue, where a Mexican tienda, a Somali restaurant, a Salvadoran papusa joint, a Lebanese deli and a Vietnamese soup parlor mingle on the same block.

Today Charlotte is still yearning toward a New South, still re-inventing itself. That’s our history.  And our future.