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Charlotte History - 10 Things to Know

 

By Dr. Tom Hanchett, Community Historian (former staff historian)

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.  In Charlotte, the re-inventions have never stopped, from fields to factories to finance.  Here are 10 quick things to know about Charlotte history, from the Old South to the New.

  1. Old South roots.  Charlotte is older than the United States, chartered in 1768.  It sat astride two trading paths carved by Catawba Indians, today the main avenues Trade Street and Tryon Street.
  2. Why the Queen City?  Charlotte’s name honored Queen Charlotte, wife of King George of England.  The county recalls her birthplace, Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany.  The names curried favor with English government, which chose Charlotte to be site of a county courthouse, aiding its rise as a trading village.
  3. Hornet’s nest of rebellion.  Late in the Revolution, British General Cornwallis encountered sharpshooting Patriots at the 1780 Battle of Charlotte and Battle of Kings Mountain nearby.  A “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” he called Charlotte.  Cornwallis departed, soon to be defeated by General George Washington at Yorktown, ending the War.
  4. Civil War crossroads. Rail connections made Charlotte a supply depot for the Confederacy, including a Naval Yard producing boat parts.  At war’s end President Jeff Davis fled Richmond for Charlotte, holding his last full cabinet meeting here.  A South Tryon Street sidewalk plaque marks where he heard of Lincoln’s assassination.
  5. New South boom.  Since railroads first linked Charlotte to global markets in the 1850s, the city has never seen a decade without population growth.  From about 3500 people at the close of the Civil War in 1865, city population climbed to 18,224 in 1900, to 100,899 in 1940, to 772,627 today.
  6. Textile threads.  Railroads made Charlotte a cotton trading point after the Civil War. Then regional boosters began building cotton mills.  From the 1920s into the late 20th century, Charlotte reigned as the trade hub for America’s main textile manufacturing belt, where factories produced such household names as Cannon towels and Springmaid sheets.
  7. Buckle of the Bible Belt?  Scotch-Irish Presbyterians built Charlotte’s first churches, namesakes of such thoroughfares as Providence Road and Sharon Road.  Baptists took the lead through much of the 20th century, notably native-son Billy Graham, world famed evangelist whose Library is a major attraction today.  Catholics now are pulling ahead due to new arrivals from the northern U.S. and Latin America. Other key groups – all members of the bridge-building organization Mecklenburg Ministries – include AME Zion (world headquarters here), Greek Orthodox, United House of Prayer, Cambodian and Vietnamese Buddhist, and Islamic.
  8. Civil Rights transformations  Charlotte business leaders strove to avoid violence that scarred other Southern cities. Sit-ins by Johnson C. Smith University students set the stage for Mayor Stan Brookshire to ask Chamber of Commerce members to each invite an African American counterpart and go two-by-two to integrate elite restaurants, 1963The Supreme Court made Charlotte the nation’s test case for court ordered busing in 1971, ended in 1999.  Harvey Gantt won election in 1983 as the first black mayor in a major predominantly white Southern city.
  9. Banking boomtown.  Charlotteans led in inventing interstate banking, beginning with NCNB’s purchase of a Florida bank in 1982.  Hugh McColl built the nation’s first coast-to-coast bank in 1998, Bank of America, and his down-the-street rival created First Union (now part of Wells Fargo), making Charlotte the second-biggest banking center in the US as the 2000s dawned, behind only New York City.
  10. Immigrant magnet.  Immigrants avoided the impoverished South during America’s last big immigrant wave 100 years ago.  But in the 1990s Charlotte unexpectedly emerged as one of America’s top four “Hispanic hypergrowth” cities (along with Raleigh, Greensboro, NC and Atlanta) according to the Brookings Institution.  In the 2000s, the city remained the 13th fastest growing Latino destination in the U.S.  Other major immigrant populations include South Asians (India, Pakistan), Vietnamese and Koreans.  On streets such as Central Avenue you can eat your way from Somalia to El Salvador, Bosnia to Bhutan.